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From the Archives:
The Lay of the Land

by Martha L. Berg

A shorter version of this article was published in HaKesher, the newsletter of Rodef Shalom Congregation, in March, 2023.

When I started working at Rodef Shalom, a few people told me that in the early 20th century, antisemitism was so prevalent in the East End of Pittsburgh that, in order to purchase the lot the sanctuary building stands on, the Congregation had to put up a proxy Gentile buyer as a middleman.


Recently, I undertook a land history study for 4905 Fifth Avenue, which gave me a chance to test this story against real-estate facts, and the story proved to be a myth.  While I am sure that there was discrimination against Jews in Pittsburgh, antisemitism had nothing to do with the lot sale that brought the congregation to our current location. On April 22, 1905, the middle lot in the block of Fifth Avenue between Morewood Avenue and Bidwell (later renamed Devonshire) Street was transferred to Abraham Lippman, as Trustee for Rodef Sholem (as it was then spelled) by the executors of the estate of Bernard Rafferty for the sum of $60,000, which would be more than two million in 2023 dollars.

Researching the history of land ownership can be quite an adventure. Recent deeds may or may not be available online, but for historical deeds it is necessary to make a trip downtown to the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate, located in the County Office Building. The staff there have a system they’ve been using for many years, and the solid stacks of deed books bring to mind a medieval scriptorium, but the system makes sense, and the staff are very helpful to newcomers. Some information is available on an internal computer system, but you will spend a lot of time going from one numbered deed book to another, chasing down each previous mention of the property, which shows up in deeds as something like “. . . Being the same premises conveyed to [buyer] by [seller] on [date] and recorded in Deed Book Vol. XXX, page xxx.”

 The ground on which Rodef Shalom’s sanctuary building stands has not changed hands for 118 years, so I started with that 1905 purchase and worked backward in time, revealing through the tracing of this one lot a sense of the greater history of the East End neighborhood called Shadyside.                                                                                                                  

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The 1904 Real Estate Plat-Book of the City of Pittsburgh shows Rafferty’s property as an empty lot. The sellers on April 22, 1905, were Gilbert T. Rafferty and Charles Donnelly, executors for estate of Bernard Rafferty (1823-1891). Donnelly was Bernard Rafferty’s son-in-law. Rafferty himself had died fourteen years earlier, in 1891. He was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1823, into a professional family. When Bernard was seven years old, the family fell on hard times, and they emigrated to a farm in southern Ohio. Later Bernard moved to Pittsburgh, starting his life here as a drayman—a cart driver—and ending as the owner of a prosperous feed business. As was typical of immigrants from the southern counties of Ireland, he was a Roman Catholic, and his funeral service was held in Sacred Heart Church, which had been founded in 1872 and was at that time located on Center Ave. near Euclid in East Liberty. Rafferty’s obituary makes a point of saying that, “Although a devout Catholic, he was extremely liberal in religious matters. He was a man of great natural ability, and his sterling honor and integrity won for him the esteem and respect of all who knew him.” He is buried in an impressive mausoleum in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

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Bernard Rafferty bought the lot in 1884 in two parts, one a small sliver from Josephine E. and Edmund Morewood Ferguson (1838-1904).  Ferguson, who was born in New York, moved to Fayette County, PA, to manufacture coke. He resettled in Pittsburgh, where he and his brother became partners with Henry Clay Frick in his original coal-to-coke operation, manufacturing coke in Connellsville and selling it to the thriving steel businesses in Western PA. Ferguson, described in his 1904 obituary as a capitalist and a “heavy buyer of real estate,” married Josephine Mackintosh of Pittsburgh and built a mansion across the street from the present-day Freehof Hall, naming the street Morewood for his family. Ferguson fulfilled a certain stereotype of the classic Pittsburgh industrialist: after his initial success in the coke industry, he invested in various other industries, such as banking and real estate; he was an Episcopalian, donating the land for the Church of the Ascension on Ellsworth Avenue; and he was a member of the Pittsburgh and Duquesne Clubs.

