Dooker’s Hollow is an old section of North Braddock that was recently buried under debris when the bridge above was demolished in February 2021. It was the final indignity for a neighborhood that’s languished for decades and can boast few architectural witnesses to a colorful past.
|Dooker's Hollow below the former bridge, ArcGIS StoryMap image|
It wasn't always like this. Braddock was once bucolic farmland outside of Pittsburgh. Sure, matters got a bit messy in July 1755 at the Battle of the Monongahela, when British forces under General Edward Braddock were defeated by the French and their Native allies. But things were fairly quiet for decades after, until larger scale coal mining and railroads came to town.
|Braddock's Field, Paul Weber, 1855. Fort Ligonier collection.|
The area was still sparsely populated and undeveloped when Andrew Carnegie broke ground for his Edgar Thomson Steel Works in 1873. That soon changed.
|1875 view of Edgar Thomson works showing undeveloped surrounding area.|
Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs
Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
According to Victoria Vargo, Executive Director of the Braddock Carnegie Library Association, Dooker’s Hollow was named for a woman called Granny Dooker who once lived in a log cabin at the turn of the road from Braddock Avenue. While Granny Dooker’s origin story seems to be lost, the development of Dooker’s Hollow is inextricably linked to the rise of steel production in Braddock in the 1880s. Newspaper mentions and documentation of its main drag, Louis Street, on local maps pin the area's origins to the late 19th century.
Braddock grew as the mills did, stretching along the
Monongahela riverbank, framed by railroad tracks, bordered by guardian
hills, and straddling fresh water runs that were soon anything but fresh. Dooker’s Hollow flourished within a half mile from the Edgar Thomson plant, in the area that officially became the borough of North Braddock in 1897. It was a case study of a neighborhood whose immigrant residents traded poverty-stricken rural living for slightly less impoverished lives of industrial discipline governed by factory whistles.
Thomas Bell described the area in his 1941 novel Out of This Furnace:
....Dooker's Hollow, an abysmal gorge in the hills to the east of Braddock, up near the foundries--its sewerlike entrance a black tunnel under the Pennsylvania tracks, its single street lined with shabby houses, and bare hills lifting steeply on either side, and, stalking from one height to another...
|That "black tunnel under the Pennsylvania tracks" is still the entrance to Dooker's Hollow.|
The Hollow was frequently flooded when it rained, and occasionally homes along Louis Street were completely washed away.
A 1911 report from the office of the Pennsylvania health commissioner described sanitation in the area:
The narrow valley known as Dooker Hollow is in the extreme eastern end of the borough. It starts at the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks about one eighth of a mile east of Bessemer Station and extends northeast for a distance of nearly half a mile to a point where it divides, one small branch continuing on in the same direction for a short distance, and the other or main hollow swinging at right angles and running for about ¾ of a mile turning near its upper end to the north. The first collection of houses in Dooker Hollow is near the Pennsylvania Railroad, 45 in number, frame two-story inhabited by foreigners. General sanitary conditions are bad. All have privies and use as a rule the Pennsylvania Water Company water, though some wells are in use. At the forks in the hollow is located another small collection of dwellings frame but in slightly better sanitary condition than the ones farther down the hollow. Up the main valley for about ¼ of mile are 15 to 18 two-story frame houses lining the roadway and extending up over the hillside. There are sewers in this district, so privies are prevalent. One other settlement exists up Dooker's Hollow, this consisting of about 20 frame 2½-story dwellings near the head of the hollow. There are no sewers in this settlement. The second and third settlements mentioned all extend up over the hillside…. A small run flows down Dooker Hollow emptying into the borough sewer at the first cluster of houses above the railroad. A number of privies are placed near this stream, which also receives garbage at various points.
