Hugh McKelvy was born in 1817 in Wilkinsburg, and was raised in Allegheny City (now the Northside) from the age of three. McKelvy probably grew up near the present site of Allegheny General Hospital, as his obituary reported that he attended a log school building that stood on or near the hospital’s present site.
Hugh and Sarah McKelvy were married by the early 1840s. Sarah McKelvy was born in 1821 in Pennsylvania. Wesley McKelvy, the first child of Hugh and Sarah McKelvy, was bom in 1844. He was followed by William in 1847, Emma in 1852, Ella in 1856, Dale in 1858 and Hugh Jr. in 1860.
By 1850, Hugh McKelvy was employed as an engineer, and lived with his wife and children on Reedsdale Street (then Rebecca Street) in Allegheny City. McKelvy became a riverboat captain within a short time. The McKelvy family moved from Reedsdale Street to a house that Hugh and Sarah McKelvy owned at 208 West North Avenue (then an un-numbered house on Allegheny City’s North Commons) in the mid-1850s.
In 1859, McKelvy became a partner in Burgess & McKelvy, grocers, located on Forbes Avenue (then Diamond Street) in Downtown Pittsburgh. McKelvy’s partner was John Burgess of Sandusky Street in what is now the Allegheny Center Mall area. McKelvy remained in that business until 1862.
The 1860 census of population enumerated seven members of the McKelvy family – Hugh, 43, Sarah, 39, Wesley, 16, William, 13, Emma, eight, Ella, four and Dale, two – in their home on the North Commons. The census reported that Hugh McKelvy owned real estate worth $4,000, probably the value of the McKelvy family’s home, and had a personal estate of $1,200.
The 1863 Pittsburgh city directory listed Hugh McKelvy as a steam boat captain, and as a partner in two businesses: McMahon & McKelvy, oil refiners, of 44th Street at the Allegheny Valley Railroad in Lawrenceville, and McKelvy & Moore, barrel manufacturers, of Diamond Street in Allegheny City. McKelvy may have found the oil refinery to be more profitable than his other enterprises, and ended his involvement in riverboats and barrel manufacturing by 1864.
Hugh McKelvy’s 1863 entry into the oil industry came four years after the discovery of oil at Titusville in northwestern Pennsylvania. McKelvy and thousands of other men intent on profiting from extracting, transporting, refining, and selling oil invested their time and available capital in this industry. Pittsburgh shared in the oil boom as a center of river transportation and as the site of several refineries. During that time, a number of Pittsburgh men traveled to growing northwestern Pennsylvania communities such as Titusville, Franklin, Oil City, and Pithole to participate in the oil business. Hugh McKelvy appears to have enjoyed moderate success in the highly risky and capital-intensive oil industry, and was not among those who made or lost fortunes.
In 1864, the McKelvy family lived at 1203 Boyle Street in Allegheny City. The family moved to a new house they had built at 846 Western Avenue in 1865. By 1865, Hugh McKelvy operated an oil depot or refinery at Ninth Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, Downtown.
In 1866, the Pittsburgh city directory listed Hugh McKelvy as an oil dealer on Fort Duquesne Boulevard, but with no home listing. It appears likely that McKelvy’s work in the oil industry may have caused him to leave the city in order to tend to his business interests in Pennsylvania’s oil towns for a short time. McKelvy returned to Allegheny City by 1867, when he was appointed Allegheny City postmaster. He held that position while living at 942 Western Avenue in 1868 and 1869. McKelvy could walked to work in the Allegheny City Post Office, in the city hall on Diamond Square in the present Allegheny Center Mall area, or could have taken one of the horse-drawn streetcars that passed in front of his house.
McKelvy returned to the oil business in 1870, as a partner in McKelvy, Brother & Company, at Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Eighth Street. McKelvy’s partners included his brother, William M. McKelvy, of 44th Street in Lawrenceville. After selling 942 Western Avenue in early 1870, the McKelvy family began renting a house at 846 Beech Avenue. The 1870 census, the last census to provide information on assets of persons enumerated, shows that Hugh McKelvy owned no real estate and had a personal estate of $1,000.
Hugh McKelvy and his wife and children lived in a house they owned at 910 Beech Avenue, or in an earlier house on the site, between 1871 and 1874. Hugh McKelvy was listed in directories as an oil broker and oil merchant during that time. McKelvy did not appear in Pittsburgh city directories published after 1874. Available records do not document where the McKelvy family went immediately after leaving Pittsburgh.
Hugh McKelvy died on May 24, 1894, at the home of a daughter on Linden Street in Allegheny City. An obituary published in the Pittsburgh Press stated that McKelvy had been a resident of Parker’s Landing, Armstrong County, a center of oil production.