Robert and Martha Farrell Graham were born in Ireland, Robert in 1802 and Martha in 1799.
They were married and living in Pennsylvania by 1837, when their son William F. was born. Martha Jane “Mattie” Graham, their other child who is known today, was born in Pennsylvania in 1839. Although a 1919 obituary of Martha Jane Graham stated that she “was born in Lincoln avenue, old Allegheny,” North Lincoln Avenue was created in 1858, and known records do not document the family’s residence prior to 1850.
Pittsburgh city directories published before 1850 did not list Robert Graham, and the family was not enumerated in Allegheny County in the 1840 population census. The 1850 Pittsburgh directory contains the earliest known documentation of the family’s presence in the Pittsburgh area. The directory listed Robert Graham as manager of a rope walk (rope factory) and living in an un-numbered house on Western Avenue (then Water Lane) in the neighborhood now called Allegheny West.
After the rope walk closed, Pittsburgh directories listed Robert Graham as a salesman, superintendent, watchman, and laborer. His workplaces during that time are not known. Martha Graham bought an undeveloped lot on the former rope walk site in 1861, and she and Robert Graham had 840 North Lincoln Avenue built on the lot by 1863. The Grahams had a larger house built at 842 North Lincoln Avenue later in the 1860s and rented that house to tenants.
Martha Jane Graham became a public school teacher at age 18, in the late 1850s. After teaching in Allegheny City for a year, according to her obituary, she began a long career at the Grant School on Grant Street in Downtown Pittsburgh. She was a teacher until about 1879, when she became one of Pittsburgh’s first female principals. She held that position at the Grant School until she retired in 1912. As a female principal, Graham earned several hundred dollars per year, less than her male counterparts but more than female schoolteachers.
The 1870 census was the first census taken following the construction of 840 North Lincoln Avenue. Robert Graham was enumerated as a watchman at a car station and Martha Graham did not work outside the house. Martha Jane was recorded as having no occupation, although Pittsburgh directories document that she taught school. The census reported that Robert Graham owned real estate valued at $22,000, consistent with the size, location and brick construction of 840 and 842 North Lincoln Avenue, and had a personal estate of $10,000. Graham’s total assets of $32,000 were comparable to $1 million or more in the early 21st century.
Martha Graham died in 1879, at 80. At the time of the 1880 census, Robert Graham, 78 and retired, lived at 840 North Lincoln Avenue with Martha Jane Graham, 41, and his widowed sister Rebecca Toner, 60. A servant, Norah Mooney, also lived in the house. Mooney, 22, had immigrated from Ireland. Robert Graham died in 1883.
The Social Mirror, an 1888 book about prominent Pittsburgh women, reported that “Mattie Graham, the principal of the Grant School, is one of the phenomenally successful women. She is forcible and determined, yet full of a genial warmheartedness that wins her pupils’ love. Miss Graham is intellectual, well versed in ancient and modern literature- in short, keeps up with the times, a bright, smart, capable woman.”
Possibly to help make ends meet, in about 1887 Graham began to share her home at 840 North Lincoln Avenue with Jennie Ralston, an unmarried public school teacher, and William Ralston, who had no occupation. Jennie Ralston became principal of the Pittsburgh Normal School, a training school for teachers, in about 1890. William Ralston appears to have died or moved from the house in about 1895.
Martha J. Graham sold 840 North Lincoln Avenue in 1896, for $13,000. She and Jennie Ralston moved to Oakland, and over the next 23 years rented a series of apartments together in that neighborhood. Graham died on July 22, 1919, at 79, at St. Francis Hospital in Lawrenceville.