Herr's Island / Washington's Landing

Herr's Island (circa 1960)    Herr's Island (circa 1960)
Herr's Island circa 1960 (left) and sixty years later, in 2020, now known as Washington's Landing.

Shown above are the Pittsburgh Joint Stockyards, meat packing plants and a former trash burning and soap making facility on Herr's Island, located along the Allegheny River (1960s era). Today this is the site of the scenic riverfront housing, recreation and office complex known as Washington's Landing.

The island was first settled by Benjamin Herr, a Swiss Mennonite, and became a plush village with fruit trees and gardens. Herr operated a water powered saw mill in the back channel. As factories began to spring up all along the river banks, the island remained a small haven in the midst of the emerging industrial revolution.

The Civil War years brought change, with the lumber and oil industries setting up operations on the island. The first stockyards were built by Pittsburgh tanner James Callery in 1885.

In 1903 the Pennsylvania Railroad bought a portion of the island to be used as a stop-over for its route from Chicago to New York. By law, livestock was required to have rest, food, and water after every thirty-six hours of travel. Weakened animals were transfered for immediate processing to the nearby rendering and packing plants.

1910 Map showing Herr's Island
1910 Hopkins Map showing Herr's Island and the 30th Street Bridge.

Between 1903 and the 1950s this small island, located in the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh, was the America's tenth largest livestock terminal and the second largest east of the Mississippi in terms of the volume of cattle, pigs, and sheep processed. Archeology done years later revealed the existence of elephant and draft horse bones. The island emanated a foul smell which drifted for miles.

Two of the islandís principal tenants, the Pittsburgh Joint Stock Yards and the Pittsburgh Provision and Packing Company, not only held animals bound for New York, but also supplied most Pittsburgh slaughterhouses. In addition to the sheltering and processing of animals, there were also livestock shows and auctions on the island.

Prize winning bulls - Herr's Island - 1947    Rialto Street, or Ravine Street,
also called Pigs Hill - 1914
A woman and man show off their prize winning bulls at Herr's Island in 1947 (left), and Ravine (Rialto)
Street, or "Pig's Hill," ascending Troy Hill on April 21, 1914.

Nearby Ravine (Rialto) Street became known as "Pig Hill." Livestock sold at the stockyards were driven up Ravine Street in midnight drives. The swine were led through the Troy Hill community and into the Spring Garden valley to several large slaughterhouses. It was a ritual practice that came to define the cultural significance of one of Pittsburgh's steepest streets.

On the northern portion of the island was Walker's Garbage Company, which served as the city garbage dump for several years, and Walker's Soap Company, which processed animal fat and bones into tallow, adding an additional foul stench to the cacophony of offensive odors that emanated the area. There was also a fertilizer works and a railroad salvage yard.

Advertisement for Pittsburgh Provisioning Company - 1916    Advertisement for Pittsburgh Provisioning Company - 1944

Meat packing plant on Herr's Island - 1937    Meat packing plant on Herr's Island - 1937
The inside of a meat packing plant on Herr's Island in October 1937. Irish Ham would soon be in season.

Bridges that connected to Herr's Island were the small Western Pennsylvania RR bridge, built in 1890 and upgraded in 1903, over the back channel at the southern tip; the 30th Street (Herr's Island) Bridge, built in 1887, with separate main and back channel spans; a private right-of-way back channel bridge owned by the Walker Companies, built circa 1900; and the Pittsburgh Junction/B&O RR (33rd Street) bridge, built in 1920, over both channels and bordering the stockyards to the north.

The 30th Street Bridge, built in 1887, burned and collapsed in 1921. Using the existing piers, a temporary cable suspension bridge was built to accomodate pedestrian traffic only for the many Herr's Island employees living across along the opposite shore. The main bridge span was not rebuilt.

The 30th Street Bridge - circa 1900    Pittsburgh Junction and B&O RR Bridge - 33rd Street Bridge
The 30th Street Bridge and Herr's Island (left), looking across the main span of the Allegheny River (circa 1900),
and a train passes over the Pittsburgh and Junction/B&O RR Bridge, also called the 33rd Street Bridge.

