John Irwin & The Rope Walk

John Irwin founded the first rope walk in western Pennsylvania in 1794 on a site near Smithficld Street and the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. Irwin, who had been wounded in a Revolutionary W ar battle, left the management of the rope walk to his wife, Mary and son, John.

After the elder Irwin’s death in 1808, at age 50, the younger John Irwin purchased his mother’s share in the business and assumed responsibility for its operation.

The younger John Irwin moved the rope walk to Allegheny City in 1813. The rope walk originally occupied a site bounded by what are now Brighton Road, Ridge Avenue, Galveston Avenue and Western Avenue. The site occupied Out Lot 276 in the Reserve Tract Opposite Pittsburgh.

The younger John Irwin brought his son, Henry into the business in 1835, and renamed the business John Irwin & Son. In 1847, John Irwin Jr. (actually the third John Irwin) joined the business, which became known as John Irwin & Sons.

At some point between 1835 and 1847, the rope walk expanded westward onto Out Lot 275 to a point 100′ east of Allegheny Avenue, by leasing land owned by Harmar and Elizabeth F. Denny. In 1847, the Irwins purchased the land they had leased from the Dennys.

An 1852 map shows that the rope walk’s main building was located at what is now the eastern end of North Lincoln Avenue, facing Brighton Road.

The rope walk site contained a small number of homes on Western Avenue that may have housed rope walk employees. Structures that apparently remain from the time of the rope walk are two vernacular Greek Revival style double houses at 831-833 Western Avenue and 843-845 Western Avenue and another building at 903-905 Western Avenue, now known as Allegheny Court.

Pittsburgh city directories of the 1850’s show that Robert Graham of Water Lane (now Western Avenue) managed the rope walk. Graham later built and lived at 840 North Lincoln Avenue (then 67 Lincoln Avenue). Graham also built a house at 842 North Lincoln Avenue (65 Lincoln Avenue) that he rented to tenants.

The rope walk ceased operation in 1858. Subsequently, the younger John Irwin subdivided the rope walk site and sold it as building lots on Ridge, North Lincoln, Western and Galveston Avenues. Irwin lived on Irwin Avenue (now Brighton Road) until about 1859, when he moved to Sewickley.

Henry Irwin, apparently a son of John Irwin, was a salt manufacturer and president of the Manchester Railway Company. He continued to live on Irwin Avenue after John Irwin moved to Sewickley. During the 1870’s, a son, Hemy Jr., became a partner in Irwin & Company, a coal company on Galveston Avenue near the Ohio River. Lewis Irwin, another son, became a partner in Holdship & Irwin, an oil firm, and rented a house at 824 Beech Avenue in the 1880’s.

Lewis Irwin helped change the architectural appearance of Allegheny West in 1887, when he commissioned the firm of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow to design a new residence for him at the southwestern comer of Western Avenue and Brighton Road. The house, with some similarity to Sunnyledge at Fifth and Wilkins Avenues in Squirrel Hill, was dramatically different from nearby homes built in more traditional styles. Irwin also had Longfellow, Alden & Harlow design a double house at the southeastern comer of Western Avenue and Rope Way. The Irwin houses were among the earliest of several Longfellow, Alden & Harlow houses in Allegheny West; those which remain include the Pontefract mansion on North Lincoln Avenue west of Allegheny Avenue, the house at 838 North Lincoln Avenue and the Rosenbach house at 836 Western Avenue.

Members of the Irwin family lived on the former rope walk site until about 1920. Lewis Irwin appears to have been the last family member to live there. After he and other family members relocated to Sewickley, the former Irwin houses were used as apartments and rooming houses. The houses were demolished in the 1950’s.