A Lexical History of the Strip Starring the ‘Bayardstown Rats’

By Zach Brendza

The Strip was not always what it is today – not in form, not in function, not even in name.

According to Lauren Uhl, curator of the Heinz History Center and author of Pittsburgh’s Strip District: Around the World in a Neighborhood, it wasn’t until a 1915 pamphlet entitled The Strip’ A Socio-Religious Survey of a Typical problem section of Pittsburgh PA, that the area was referred to by the name we know today.

Photo by Fred Blauth

Photo by Fred Blauth

For most of its history, the Strip lay beyond the bounds of Pittsburgh, which was founded in 1758. The neighborhood’s western border, from 11th to 25th streets, was open and undeveloped, and the eastern end home to a village of Delaware Indians, according to documents from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Room. The Delawares settled at what was later known as Shannonpin’s Town, located around present day Penn Avenue and 30th Street.

In 1769, the Penn family, to whom a vast area of land – including Pennsylvania (thus the name) – had been given by the English crown, started a land office in the Manor of Pittsburgh and sold 300-acre tracts of land. Thomas Smallman purchased a 319-acre plot, called “The Officer.” His land covered a third of the present-day Strip and ran along the Allegheny River from 28th to 34th Street, according to documents from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania room.

Four years later, in 1773, James O’Hara bought the land from Smallman and renamed it

“Springfield.” Ten years later, O’Hara married Mary Carson and they had two children, Elizabeth and Mary, according to Uhl’s book “Pittsburgh’s Strip District.”

In 1814, development at the southwest end of the Strip began, just above the borough of Pittsburgh.  O’Hara, George Bayard and James Adams had an area that ran from 11th to 15th Streets surveyed and plotted, which became known as “Northern Liberties.” The area was also commonly referred to as “Bayardstown.” In 1837, it joined the city as Pittsburgh’s Fifth Ward, and was described as having a “very industrious population” with stores, hotels, taverns and extensive manufacturing establishments, according to Uhl’s book.

But by whatever name it went by, the area now known as The Strip was, “an undesirable, heavily populated, residential-industrial district notable mainly for its marauding gangs and election day brawls,” according to an article in a 1940 journal called “The Federator.”

“Bayardstown boys, known as ‘Bayardstown rats,’ had a bad name. Any strange boy that came along was certain to be brow-beaten and abused. Stone fights with the Allegheny boys and Hill boys were common. Battles with Allegheny boys took place in skiffs on the river or, in the winter time, on ice.  When the canal was frozen over, as was often the case, a Bayardstown mob would gather on skates and invade Allegheny. The invaders frequently met their equals and the battle would end on the canal viaduct; neither party venturing to enter the other’s territory for fear of being ambushed.”

Brawling was a hobby especially enjoyed by colorfully named gangs of boys, according to a 1926 Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine article cited on the Web site of the Carnegie Library system:

“The hill side above the site of the Pennsylvania Railroad was a regular battle ground in struggles with the Hill boys, who generally had the advantage until the McCully Glass House boys would be through with their day’s work. By deploying to the right and left of the central fight the Glass House boys would outflank the Hill boys drive them to flight. On one occasion they fled to a schoolhouse, which was promptly bombarded with stones, all the windows broken and much damage done to furniture and books.”pic2

After O’Hara’s death in 1819, his land was divided into two shares and left to his daughters.  Elizabeth received Springfield Farm and Mary was given Manor Farm, located between 25th and 28th Streets.

The Strip has had many identities, and Uhl believes all of them contribute to the Strip’s story.

“I think it reflects the different epochs of the Strip’s history, the different eras. As it kinds of goes from one mans’ property, kind of rural, to the urban fabric, and industrial fabricate,” Uhl said. “[The] ebb and flow of the Strip’s history is found in its names.”