Unique Streets: 5
Miles Walked: .68
Street Names (italicized have been walked on another day): 2nd Avenue, MacFarren Street, Ettwein Street, Blackmore Street, Canine Lane, Ettwein Way
If you search “Smallest neighborhood in Pittsburgh” Google will produce an April 2018 article from PittNews.com which states that it is Duck Hollow. The article describes the neighborhood as secluded, self-sufficient, and most of all, forgotten. Duck Hollow is not technically an official neighborhood of Pittsburgh but rather a small isolated section of another oft-forgotten Pittsburgh neighborhood, Swisshelm Park. There is only one way in and one way out of Duck Hollow via McFarren Street. McFarren (or Mac Farren depending on which map you’re referencing) is a necessarily thin roadway that runs under a railroad bridge. It used to intersect with a road called Willock (now Ettwein) and connected to a footbridge that led to Old Browns Hill Road. On an unseasonably warm day in October 2019, my four-year-old George and I drove down Old Browns Hill Road to see what this neighborhood had to offer.
Halfway down the road, we found a construction area near a new bridge pylon. A portapotty sat in the browning weeds and I stopped so we could use it. It wasn’t the dirtiest mobile bathroom I’ve used but I told George over and over “DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!” It was a tight squeeze inside the plastic room but we both got our business done as I hoped he was tall enough to clear the microbe-covered rim. Boys are lucky they can pee standing up, but I doubt they think about all of the times their tiny members brushed against public urinals and toilet bowls. I doubt they would care if they did know.
We parked in a small gravel lot overlooking the Mon and the steel mill-turned obnoxiously-large retail hub known as the Waterfront. There were two men standing in front of the only other car which was parked far enough away that we didn’t have to exchange pleasantries. This was good because George tends to speak loudly about untrue and embarrassing things. “YOU’RE POOPIN IN YOUR PANTS, MOMMY!” I was not and never have, but this is a common exclamation from both of my boys.
I took a moment to look out at the calm water and blue skies before George and I walked towards our destination. Near the area where the lot starts, there is a sign marking the beginning of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail which runs all the way to Point State Park. Further up Old Browns Hill Road, near where we used the bathroom, there is another trail called Nine Mile Run Trail. This trail runs into Frick Park and is part of CMU’s Nine Mile Run Greenway Project.
We walked towards an array of graffiti-covered bridges that ran over the Nine Mile Run creek. The elevated bridge was used to carry two directions of railway traffic and the lower bridge consisted of two pathways separated by a large rusty pipe. The path on our left was made of sidewalk-width cement slabs. This high sidewalk was bordered by a suggested railing made of rusty steel bars flecked with peeling green paint. The other path was made of steel grates and was wide enough for one car to pass. I let George go ahead while I took pictures of him running back and forth on the sidewalk. Later, when I showed my husband the pictures, he wondered aloud how I could let my child run out of reach and onto a bridge with rails that were low and too far apart for his safety standards. Some people don’t know how to have fun. George and I are not those people.
I decided to walk on the car path and noticed that the creek below was visible between the holes in the grates.
I hollered for George to come look and we both hunched down to watch the water flow 30 feet below us. George was now on a mission to find rocks to toss into the water. I convinced him to keep going and soon we were walking under the rail bridge.
Sun beams shot like lasers through the pylons that were black with soot where they weren’t tagged by street artists. Moisture dripped from the trestles onto smooth familiar bumps like scars. Each drip drop promised to form stalagmites on the road in a thousand years if the bridge is still there. Out from under the bridge, we found ourselves in a neighborhood as normal as any other in this city.
I didn’t count how many houses there were but there couldn’t have been more than twenty on these four streets in Duck Hollow. On the corner of McFarren and Ettwein we paused to admire a community garden of sorts that was populated by pinwheels (don’t touch George!) and bunnies made of chicken wire.
George found a rock and repeatedly threw it ahead of him and precariously close to parked cars. “Stop throwing the rock George or I’m going to throw it in the creek!” My awareness of our invader status on these streets flew right over his 40-inch-high head. McFarren turned into a slight hill as we walked towards its intersection with Blackmore. We didn’t see a single human being, but we saw signs of their love for this neighborhood. I managed to keep George from ringing a bronze duck bell that sat in front of one house.
Google Maps didn’t name the street that ran between Blackmore and Ettwein so I was reluctant to walk on it. When we found a gravel roadway (I later found a source that named it Canine Lane) that connected Blackmore to the unnamed road, I decided to go for it. My rule is that if there aren’t any Private Property signs, it’s fair game. Plus, we still hadn’t seen another living person. We walked down this pathway and a dog let us know that he or she definitely saw us. A leaning garage that ran against the railway was lined with mirrors on the back wall. The silhouette of a rubber ducky on a string hung from the ceiling waiting for the next time a car windshield would bump its rear.
We walked on the unnamed road and came back to McFarren. I took a closer look at the house that sat on the corner and tried to picture the people who lived there. The siding and air conditioner were new, and the yard was tastefully planted with decorative bushes and flowers. We walked along the side of the yard and could hear a pond fountain trickling behind the tall bushes. The people who live here take pride in their little slice of hidden paradise.
It took 10 minutes to walk all of the streets in Duck Hollow, but we weren’t done exploring. After we came back out from under the railway bridge, we made a left down a tree-lined road. Here, we found a cement path that zig-zagged down to the river. We weren’t in a hurry, but our excitement led us down a desire path that was cut into the hill by thousands of pedestrian trips. We left the trees and found ourselves on a rocky beach. A blue crane waded in the water upstream and ducks bathed in the confluence of the Mon and Nine Mile Run. George immediately set off on the most important four-year-old business of finding rocks. I took pictures of the wide view of the river and scanned the area for dangerous refuse. There were a few pieces of broken glass and a discarded camping chair but other than that, the beach was visibly clean.
When I got home to research this area, I didn’t expect to uncover a past that would be sad if it didn’t comically happen over and over again in every rust belt city. The Hopkins Maps start showing Duck Hollow in 1872. At that time, the entire neighborhood was a salt works. The railway along the river meant that the salt that was processed here was able to be carried to and fro easily. After that, the mill changes hands a few times until 1910 when the streets appear. They had different names then, but the layout was the same. There even used to be more streets that extended up the hill into Squirrel Hill. In 1923, things change. The streets of Duck Hollow remain but those that provided another way out of the neighborhood are gone. They have been replaced by a Duquesne Steel Company Slag Deposit.
The Duquesne Steel Company would transport the glass-like dross from the plant in Rankin via the railway. The Jones and Laughlin Steel Company plant in the South Side would send its slag on barges upstream. The slag was deposited on the hill above Duck Hollow on either side of Nine Mile Run until 1973. In 1996, CMU started the Nine Mile Run Greenway Project and the area underwent vast environmental recuperation efforts. In 1999, ground broke for a luxury home housing development that would be Pittsburgh’s largest since World War II. Based on this large development and the pride I can feel bursting from the hillsides that Pittsburgh can no longer be considered Hell with the Lid Taken Off.