Pittsburgh’s oldest building, built in 1764, will be celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. The blockhouse at Point State Park is the last of the five blockhouses of Fort Pitt, once the largest British fort in North America. The little red brick building has withstood stiff challenges during its long existence.
In the early 1900s, the Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to build a major track junction at the Point, and the block house was in the way. The railroad sought to use eminent domain to move it to Schenley Park or some other more convenient spot. The Pittsburgh chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the block house, objected. The DAR, led by Edith Ammon and Julia Morgan Harding, lobbied in Harrisburg for a bill to keep it right where it was.
They found a kindred spirit in state Rep. Michael H. Kennedy of Lawrenceville. Kennedy introduced the “Historic Sites Act,” which prohibited the use of eminent domain to confiscate or remove any buildings from the colonial or Revolutionary War period. The act passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Edwin Stuart on May 10, 1907.
On Flag Day, June 14, 1907, more than 100 Daughters of the American Revolution gathered at the block house to celebrate the victory. Col. Thomas Roberts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Julia Morgan Harding and Michael H. Kennedy addressed the crowd. A grateful DAR presented Kennedy with an engraved silver clock in appreciation of his efforts. The engraving said:
Presented to Michael H. Kennedy on Flag Day June 14, 1907, by the Pittsburgh Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, in recognition of his patriotic service in securing the enactment of a law for the protection of historic sites and buildings of the Colonial and Revolutionary period in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
“Mike” Kennedy was a handsome, popular Irishman who owned a plumbing business on Butler Street. Just 35 years old in 1907, he had a passion for history and his own genealogy, being the descendant of Pennsylvania pioneers and Revolutionary War soldiers. Friends persuaded him to run for state representative in 1906. He won election and served in the first General Assembly that convened in the beautiful new state capitol building, still in use today.
Why did Kennedy risk his political career by taking the side of the DAR and the block house against the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad?
Kennedy’s passion to save the block house at its original site may have been inspired by his great-grandfather Philip “Felix” Skelly. Skelly, from Bedford County, was among the American settlers victimized by British-inspired Indian attacks during the Revolutionary War. His father and uncle were killed and scalped. He himself was captured and marched off to be turned over to British officials in Detroit.
While traveling through Ohio, Skelly escaped. After days of running, hiding and starving, he made it to Fort Pitt, at that time in the hands of the colonial militia. His first sight of salvation was the fort and its block houses.
Skelly took refuge in Fort Pitt and then journeyed home. Inflamed with resentment against the British, he and his brother Patrick joined the Continental Army. Both participated in the decisive 1781 Battle of Yorktown, in which Patrick was killed. Felix survived. One of his descendants was Michael H. Kennedy.
So Mike Kennedy needed no convincing to help the DAR in its battle against the railroad. His great-grandfather saw the block house that saved him at the confluence of the three rivers, not at Schenley Park. The railroad could work around it. And it eventually did, surrounding the little block house with warehouses and railroad tracks.
Although the bill passed easily, Kennedy had incurred the wrath of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had sponsored the legislation and lobbied hard for it. In the 1908 election, Kennedy lost in the Republican primary. His advocacy of the Historic Sites Act and the enmity it earned him from the Pennsylvania Railroad played a role in his defeat, although other factors played a role. Kennedy returned full-time to the plumbing business.
Michael H. Kennedy was my grandfather. He was extremely proud of his role in saving the block house. The clock given to him by the DAR sat on the mantle of his living room until his death in 1961.
I was only 10 when he died, but I recall him as a tall, thin, elderly man who was always reading with a magnifying glass. He was frequently at Carnegie Library doing research and had an extensive collection of history books. In his later years, he joined the Sons of the American Revolution, the male counterpart of the DAR. He was eligible through his descent from Felix Skelly.
In 1949, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the property at the Point and commenced removing the railroad buildings and tracks. The area became Point State Park. The Fort Pitt Museum opened in 1969 and the fountain in 1974, creating one of America’s most beautiful and historic urban parks.
Today, the Fort Pitt Block House sits at its original site, now the heart of Point State Park. The Historic Sites Act still protects it, and hopefully always will.
Mike Kennedy’s role in the preservation of the block house has largely been forgotten, but as its 250th anniversary commemorations begin, Pittsburgh should well remember the courage and passion of a young legislator who helped to protect our city’s history.
The clock that the DAR gave him will soon be on display at the Fort Pitt Block House Museum. Mike Kennedy would be proud. As am I.
Paul F. Kennedy is the author of “Billy Conn — The Pittsburgh Kid” and “The Pittsburgh Gamble” and has been published in numerous publications, including Pittsburgh Quarterly and Loyalhanna Review (firstname.lastname@example.org). He lives in Aspinwall.