Riverview Park, located on Pittsburgh’s historic North Side, is yet another of the city’s many urban gems. Established in 1894, it predates the City of Allegheny’s annexation into the city of Pittsburgh.
The park’s main attraction, Allegheny Observatory, is nestled among steep hillsides and wooded slopes.
What many people do not know is that the park was created as result of a cross-town rivalry sparked by Mary Schenley’s donation of Schenley Park to Pittsburgh in 1889. City of Allegheny Mayor, William M. Kennedy, aided residents in purchasing 200-acres of the Watson Farm to develop a park of their own. Riverview Park was named for its many views of the Ohio River.
Ironically, Mary Schenley was given credit for donating massive sums of money to develop Riverview Park in her New York Times Obituary.
Today Riverview Park boasts 287-acres, making it the 4th largest municipal park in Pittsburgh. While it may not be the city’s largest park, Riverview has more miles of hiking trails than Pittsburgh’s other 3 regional parks.
In the mid-1850s, a group of businessmen formed the Allegheny Telescope Association and built an observatory on Perrysville Avenue. The observatory was turned over to the University of Pittsburgh in 1867. Scientists used the observatory to study sunspots and supply information for the official clock system of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The University of Pittsburgh hired Samuel Pierpoint Langley to serve as the observatory’s first director. A professor of astronomy and physics, Langley invented the bolometer and used it to make spectral observations of solar and lunar radiation. Although Langley is most recognized for his contributions to the field of solar physics, he was one of the first scientists to calculate the greenhouse effect. In addition to his role at the observatory, Langley served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Langley was succeeded by his assistant, James Edward Keeler in 1891. Keeler provided visual proof that the rings of Saturn are not solid, but particulate, circling the planet at different speeds.
In 1898, John A. Brashear become director of the observatory. Brashear was one of the best telescope makers of his day. He designed 2 of the observatory’s telescopes.
By 1900, Pittsburgh’s views were blocked as a result of mass industrial pollution. Plans were made to build a new observatory perched high upon a hilltop in Riverview Park. Completed in 1912, the new observatory was designed by architect Thorsten Billquiest in a mixed Classical style with Greek Ionic columns and Roman balustrades.
Today, the brick and terra cotta structure houses 3 telescopes: a 30-inch Thaw Refractor, 30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector, and a 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor.
The 30-inch Thaw Refractor was built by Brashear Optical in 1912. Information from this telescope has helped set the distance scale for the universe.
John A. Brashear and his wife Phoebe, James Edward Keeler and his son, Henry Bowman Keeler, are all buried in a vault beneath the 30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector.
In 2008, the park’s oldest building, Chapel Shelter, underwent a massive restoration. This historic picnic shelter dates back to the 1800s, when it was Watson Presbyterian Church.
Today, Riverview is home to the Mairdale Watershed, which features the winding Wissahickon Stream and the wooded slopes of the Mairdale Valley.
Our recent hike in Riverview Park led us down Old Barn Road to the Bob Harvey Trail. The end of the Bob Harvey Trail brought us to the Chapel Shelter, where we picked up the Overlook Trail and headed back to the observatory.
Riverview’s hiking trails are complex to piece together. Don’t let this deter you. Each trail has its own rewards, and many have beautiful views down into the valley below
And of course, don’t forget about the view from the top of Observatory Hill!