The bulk of Rafferty’s 1884 purchase was sold to him by Samuel and Amanda Keys. The sale price was $10,780, or around $886,000 in 2023 dollars. Samuel Keys was another successful businessman, but quite a bit more colorful than Mr. Ferguson. Keys, who lived on Penn Avenue near where Heinz Hall is now, owned a successful shoe manufacturing business for forty years and kept to such high ethical standards that the was known as “Honest Sam Keys.” But he was also what was known as a “turfman,” which is to say that he bred, sold, and raced horses all over the country. It’s interesting that his obituary names his two sons and four of his horses, but not his two daughters.


Keys had bought the lot in 1857 from Joseph Graham, a contractor who also has a street named after him, South Graham Street in Shadyside/Friendship. The deed for that sale describes the lot as being “Land in Peebles Township. . . on North side of Farmers’ and Merchants’ Turnpike (Plank) Road.” Peebles Township, created out of Pitt Township in 1833, once included land from the Allegheny River to the Monongahela River in what is now the eastern part of Pittsburgh. What remained of Peebles Township after further divisions was incorporated into the City of Pittsburgh in 1868.

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The section of Fifth Avenue on which Rodef Shalom fronts first appeared on a map in 1784. It has been called Braddock’s Field Road, Beelens Road, and Watson’s Road and in the 1830s was officially called the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Turnpike Road, named after the company that had developed it by building bridges and culverts and grading the road surface. As the name implies, it was then a toll road.

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Returning to the chain of ownership, Joseph Graham was an early inhabitant of what would be called Shadyside, with strong associations with East Liberty. He was a partner in Graham & Lyons lumber planing mill on Negley Avenue, which burned to ashes in 1870 in a fire probably set by arsonists. After that loss, he became a well-respected contractor in Friendship and Shadyside. He was a part owner, with Judge Mellon and others, of the East Liberty Academy, a prestigious coeducational school founded in the early 1850s. At the time of his death in 1901 he was one of the oldest members of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The address often given for the Graham family is Roup Station, or simply “Roup,” which was a Pennsylvania Railroad station on S. Negley Avenue (formerly Roup St.), across the tracks from where the Negley Station of the M. L. K., Jr., East Busway is now.

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Graham had bought the lot in 1846 from George and Amelia Gumbert for $700 (about $27,000 in 2023). The deed described the property as “marked No. 1 on Plan of Lots laid out by John Rhinehart Tomer,” facing the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Turnpike Road with 199 feet of frontage. The lives of George Gumbert (1794-1871) and his family have another classic American success story to tell. George learned the butchering trade from John Rhinehart Tomer, the father of his first wife, Amelia (1800-1859), and he followed that trade for the rest of his working life. In the 1850 census, George and Amelia are recorded as owning real estate worth $2000 and having eight children living at home, along with a domestic worker, Mary Metzger, who was then twelve years old.  After Amelia’s death, George married Mary, who had converted from Roman Catholicism to Methodism, causing a scandal in the parish. George’s will contained an unusual provision showing, perhaps, his devotion to his profession: the only children of his who inherited from him were daughters who had married men who were butchers. The Gumberts belonged to the Smithfield United Church of Christ and are buried in Allegheny Cemetery. Founded in 1844 during the “garden cemetery” movement and at that time largely a Protestant burial place, Allegheny Cemetery provided then—and still does—the opportunity to stroll the pathways of a rustic landscape in the middle of the city.


When John Rhinehart Tomer (1760-1854) sold “our” lot to his son-in-law, George Gumbert, Sr., in 1838, Tomer, in his seventies, was a figure who commanded a great deal of respect in the community. He had served in the American Revolutionary War, then headed west from central Pennsylvania in the 1790s. He began buying land while practicing his trade as a butcher and cattle farmer and dealer. He traded another piece of land for a farm at Fifth Avenue and Neville Street, where he built a stone house in 1800. He was a Federalist and a staunch Presbyterian who became a very wealthy man.  He, too, was buried in Allegheny Cemetery, but his remains were later transferred to Homewood Cemetery. He and Mary Margaret Tomer, his wife, had seventeen children. When he died at the age of ninety-four, his son-in-law, George Gumbert, was one of his executors.

