Nestled off of Center Avenue on the edge of Ben Avon is a 46-acre hidden wooded gem that residents have enjoyed for nearly a century. But if you are not a local, you may not even notice the opening to the trails across from the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon.
Vinegar Hollow — as it is known by locals, and whose nomenclature is a sort of urban myth — is actually entirely in Kilbuck Township.
I grew up in Ben Avon and frequented the trails, feeling daring as I balanced on fallen trees over the small creek. It felt like a magical place, an escape from the suburbs and into the wilderness.
The green space was formerly privately owned, and the maintenance of its trails was a local mystery. The two-mile loop crosses creeks with man-made bridges made of 2x4s and sometimes logs, and takes a sharp climb up a hill, where hikers, mountain bikers and dog walkers enjoy a spectacular view of Downtown.
Mysterious maintenance, Boy Scouts cabin and Vinegar Jake
The hollow has a surprising history, detailed in a 2005 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. In the early 1900s, Ben Avon Boy Scout Troop 172 built a rustic cabin out of telephone poles known as Hodgdon Lodge. The cabin burned to the ground at some point during the late 1940s or early 1950s. I recall hiking to the 25-foot chimney — the last remnant of the lodge — which Ben Avon resident Joe Angelelli says collapsed sometime around 2007.
For years, Vinegar Hollow has been shrouded in speculation. For one, no one is really sure how the name “Vinegar Hollow” came to be. Local historian Darlene Phillips explored the site’s origins in 2003. Some say that John Jacob Signor, nicknamed by Emsworth residents as “Vinegar Jake,” made moonshine in the woods, which he and others called his “vinegar.”
A different story says that industrial strength vinegar was produced in the early 1900s in Emsworth to clean soot and grime from brick homes in Pittsburgh.
It also was never clear who maintained the trails where fallen limbs would somehow disappear from paths overnight. Improvised trail improvements have appeared over the years, such as old carpeting and pavers to reduce trail washout.
Protected by Hollow Oak Land Trust acquisition
For five years, the Moon Township-based Hollow Oak Land Trust has been advocating with local residents for the acquisition of Vinegar Hollow. Formed in 1991, Hollow Oak protects more than 700 acres of land. It oversee four conservation areas in Moon and several others in Allegheny County.
“People have had connections to those woods for over a hundred years,” says Sean Brady, executive director of the Hollow Oak Land Trust. “That’s without going back to pre-Colonial times. So Vinegar Hollow has probably been a frequented place for people for thousands of years.”
Brady says that, until the land was protected, it faced threats of development.
“Development can be anything,” Brady says. “It can be a residential townhome type of development, or it could just be someone buying it, putting up a single mansion and putting up ‘keep out’ signs. In that case, that is what people in the Avonworth area feared the most, that they were gonna lose access to the place they went to when they and their grandparents were children in those woods.”
Brady says Vinegar Hollow serves as a linchpin for green space connectivity in the Avonworth area.
Hollow Oak Land Trust is working on a public-private partnership for further green spaces in the area with the Avonworth Municipal Authority — including sites in Ben Avon, Emsworth, Kilbuck Township and Ohio Township. Plans are in the initial phase for connecting Vinegar Hollow to Avonworth Community Park on Camp Horne Road and then potentially even to near Avonworth High School.
With the land trust’s acquisition of Vinegar Hollow, trail maintenance will no longer be a mystery. Hollow Oak plans to conduct a trail assessment and then develop signs and maps for the trails. There will be opportunities for volunteers to assist with trail construction and maintenance.
Another mystery embedded in Vinegar Hollow: The creek has no name. Brady says Hollow Oak will work with the U.S. Geological Survey and Avonworth Historical Society to name the stream. He says it could be named Arthur Run for Edmund Watts Arthur, a famous naturalist and amateur geologist from the area. He is the namesake of Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park.
The community is thrilled that the land will be preserved for years to come.
“I look forward to many more hikes, dog walks and nature exploration with my kids, family and neighbors,” says resident Damian Liska. “This community gem could not ask for better caretakers — Hollow Oak is an incredible steward of local wildlands and greenways, not only when it comes to building and maintaining trails, but caring for biodiversity and the ecological health of an area.”
Ben Avon Mayor Melanie Holcomb says she is grateful to the Hollow Oak Land Trust for preserving the green space.
“Generations of residents have enjoyed Vinegar Hollow and it is a privilege to be able to conserve this green space for the benefit of generations to come,” Holcomb says.
“People benefit from access to nature,” Brady says. “You know, old-school conservation used to be, either you conserve it or you develop it. Now you do both. Hollow Oak is seeking to demonstrate that economic development can be stimulated through strategic green space conservation. And Vinegar Hollow is a perfect example of that.”
Know before you go
On-street parking is free and available along Church Avenue in Ben Avon and Center Avenue in Emsworth.
The entrance to Vinegar Hollow is located across from the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, just a few blocks from Anchor and Anvil Coffee Bar.
The unpaved trail is a 2-mile loop and crosses a creek several times. The trail has some moderately steep hills. Dogs, hikers and mountain bikers are welcome.