The “foreigners” who inhabited these houses were primarily Eastern European immigrants for whom necessity dictated living in the shadow of the Edgar Thomson Works. The 1910 census named over 400 residents of what newspapers termed the “thickly settled” Hollow. Many of the two-story frame houses with sub-par sanitation were home to both sprawling families as well as multiple male boarders. Most Dooker’s Hollow
men worked as laborers at Edgar Thomson. Others did unspecified factory labor; there was a brick and tile works near-by, for example. A few worked for the railroads.
|Dooker's Hollow homes shown below the bridge on 1926 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Pennsylvania State University Libraries|
The rest of Allegheny County, if it knew this mill neighborhood at all, would have connected it with stories of beatings, burglaries, and bloody encounters. There’s no romanticizing the sheer amount of murder, mayhem, and madness documented in the Hollow by Pittsburgh’s newspapers. Men had deadly knife fights, women and girls were assaulted, kids played on and fell off the bridge, people drowned in the swollen steam, and careening trolleys and cars plunged over low bridge guardrails to land in the Hollow below. Life could be irredeemably hard. There were likely many other events that didn't merit a mention, that never came to the attention of authorities.
But at least this black cat and stray dog got off easy in 1910:
|Pittsburgh Post, 12 September 1910|
A long wooden bridge maintained by the Pittsburgh Railways Company spanned the hollow in 1892, used by people, horses, carriages, streetcars, and motor vehicles.
But bridges don't last forever.
|Dooker's Hollow wooden bridge, Pittsburgh Press, 14 April 1939|
|Dooker's Hollow wooden bridge, Pittsburgh Press, 3 August 1939|
After years of worry about its precarious, unsafe conditions, the wooden bridge was finally replaced in 1940 with a $500,000 modern four-lane structure built fifty yards away. Perhaps the spirit of Granny Dooker was behind the new construction. At the very least, there was one stalwart female bridge advocate:
This is a tale of determination--of an elderly woman who knew what she wanted and got it.
The woman--it might be well to let her remain unidentified in these paragraphs--is not only elderly but deaf. She carries a big old-fashioned ear trumpet.
Regularly, over a period of years, she appeared before the County Commissioners and other local governing bodies. During lulls in the proceedings she would shout,"How about Dooker's Hollow Bridge?" then clap her trumpet to her ear to hear any reply the officials might make.
It seemed that she owned some property near the old wooden bridge linking East Pittsburgh and North Braddock, and thought a new bridge over the ravine would increase its value.
Well, a fine new bridge was started a few months ago. The steel superstructure will meet across the ravine soon, and officials are thinking of having some sort of ceremony to mark the event.
The one-woman campaign didn't cause the bridge to be built. The old wooden structure just got too old to be used much longer. But she got what she wanted, and her campaign is worth mentioning. ~Gilbert Love, Pittsburgh Press, 10 November 1940
The old wooden "bridge of sighs" over Dooker's Hollow was demolished in 1941 once its replacement was dedicated. Eighty years later, it was that 635 foot long, arched cantilever truss bridge's turn to be blown to smithereens. It all came down when explosives were detonated on 13 February 2021:
The roadbed had been dismantled, so it was only 500 tons of steel that dropped onto the former Louis Street -- long since renamed O’Connell Boulevard during the WWI years.
And there wasn't much left in Dooker's Hollow for the steel skeleton to land on.
|Dooker's Hollow, January 2021, from North Braddock Network Facebook Page|
Although there are undeniably impressive differences of scale, this actually wasn’t the first time the street in Dooker’s Hollow was pelted with debris from on high. The infrastructure that so optimistically bridged the Hollow's past to a more promising future in 1940 was almost immediately designated a vantage point for the hurling of trash, eggs, tires, bricks and stones.
|Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 5 December 1945|
You scored big if your load landed on the rooftop of a house 175 feet below. Who could resist the challenge?