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Another George owned the property before Tomer: George Miltenberger (1753-1856), who bought it in 1825 from Joseph Allan. Miltenberger, who described himself in a newspaper advertisement as a “copper smith and tin plate worker,” lived and worked in downtown Pittsburgh. When he gave up his market stall in 1811 to work out of his home, his graciously worded ad said, “He returns his thanks to those who have patronized him heretofore, and hopes by his punctuality and attention to business he will merit a continuance of their favours.” He was later in a partnership with Reuben Neal to manufacture copper, tin, and brass household good as well as combs.  When Miltenberger moved to Philadelphia for a while, Neal staffed Miltenberger’s old market stand next door to the Post Office, which would certainly have been an advantageous spot for foot traffic.  The partnership, under Neal’s initiative, advertised to hire eight or ten journeyman smiths. In 1820, back from Philadelphia, Miltenberger advertised that all of his goods would be “sold on as good as terms as they could be obtained in Philadelphia or Baltimore, for cash or negotiable paper.” An interesting note about Miltenberger is that he was later associated with the Pennsylvania Rolling Mill and handled business there for the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Turnpike Road, of which he was a principal. I did not find any information about his family, and when he held a public auction of his home furnishings in 1839, the reason given was that he “is declining housekeeping.” Like Gumbert and Tomer, he is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.

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As we go further back in time, it becomes more difficult to find the documents from which we could construct a narrative of the lives of those who formed the links in the chain of land ownership.  If their names are fairly common, that makes it even harder.  Joseph Allan (1779-1865), who owned the property from 1819-1825, is a good example.  I found an imposing obelisk in his memory at Chartiers Cemetery, and from the inscription on it I learned that he was born in England, lived for many years in Allegheny County, and died in his 86th year, but I didn’t try to develop his story beyond those few facts.


From 1815-1819, the land was owned by a person whose surname I couldn’t decipher for certain in the deed; John Wearkins was my best guess, but a quick Google search brought up no information, so I’ve left that research for another time. As anyone who has done genealogical research will tell you, it takes all the time you are willing to give it and then wants more! For this land history, I haven’t ventured down every single rabbit hole, so there will always be more information for someone else to discover.   

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The next few owners going backwards in time are equally tricky. The names are clearly legible in the deeds, but there is little information easily available to flesh out their stories. From 1808 to 1815, Jacob Christopher Hofer owned what is now the Rodef Shalom lot as a part of a larger property, described in the deed as being 17 acres and 33 perches in Pitt Township (from which Peebles Township was later carved), on “the great road,” as Fifth Avenue was then called, well before its turnpike days. But is this the same Jacob C. Hofer, probably a German-speaking immigrant who, in the summer of 1810, advertised that for two days only he would be exhibiting, at the Sign of the Indian Queen, the royal tiger of Asia, the only one on the American continent and much larger and more beautiful than the lion? Admittance would be 25 cents—half price for children (and yes, there was a half-cent US coin, minted in five different designs from 1793 through 1857). Jacob C. Hofer was not the owner of the Sign of the Indian Queen, one of many taverns with that name. The one in Pittsburgh was on Front Street near Market and was at that time operated by William Eichbaum, another German-speaking immigrant who may have shared the space with other merchants or, in this case, exhibitors of exotic animals.  And were the Henry and Margaret Hofer who owned the land from 1806 to 1808 Jacob Christopher’s parents?


Then there was Thomas Harlan Baird, who held the land for just two days before signing the deed over to the Hofers. Baird (1787-1866) was born in Washington, PA, moved to Pittsburgh, and became a lawyer, politician, and judge. He served four terms in the Pennsylvania Senate, representing Allegheny, Beaver, and Butler counties. I couldn’t find out why he was involved in the transfer, but possibly he was acting as the legal representative for the Hofers. His very brief ownership of the parcel means very little in the story, but it means something to me, because, by one of those small-world-Pittsburgh coincidences, Thomas Harlan Baird was my fourth great-grandfather.

