What is the origin of the name Fern Hollow? Even Pittsburgh Historians Say It’s a Mystery

Since the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Frick Park, many Pittsburgh residents are asking: What exactly is fern Hollow?

For one, it’s a ravine in the East End of Pittsburgh that has a creek running through its center. The ravine also partially marks the boundary between Squirrel Hill and Regent Square. The bridge that carried Forbes Avenue between these neighborhoods shared its name with Fern Hollow, as did the creek that crosses it, Fern Hollow Creek.

The ravine represents the northeast section of Frick Park, stretching from Reynolds Street Park in Point Breeze to where Fern Hollow Creek meets Nine Mile Run near the Lower Frick Park playground.

But where does the name come from? Local historians are still trying to figure this out.

Researchers from the Squirrel Hill Historical Society (SHHS) had collected information about Fern Hollow before the bridge collapsed. They redoubled their efforts after his fall. Through this research, the who, when and why of Fern Hollow’s name has remained elusive, said SHHS Vice President Helen Wilson.

“Basically, we don’t know the origin of the name yet,” she said.

Many place names in Pittsburgh come from early land grant owners, who usually just named places after themselves, Wilson said. But SHHS was unable to locate any land grant records related to Fern Hollow.

“From the very first land grants, those in the 1700s, we hoped that one of the land grant names would have been Fern Hollow, but it wasn’t,” Wilson said.

David R. Grinnell is the Archives and Manuscripts Coordinator of the University of Pittsburgh Library System. There is no indication of Fern Hollow’s name on the Hopkins Atlas of Pittsburgh from 1872 and other archived maps up to 1910, he said.

At the time, much of the land comprising the Fern Hollow Ravine was owned by James Adams Hutchison. It was then sold to the famous Pittsburgh industrialist, Henry Clay Frick.

Grinnell said he was unable to determine exactly where the name Fern Hollow came from.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy runs Frick Park, but spokeswoman Alana Wenk said no one at the preserve has found out how Fern Hollow got its name.

According to the Frick Pittsburgh Museum, located near the start of Fern Hollow Creek, the area occupies the ancestral lands of Native American tribes of the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Osage and Shawnee peoples. However, Wilson said, there is no evidence that Native Americans specifically settled Fern Hollow, so it is unclear whether Native Americans gave the ravine a name.

SHHS researcher Lauren Winkley recently found evidence that the Fern Hollow name is at least over 130 years old. An August 1890 Pittsburgh Dispatch article advertised a picnic at Fern Hollow for Wilkinsburg students. This was the oldest mention SHHS could find.

Another Pittsburgh Press article in 1896 mentions people walking from Wilkinsburg station to Fern Hollow to picnic.

Fern Hollow has remained largely undeveloped throughout its history and has always been revered for its natural beauty, Wilson said. A railroad was once proposed to cross Fern Hollow, but was ultimately rejected.

“It always seems to have been a wonderful, scenic place,” Wilson said. “All the references said how beautiful it was. It was always kept in the wild.

Although a 1910 landscape plan of Frick Park by OC Simonds & Company does not give a name for the ravine, it shows that “ferns” were to be planted on the west hill north of an “arch bridge in steel,” Grinnell said.

However, the order to plant ferns in the ravine comes at least three decades after mentions of Fern Hollow’s name in the local press. The ravine’s name may have been inspired by an abundance of natural ferns or by early landowners who planted ferns there, but Wilson said there is no documented evidence of this.

Nick Brungo owns and operates Fern Hollow Bicycles in Wilkinsburg. The bike shop used to be in Lawrenceville and was called Love Bikes, but Brungo said it changed its name when the store moved about three years ago.

“I renamed the bike shop because I wanted to feel closer to the neighborhood,” Brungo said.

Still, he says, he doesn’t know where the name Fern Hollow comes from.

For many years, Fern Hollow and much of the surrounding area was owned by Frick, the famous Pittsburgh industrialist. Shortly after his death in 1919, over 150 acres and a $2 million trust fund were bequeathed to the city, in an effort to maintain the land as a public park. Over the years the city purchased more land and expanded the scope to over 340 acres.

Originally called Frick’s Woods, the park opened in 1927. According to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, there is a misconception that most of Frick Park was untouched wilderness. There were Native American hunting trails, pioneer gristmills, Civil War fortifications, and a golf course that dotted much of what is now Frick Park.

Even after Frick Park was created, Nine Mile Run had pollution issues. Fern Hollow Creek is a northern branch of Nine Mile Run, which meanders through the southern part of the park. Between the 1920s and the 1970s, approximately 200 million tons of slag were dumped into Nine Mile Run.

Fortunately for Fern Hollow, it is upstream from Nine Mile Run and has avoided industrialization. In fact, before the bridge collapse, Wilson said, Fern Hollow’s natural state had avoided the same disruption that had hit other parts of Frick Park.

Today, Fern Hollow remains mostly undeveloped and is also home to trails that run alongside the creek and a popular dog park.

On the west side, near the location of the bridge, is a gatehouse which Wilson says was designed by the famous architect John Russell Pope. It is made of mica schist rock which is not found in southwestern Pennsylvania.

SHHS hopes to preserve the building. Pittsburgh Parks Conversancy said it recently replaced the gatehouse roof to preserve “historic assets.”

Ryan Deto is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Ryan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Helen L. Cuellar