By David S. Rotenstein
In the 1980s, the City of Pittsburgh rebranded Herr’s Island as Washington’s Landing. The new name accompanied redevelopment to transform the 42-acre Allegheny River industrial wasteland into a housing, business and recreational hub.
But for much of the 20th century, the island had served as the city’s central stockyards, slaughterhouse and rendering plant. Most Pittsburghers knew about the island because of its noxious smell, dubbed the “Herr’s Island stench.”
Despite the smells, manure and garbage, several generations grew up attending agricultural fairs and competitions on the island.
But not all of the recreational uses of the island have been sanctioned.
Before the stockyards closed in the 1970s, kids from Troy Hill snuck onto the island to play among the livestock. After the redevelopment added the headquarters of the Three Rivers Rowing Association, a popular marina, restaurant, walking trails and tennis courts, folks found new ways to enjoy the island not officially endorsed by the city’s Parks Department.
A little history
Historical maps published since the 1700s show multiple islands inside the current city limits in all three rivers. Now, only two remain: Brunot Island in the Ohio River and Herr’s Island in the Allegheny River.
Herr’s Island takes its name from Benjamin Herr, an early Pittsburgh resident who bought the island in 1797. Up to the 1880s, there had been a series of small industrial operations on the island, including a sawmill and oil storage tanks.
In 1884, James Callery, who owned a tannery on nearby River Avenue, bought the central part of the island and opened a yard to receive animals arriving in Pittsburgh via the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Twenty years earlier, the Pennsylvania Railroad had opened the nation’s first union stockyards in East Liberty (now the site where Bakery Square is located). The East Liberty yards quickly replaced small yards scattered throughout the Mexican War Streets in the Northside.
Pittsburgh was a critical stop between midwestern farms and such major eastern cities as Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. This is where cattle, hogs and sheep bound for those cities were watered, fed and rested.
In 1903, the Pennsylvania and B&O consolidated their Pittsburgh livestock operations onto Herr’s Island.
The year after Callery’s yards opened on Herr’s Island, Hay Walker Jr., William Walker and John Stratman bought the northern end of Herr’s Island and opened a rendering and fertilizer plant. In 1887, East Liberty industrialist Emil Winter built a large slaughterhouse next door. Armour’s local subsidiary, the Pittsburgh Provision Company, eventually bought Winter’s slaughterhouse and operated it until the 1960s.
In 1887, the Allegheny City Common Council passed a resolution declaring the fertilizer plant a nuisance. That act was the first of many over the next 60 years in which Allegheny City — encompassing neighborhoods north across the Allegheny River from Downtown to Troy Hill — and Pittsburgh tried to remediate smells emanating from the island.
Headlines in this period included “Odor Arouses Indignation” (The Pittsburgh Press, 1907); “Council Remarks Odors of Island” (Daily Post, 1912); and, “County to Act on Meat Odors” (The Pittsburgh Press, 1961). The “Herr’s Island Stench” was the city’s most infamous nuisance.
Troy Hill neighborhood historian Mary Wohleber, whose father worked in the island’s slaughterhouse, told the Post-Gazette in 1990 that “North Catholic High School had to close its windows on hot summer days due to the bad odor.”
Whether it was Lawrenceville or Troy Hill residents or passersby on East Ohio Street (Route 28), few Pittsburgh residents didn’t know about what Pittsburgh Wool Company owner Roy Kumer described to me in 1996 as Herr’s Island’s “fancy smells.”
Stockyards and their predecessors, drove yards, have long histories as hospitality and entertainment sites. Inns along drove roads in the British Isles offered drovers a place to rest themselves and their animals. Many offered food and drink for both.
American drove yards continued the European traditions. In New York City, such drove yards as Allerton’s Bull’s Head Tavern became legendary destinations. At the East Liberty Stockyards and the later Chicago Union Stockyards, livestock entrepreneurs created small self-contained cities with hotels, auction facilities, restaurants, post offices and telegraph offices, and, of course sprawling pens for the livestock.
The Herr’s Island stockyards included a drover’s hotel, livestock exchange and restaurant.
Pittsburgh newspapers frequently covered events at the stockyards. In 1924, the Pittsburgh Press reported that prize-winning cattle viewed by President Calvin Coolidge at the Chicago stockyards were to be displayed there: “Pittsburghers may see their roast beef ‘on the hoof’ Sunday at the stockyards.”
A decade later, the stockyards hosted the annual Pittsburgh Livestock Show. Held each fall between the early 1930s and 1950s, the event allowed students in 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs to compete for awards and the chance to sell their prize hogs, sheep and cattle.
Reporters covering the events never failed to document the bittersweet nature of the shows. “Club members sad as livestock pets are sold at annual Herr’s Island auction,” read one 1937 Post-Gazette headline. The unnamed reporter added, “Maybe we’ll be seeing some of them for dinner.”
By the 1960s, decades of continuous use in the livestock and meat industries and the use of the northern end of the island as a municipal dump took their toll. Armour moved its meatpacking operation in 1966 and the stockyards closed for good less than a decade later.