Hollow residents repeatedly begged for mercy -- or at the very least for a high fence to stop the bombardment. They sent a petition to Allegheny County in 1955, and again in 1962. That's when the Pittsburgh Press got cute with its headline for an article about the 22 residents who'd once again petitioned the county to erect a high fence along the bridge to stem target practice.
|Pittsburgh Press, 23 May 1962|
Allegheny County Public Works director Levi Bird Duff habitually scoffed at the utility of such a safety screen. He opined that no fence would be high enough “to keep a strong-armed youngster from lobbing a stone over the railing.” Duff punted responsibility for catching the “rocktossers” to North Braddock police and, well, you can guess how much of a priority that was. Dooker’s Hollow continued to be pelted from above, although eventually at some point a safety fence was erected on the bridge.
While they dodged debris from above and were immortalized in local crime reports, Dooker’s Hollow families lived and loved and persevered and used their windshield wipers to clear away mill dirt from their cars. If you grew up there, you made memories like kids everywhere did. You embraced adventures, you played hide-and-seek and kickball in the street, you climbed trees and
built forts in the woods. You weren't supposed to drink water from the creek, but who was going to tell if you all dared each other to do it? The streetcars passing overhead on the bridge blew fine dust into the Hollow that glittered in the sun like diamonds, but housewives weren't pleased when such industrial fairy dust drifted through their open windows.
|Dooker's Hollow 1950s postcard image|
Mill town neighborhoods like Dooker’s Hollow flourished into the mid-1970s. They spectacularly collapsed in the 1980s, devastated by complicated economic and industrial forces that left them ghost towns. The lone road into Dooker’s Hollow heaved with polluted groundwater and became riddled with potholes perilous enough to test your car’s suspension every few feet. Houses fell to neglect, abandon, and eventual residential demolition. There were a few proud, colorful, isolated survivors toward the far end of the street, but others were held together by little more than frameworks of memories.
|Dooker's Hollow home, 2018, Jack Erdie|
|Dooker's Hollow, 2017, Patrick McArdle|
|Dooker's Hollow, 2018, Jack Erdie|
Once the old bridge scrap gets removed from Dooker’s Hollow, construction crews will start spending the allocated $9.95 million to build a new structure overhead to reconnect North Braddock and East Pittsburgh.
There’s no money allocated for Dooker’s Hollow itself. So long as the bridge above bears its name, Dooker’s Hollow will live on as a geographical entity, if not as a living neighborhood. Even if the new bridge gets renamed, former residents still have tales to tell about life in the Hollow. They need to be recorded, because this neighborhood will live on only so long as there are people to talk about it. Once they're gone, Dooker's Hollow will join the scrap heap of forgotten history
|Dooker's Hollow, 2018, Jack Erdie|
Preserve your stories!If you've got tales to tell about life in Dooker's Hollow, please share in the comment section below.
Great post. As always. Dooker's and Tassey Hollow Bridges always fascinated me for some reason as a kid.ReplyDelete
Wow. I am very saddened by this. This is were my family lived and I grew up. So many fond memories.ReplyDelete
I grew up here. I have been journaling about what that all was like. Interesting aticle.ReplyDelete
VIEW FROM ABOVE. I grew up on Bessemer Avenue in East Pittsburgh, a mere five houses from the eastern edge of Dooker's Hollow. For me, the Hollow had a sense of mystery. Were there really the bones of Indians and British soldiers buried in the Hollow? Where were the lost steps that my grandfather walked from Cliff Street to get to the mill? In the 1960s and 70s, the hillside was grass from the top all the way to a tree line just above the row of houses. We'd play on that hill, sled ride down in winter, and sit on a rocky ledge overlooking the mill. And we played under the bridge itself, in the large space where the bridge deck ended and Center Street began. Once in a while kids would come up from the Hollow to go to Brown's or another store on Bessemer. That was the only interaction we had with Hollow residents, really. When I learned to drive, I liked to cross the bridge, turn left and down the road into the Hollow, go out the tunnel to Braddock Avenue, drive past the mill, turn around and come back. Braddock was Ground Zero for my Slovak immigrant grandparents; their first home was company housing in the boro before they bought a new house on Bessemer Terrace in 1926. Driving there was my way of connecting to that past.ReplyDelete