30th Street Bridge over back channel - 1924    31st Street and 30th Street Bridges - 1939
The 30th Street (back channel) Bridge in 1924 (left), and again standing to the right of the huge 31st Street Bridge,
after being replaced in 1939. This new Herr's Island Bridge would no longer connect directly to East Ohio Street.
Rather, it would end at the River Road ramp, shown under construction. The remaining section would be removed.

The pedestrian suspension bridge remained in place until 1928, when the present-day 31st Street Bridge was completed. The new bridge did not connect directly to the island. It passed right over it. Access to the bridge was via the River Road exit at the north end of the span.

River Road leads to the 30th Street back channel span, a 100 foot crossing that dates back to around 1850. The original two-truss iron span was swept away during an 1882 flood. It was rebuilt in 1887 as part of the larger bridge, then replaced in 1939 and again in 1986.

The stockyards and most of the other facilities were closed by the fall of 1966. All that remained were two smaller packing houses near the north end of the island and the grisly tallow plant near the southern end, all of which remained in operation until the early 1980s.

Herr's Island - 1990s
Herr's Island in 1987 near the end of the environmental cleanup. The Buncher Company, the island's
final packing plant, did not sell their land to the URA for development until 1988.
Below are aerial views of the island in 1967 (left) and 1993.

Herr's Island - 1967    Herr's Island - 1993

What to do with the land became a political football. In 1984 there were many who favored filling the back channel and using the reclaimed land as RIDC warehouse and office space. Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy had other ideas and refused to sign off on that concept. His camp promoted a more innovative and attractive mixed-use development that made use of the river as an asset rather than an obstacle.

At a time when interest in waterfront property in the city was minimal, many doubted the logic of building so many new homes in just such a spot. New home construction in Pittsburgh was also at a near standstill and the urban population in continual decline.

It was a tough sell for those with a vision of the future. In the end it was decided to foresake the drab warehouses for a more casual office environment and recreation lover's paradise with plenty of new housing stock.

Herr's Island - 1988
The southern end of the island in 1988 during the final stage of the cleanup before town home construction.

Once redevelopment was begun by the Urban Renewal Authority in 1988, the highly polluted land was extensively cleared, with close to $1 million spent on the extraction and disposal of over 10,000 tons of organic waste and loads of buried animal carcasses. Numerous underground petroleum tanks had to be removed. The cleanup was completed in 1990.

The last major problem encountered was with the final tenant, the Buncher Company, whose land near the south of the island was not acquired until after the cleanup was completed. Tests revealed unexpectedly high levels of contaminants on the grounds, which were to be the site of several townhomes.

The project was halted temporarily while the this final parcel of land was cleared. After reaching an agreement with the EPA regarding a suitable disposal location, the additional toxic debris from the Buncher site was encapsulated and buried under the present-day tennis courts near the northern tip of the island.

Herr's Island/Washington's Landing in 2007
Herr's Island/Washington's Landing in 2007 during the rehabilitation of the 31st Street Bridge.

Once the land was properly cleared, the Washington's Landing Development began to take shape. In a fine example of urban redevelopment, and at a cost of over $40 million, the filth and stench-ridden packing plants and stockyards have been replaced by stylish townhouses, well-landscaped open spaces, office buildings, recreation space, rowing clubs and a marina equipped with dry-dock building, for pleasure boats.

The Village on Washington's Landing, with nearly 100 upscale units, was completed in 1997. The final office building was sold in 2000 and the final home a year later. The historic Western Pennsylvania railroad bridge over the back channel was converted into a pedestrian walkway and part of the Three Rivers Heritage trail.

Herr's Island railroad bridge.
The historic 130-year old Western Pennsylvania railroad bridge at the southern tip of Washington's Landing.

With a fantastic view of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline only a couple miles downstream, Washington's Landing sure looks like a cool place to settle down and relax, which brings us to our last piece of information on Herr's Island ...

Historically speaking, the island was renamed Washington's Landing in 1987 because of it's significance in the life of our nation's first president. In 1753, while exploring the area, then-Major George Washington's raft capsized nearby and he was compelled to settle down and spend an evening resting on the island.

View of Pittsburgh skyline from Herr's Island

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