New landowners continued dumping on the island and by the late 1970s city officials were actively exploring options to reclaim the space.
In 1987, Pittsburgh City Council renamed the island Washington’s Landing with plans for a new spine road, a townhouse development and buildings for commercial and state government tenants.
But before anything could be built, the city had to clean up a century of toxic waste deposits. About 18 thousand cubic yards of contaminated soil was deposited in a large pit on the island and sealed. Another 10 thousand tons were moved to an Ohio landfill.
Intermingled with chemical waste was about a century of organic materials, including animal bones from the slaughterhouse and stockyards as well as from large animals that had died at the Pittsburgh Zoo.
The city constructed public tennis courts on top of the encapsulation site. The only signs that a city park sits atop a toxic waste dump are vents poking up from the grassy field next to the tennis courts.
The Three Rivers Rowing Association moved onto the island in 1989 and completed a new rowing center with a boathouse and docks along the back channel separating the island from the North Side. In 2002, the organization expanded into a new site across the channel in Millvale.
A new walking path around the island’s edges connects to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail by way of an abandoned metal truss railroad bridge built in 1903. The city rebuilt the bridge deck and added a switchback ramp for cyclists and walkers.
Additional amenities on the island include an amphitheater near the tennis courts. Washington’s Landing Marina and the adjacent Redfin Blues restaurant take advantage of the site’s location along the Allegheny River.
History buffs can read historical markers that discuss the island’s associations with George Washington and the heritage of rowing in Pittsburgh.
Playing off the books
The island has long been an irresistible attraction to children.
Denny Zeidler grew up in Troy Hill. “We used to play rodeo,” he told me in a 1997 interview. I spoke with Zeidler, who died in 2018, and his brothers and a cousin for research into the history of livestock and meatpacking in Pittsburgh.
In the 1940s, the kids would slip into the stockyards in the middle of the night, avoiding the watchman. “We’d sneak over there at night and ride the cattle,” Zeidler said.
By the time they got home, they smelled pretty ripe from their romps with the livestock.
“We stunk so bad, we used to have to get undressed outside. My mother wouldn’t let us inside ‘cause we smelled like cow shit,” Zeidler said.
Denny’s brother Mickey, who died in 2020, recalled the draft horses kept in a barn on the island. “Every Sunday I used to take apples to feed one horse, Dick, the palomino. He’d wait for me. As soon as I walked in, he’d start banging that thing till I gave him some apples.”
During redevelopment in the 1980s and 1990s, the island continued to beckon area kids.
Amy Williams grew up in the North Hills. Her older siblings had crew at the boathouse. The 40-year-old’s first memories of the island date to about 1990 when she was about 8 years old.
“While we were waiting for my brother, you could just kind run around and play,” she explained in a recent interview. “I just remember those big open fields and lots of bunny rabbits. And as an 8-year-old, I thought it was called ‘Hare’s Island,’ like the bunny rabbit, hare, because there were so many bunny rabbits.”
As an adult, she enjoyed returning to the island and scouring its trails looking for bunnies. “It feels like there’s a lot less rabbits now. You know, you run the trails and you see them kind of dart in and out. But not like back in the beginning with those big open fields.”
Williams attended North Catholic High School and when she was old enough, she too had crew practice on the island. As a teenager, she explored the island’s newly created spaces, including the rehabbed railroad bridge and the new parking lot next to the tennis courts.
“That was a great make-out spot because there’s nobody there,” she recalled.
Alaina Cauchie grew up in the South Hills and she discovered the island upon moving back to Pittsburgh in 2010 after graduating from college and living in New York City. She had a job in an office on River Avenue and she liked walking over to the island on her lunch breaks.
The island’s riverbanks are one of her favorite spots to collect old buttons, glass bottles and metal toys. “I’d spend some time down there with my kneepads and a bag and just kind of like scraping through the rocks and the pebbles and finding all kinds of kind of a mishmash of things,” she said.
Cauchie photographs the objects in situ and sometimes posts them on Twitter. She then brings them home for her collection. After cleaning them, she tries to identify the artifacts. Larger items end up on her basement shelves and she sometimes stores smaller objects in glass bottles she has found.
“I find a ton of bottles and that’s one of the things I love finding is really old glass bottles,” Cauchie explained. “I’ve labeled a lot of the old glass bottles ‘marbles’ and ‘hooks’ and ‘garter clips’ and ‘snaps’ and ‘metal buttons.’”
She recently began giving objects to her husband to take to the ScareHouse at Pittsburgh Mills where he helps set up the interactive installations. The attraction needed scary props and Cauchie was happy to oblige.
“He took a bunch of bones. I find bones all the time. He took a bunch of like baby doll parts, which also I find all the time.”
There aren’t many signs left on the island from the island’s fragrant industrial years.
It’s one of Pittsburgh’s best hidden amenities with an equally elusive and complicated history. The island’s southern tip has a panoramic view of the Downtown skyline. The trails, open spaces and more formal recreational facilities offer a diverse array of recreational opportunities while creative visitors to the island can still make their own activities, whether it’s wildlife viewing or looking for water washed relics along the shore.