Great memories and insights, thanks for sharing them!Delete
My husband's great grandparents lived in Dooker's Hollow. Around 1990, my late father-in-law wrote that Francis and Bridget (nee McMullen) Faust built a house in Dooker's Hollow, out on mill road. He said it was the third house on the right after going through the railroad tunnel. He said the red frame house was still standing at that time. I wonder if it is the red house pictured above? Francis and Bridget were married in late 1879 and although I have not been able to document Francis' death, I believe he died around 1889.ReplyDelete
I don't know exactly where the red house was located but it's not in the Hollow now; the photo was dated 2018.Delete
there was a rode that came off Bell ave , right by Keller st. it ran along the hillside an under the bridge .On the corner before the bridge there was a house,the old man there had goats . I was wandering if that red house was the house ? Do you know where that picture was taken ?ReplyDelete
Hi there, that township road is still there but there are no structures on it. I didn't take the photo of the red house myself, but it dates to 2018 and for sure there's no red house like that on Dooker's Hollow now.Delete
My grandparents were immigrants from County Galway, Ireland and lived in Dooker's Hollow, where my father was born. There was a large Irish population living there in the early 1900s.I have quite a bit of information on the families. My mother's family lived at 101 Center St in East Pitrsburgh, which was the closest house to the bridge. She was a teen when they tore the wooden bridge down and built the new bridge. Her father and his brothers worked at the Edgar Thompson Steel Works. Our family has a lot of history in East Pittsburgh and Dooker's Hollow and I've heard all the stories.ReplyDelete
Your folks perhaps knew of mine, Patricia, in the way that everyone knew everyone back then (my relatives were from East Pittsburgh along Electric Ave). Feel free to contact me further if you'd like to share some biographies for me to write up to add to this post.Delete
I ended up finding this blog by chance, but am so glad for it. This particular article and general kind of story.. a common one across all post-industrial river towns.. inspired me to use my data nerd skills to compile this list of historical residents/owners.ReplyDelete
Caveat: none of these last names listed are current owner/occupants (for privacy), and none of the properties even have homes left on them. These names are nonetheless still attached to the history of this place, in the most literal sense of the word. Listed in approximate chronological order (based on the recorded date of either initial platting/subdivision or purchase, pre-1901 to 1973) here are some of the earliest people and families that called Dooker's Hollow home:
MCKINNEY (multiple records)
WYNN (multiple records)
It goes without saying, but I'll do it anyway: what came before us is only evidenced through records; in my case, government-recorded documents. But there is a more important record of place: listening to those that lived, and in the process of living, make a place. I hope that me sharing this list can help others to listen & share what real-life stories may remain, before they too are lost just as the homes of this neighborhood have been.
Fabulous research and writing! My grandparents didn't live in the hollow - they were too poor - but they were in Braddock by 1910, having arrived in Pennsylvania a few years earlier from Galicia, Austrian Empire (i.e. Poland.) Until 1963 they lived in row houses not far from the river with the cellar outhouses and cobblestone courtyard with more outhouses in back. Women still hung clothes out there and they had only cold running water and a big black iron coal stove. When I tell people this is how people were living in Pittsburgh in 1963 they do not believe me. What hard lives they had, and they did so honorably, so I have great respect for them. Two generations later many of their descendants have become educated. We even have a person who earned a Phd. So, when I think of the immigrants of Industrial river towns back in the day, I think how frustrating it must have been to be so intelligent and yet limited in life.ReplyDelete
I do genealogy research and family history writing out of Los Angeles. I thank you for this wonderful history blog and encourage you to keep researching and writing. CT
My ancestors were Slovak and Rusyn immigrants to the valley. That we are all as fortunate as we are today is partly a result of our ancestors making the most of what little they had. Opportunities and support make such a difference.Delete