the way we were
Chapter 1- Before We Were: Pre-1912
In 1681, when William Penn began his “Holy Experiment” that became Pennsylvania, the six square miles now comprising Mt. Lebanon were part of nearly 30 million acres of unbroken, primeval forest, a wilderness of small game, deer, elk, bear, cougar and rattlesnake. American Indians of a dozen or so different tribes, including the Leni Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee, inhabited the area, while Pennsylvania’s European population remained primarily in the colony’s eastern end.
British victories in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and in Pontiac’s Indian uprising that followed increased settlement opportunities. As the Pennsylvania Indian populations dwindled—from about 20,000 when Europeans began arriving to scarcely 1,200 by 1790—thousands of settlers began pouring into Western Pennsylvania from the east.
Even after William Penn’s death in 1718, his family continued to gobble up huge tracts of land from the Indians, reselling it for about 20 cents an acre to farmers eager to become landowners. Thanks to the 1768 treaty of Fort Stanwix, New York, the Penns secured a vast swath of land, extending from the northeast to the southwest corners of what is now Pennsylvania, from the Iroquois for about 20,000 pounds sterling.
After this “New Purchase,” as the Penns called it, the area beyond the Alleghenies became available for sale. Some of “Mt. Lebanon’s” earliest residents began arriving in the 1770s and 1780s: Alexander Long, James Long, John Henry Lea, Maj. William Lea, Andrew McFarland and James Brady.
At the time of the American Revolution, about half the population in what is now the South Hills area was English; the other half Irish, Scottish and Scots-Irish. It is highly likely these men and women attended the historic 1775 meeting in Pittsburgh “approving the actions of the New Englanders in resisting the tyranny of the British Parliament.”
With the political chaos brought about by the American Revolution, however, new Indian conflicts plagued the area. Around 1780, from their territory north and west of the Ohio River, marauding Indians renewed the murderous raids they had perpetrated during the French and Indian War, causing many farmers to give serious consideration to abandoning the area. But by the turn of the century, most serious Indian harassment finally stopped.
By 1790, settlers in the South Hills area were counted among the 75,000 or so living in the five western counties of Pennsylvania—Bedford, Westmoreland, Fayette, Washington and Allegheny. Most were small farmers who worked long hours chopping trees, building cabins, clearing fields, planting and harvesting crops by hand and caring for their animals. When folks got sick, they treated themselves with molasses and sulphur. It is estimated that a farm wife lifted a ton of water a day.
Their major crops were corn and rye, most of which were converted into whiskey, as it was easier to transport to eastern markets than the grain itself. It also brought a higher rate of profit and was used as a medium of exchange. In the 1790s, farmers throughout the area and southwestern Pennsylvania became embroiled in the Whiskey Rebellion to protest what they felt was unjust tax on distilled spirits—from six to nine cents per gallon to be paid annually in cash.
The frontier period lasted until about 1800, when most farms had finally become established and there was some accumulation of capital for farmers in the way of cleared lands, buildings and livestock. In 1839, St. Clair Township, named for the Revolutionary War General Arthur St. Clair, was divided and this area became Upper St. Clair; in 1861, another division made it Scott Township.
The name Mt. Lebanon was first used in the 1850s after the Rev. Joseph Clokey, pastor of what was then St. Clair United Presbyterian (later renamed Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian), brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage two Cedar of Lebanon trees that he planted on his property. By 1883, the postal station in a store at the corner of Washington and Bower Hill roads—not far from Clokey’s home—was referred to as the “Mt. Lebanon Post Office.”
Mt. Lebanon’s main road, a dirt road known as Coal Hill Road and Upper St. Clair Turnpike, was renamed Washington Road in 1870. It was a two-hour trip to Pittsburgh by wagon or horse and buggy, and mail came once a week. Until the early 20th century, however, most residents used a narrow-gauge railroad to get from Castle Shannon’s Arlington Station to Mt. Washington where an incline would take them to Carson Street. They then walked across a bridge to Downtown.
Mt. Lebanon’s first trolley car arrived July 1, 1901. The track ended at Cedar Boulevard and a “dinkie” shuttle at Washington Road and Alfred Street took people to Castle Shannon. The trolley helped open the area to further development, but not until the Liberty Tunnels were opened in 1924 did real estate development here flourish.
Mt. Lebanon’s first “Plan of Homes” was developed around Shady Drive West in 1901. A year later, a Mt. Lebanon Land & Trust Company’s “Clearview Plan” advertisement described this area as “The beautiful suburb: The cleanest spot in greater Pittsburgh. Healthful (no smoke, soot or fog), Convenient (home to office in 25 minutes) and Picturesque.”
With more real estate being developed, many people speculated that Mt. Lebanon was likely to become an important suburb. Some residents decided they wanted to split off from Scott Township and set up their own government. On February 6, 1912, Mt. Lebanon came into legal existence when the Court of Quarter Sessions of Allegheny County decreed the territory severed from Scott Township’s eastern portion.
In a flurry of activity, much of it in the first month, Mt. Lebanon’s first commissioners began a number of important projects, including setting speed limits for automobiles. They held special meetings to listen to citizens and took immediate action on their suggestions (electric lights and boardwalks along the streets). Then, as now, they also listened to residents’ complaints—everything from too much smoke from the Sunny Hill Power Plant to too many chickens running loose.
Though the problems have changed and become more complex, the successors to those first commissioners have found more than enough to keep them busy over the years.