South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

Mt. Oliver founder John Ormsby had an intesting past


August 1, 2017

The following is from Mt. Oliver’s 100th Anniversary celebration Founder’s Day program.

The story of John Ormsby is too long to go into at this time. However, some facts about the Mt. Oliver’s founder follow:

• He returned to Pittsburgh in 1770 and he and Jane had two more children

• He became the first private citizen of Pittsburgh

• He became the first private land owner in Pittsburgh

• He established the first river ferry in 1773 that carried passengers and cargo from the point to the South bank (South Side)

• He established one of the first inns in Pittsburgh and obtained the first liquor license issued in Pittsburgh

• He established the first brick yard in Pittsburgh (located where the South Side skating rink was)

• He was one of the original founders of the Trinity Episcopal Church in 1775 on the South Side. In 1804 it moved to its current location on 6th Avenue, Downtown

• He became a councilman of Pitt Township

• In 1785 the Supreme Executive Council of PA ordered John to take possession of For Pitt on behalf of the Commonwealth, upon its being relinquished by the United States

• His daughter, Jane, married Dr. Nathanial Bedford, founder of the Pitt University

• His granddaughter married the Mayor of Allegheny Township

• Further descendants, The Phillips, founders of the South Side Hospital and famous Burquin Attorneys

• You may recognize his grandchildren’s names: Jane, Sarah, Sidney, Mary, Josephine, Wharton. All who have street on the South Side named after them

• He lost four of his immediate loved ones within 10 years: Daughter Jane died in 1793 at the age of 24 (in childbirth), Son John Jr. died in 1795 at the age of 30 (reasons unknown), Wife Jane died in 1799, Son Joseph died in 1803 at the age of 31 (drowned at sea)

In 1788 Allegheny County was formed and divided into seven townships: Moon, Mifflin, Elizabeth, Versailles, Plum, Pitt and St. Clair. Mt Oliver and the South Side were absorbed into St. Clair Township.

In 1800 John started selling the plots of land in Mt. Oliver. Even though John had gained so much in wealth, he was a broken hearted man having lost his precious wife and children. On December 19, 1805 at 85 years of age, John died at his son Oliver’s home on the South Side. He was buried at Trinity Cathedral Churchyard next to his beloved Jane. The grave site is still maintained to this day.

John said that he wished it would be his good fortune that his name be remembered long after he was in his grave. Although it has been 212 years since John was placed in his grave, Mt. Oliver wanted it to be known that they have not forgotten. On May 30, 1992 members of the Mt. Oliver Borough Council and Mt. Oliver Founder’s Day Committee members met at John’s grave site and placed a memorial wreath. Their way of saying, “No John, we have not forgotten.” After his death his heirs sold the remaining land in Mt. Oliver. Those who own property in Mt. Oliver will find a plan of lots listed on their deed such as Mary Phillips, Caroline Yard, etc. All Ormsby descendants.

By 1830 most of the population of Mt. Oliver owned their land and were property tax payers. They were not satisfied with the leadership of St. Clair Township. In 1830 St. Clair Township was divided into Upper St. Clair and Lower St. Clair boroughs and the Mt. Oliver residents attempted to incorporate but the state ruled against the effort. The property owner quota was not sufficient to award incorporation. Thus, Mt. Oliver became part of Lower St. Clair Borough.

By 1870 some 40 years late Pittsburgh had annexed the boroughs of South Pittsburgh, Monongahela, Allentown, Lawrenceville, Temperanceville, Birmingham, Mt. Washington, West Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Borough, East Birmingham, St. Clair Borough and Ormsby.

Mt. Oliver residents had long felt that their people were not being dealt with fairly. When St. Clair officials appropriated funds for road improvements or public safety, Mt. Oliver was last on the list. By 1891 a few prominent Mt. Oliver businessmen took a re-count of the population and property owners and decided that the results would warrant a second try at incorporation. In 1892 a petition was signed by 650 property owners to incorporate Mt. Oliver into an independent borough. The petition passed the courts and on November 9, 1892 seven businessmen and a judge met at the old schoolhouse (Pittsburgh Federal Credit Union rear parking lot) and signed the incorporation documents.

The original 294 acres that John Ormsby purchased were set as the boundaries for Mt. Oliver Borough and remain the same today except for Giffin, Rustic, Quincy and Onyx.

The first minutes of the Mt. Oliver Borough Council meetings show how dedicated the officials were to the improvement of Mt. Oliver. Streets were established, houses numbered, electricity installed and boardwalks became mandatory. In a few short years, sewer systems were installed and the borough contracted with a phone company to enter the borough and install phone lines.

By 1927 Pittsburgh annexed the boroughs of Knoxville and Carrick. This left Pittsburgh with a complicated problem… with the last annexation Mt. Oliver was left completely surrounded by Pittsburgh. How could the city of Pittsburgh manage a city that contains an independent municipality in the middle of the city? Pittsburgh had its legal department researching a way to force Mt. Oliver into the city. Mt. Oliver had its solicitors also researching as to whether or not they could be forced into the city.

Burgess Charles Beckman, the Borough Council and Solicitors came to the conclusion that with their population of 7,000 in that year, there were no legal grounds to force the annexation of Mt. Oliver into the City of Pittsburgh. A letter was drafted and hand carried to the Pittsburgh Mayor informing him that Mt. Oliver would remain an independent municipality, they remain Mt. Oliver Borough. Mt. Oliver managed to be the only municipality to stand up and say “no” out of 20 boroughs and townships that gave in.

As a matter of fact, they gained in the Carrick annexation as they were given the previously mentioned avenues of Giffin, Rustic, Onyx and Quincy.

Look for more about John Ormsby in upcoming issues of The South Pittsburgh Reporter.


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