From 1815-1819, the land was owned by a person whose surname I couldn’t decipher for certain in the deed; John Wearkins was my best guess, but a quick Google search brought up no information, so I’ve left that research for another time. As anyone who has done genealogical research will tell you, it takes all the time you are willing to give it and then wants more! For this land history, I haven’t ventured down every single rabbit hole, so there will always be more information for someone else to discover.   

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It was William Amberson who sold the land to Baird, and the deed uses slightly different language to describe Amberson’s ownership, stating that the parcel was part of the tract that Amberson had acquired by Pennsylvania Letter Patent. A Letter Patent is a statement issued by an official government showing to whom the land was first granted and guaranteeing the rights of inheritable possession to all subsequent owners.   William Amberson (1755-1838) was well known in Western Pennsylvania and, again, has a street named after him in Shadyside. He was born aboard a ship coming from Ireland to the US. He was a trader with Native Americans in Western Pennsylvania, was an officer in the Revolution, served as the first treasurer of Allegheny County and a judge in Mercer County, and was, most significantly to our story, a part-owner of the short-lived iron blast furnace that began to change Shadyside from farmland to an urbanizing neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Amberson bought this tract from Catharine Thompson, the widow of a Revolutionary War Brigadier General. She and her children acquired this and several other parcels by warrant from the State of Pennsylvania in 1787. The early PA land warrants authorize a tract of land to be surveyed and convey title but not full ownership rights. Those are given to the holder of the Letter Patent after the warrantee has completed the survey and transferred title. The map shows the 244 ½ acres of this tract after the survey was completed in 1789, with the 1787 date of the Warrant to Catharine Thompson and the 1806 Letter Patent to William Amberson.  After that, as we have seen, the land passed through many hands and many subdivisions to become the orderly and affluent residential neighborhood it is today.

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Before the establishment of the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War, ownership of the lands of western PA traced back to the grant made to William Penn by England’s King Charles II in 1681. Originally, the space Rodef Shalom now occupies was a tiny part of the ancestral lands of the Adena culture, the Hopewell culture, and the Monongahela peoples, who were later joined by refugees of other tribes, including the Delaware, Shawnee, and Haudenosaunee, who had been driven from their homelands by the European colonizers. These indigenous inhabitants had a concept of living on the land that was vastly different from the exclusive ownership tradition the Europeans brought with them.

In the larger historical context of the progression from the indigenous peoples to the westward pressure of European settlement to industrialization and on to whatever comes next, the land on which the sanctuary of Rodef Shalom stands has been through a succession of owners. In their own life stories, these people embody a significant part of the history of Pittsburgh. They were white, mostly of Northern European ancestry, English- or German-speakers. They were people who actively sought to live out the classic “American dream” narrative and were largely successful at it. As Pittsburgh became an industrial center, and as the owners and managers of businesses and industrial plants looked for a congenial place to live away from the smoke and noise pollution, the neighborhood of Shadyside evolved from pleasant farmland to a developing suburb that was then integrated into the city itself. It is still almost entirely residential in character, with a small business district and only a few religious buildings, of which Rodef Shalom is one of the largest and most impressive. When the Trustees of Rodef Shalom bought an empty lot on Fifth Avenue in 1905 and built their sanctuary on it, they wanted to make a statement about where the members of Rodef Shalom belonged in their growing city and how they wished to be seen.  For 118 years, the members of Rodef Shalom have made this lot the center of their religious and community life.

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For a quirky and somewhat outdated take on the neighborhood of Shadyside, read “the Song of Shadyside: A Walk on the Shady Side,” by Barry Paris, in the Fall, 2009, issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly (

And for possibly more than you ever wanted to know about the concept and history of land ownership, I recommend Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (Harper Collins, 2021)

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