Mary Croghan Schenley: Love and Real Estate Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mary Croghan Schenley: Love and Real Estate

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The 1895 dedication of the giant Carnegie library, museum and music hall complex in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was a gala and eclectic affair. Gala, because everybody dressed up for it, and the Mozart Club1 sang festive songs, and they tried out the new organ. Eclectic, because people from every walk of Pittsburgh life were represented: artisans and working people alongside the mayor, a Congressman, and the Chancellor of the nearby university. But one important person was not there, although little Andrew Carnegie mentioned her in his dedicatory speech:

[This location] has also this unique merit for all Pittsburghers, that it plants us upon Schenley ground, which could never have been obtained but for the generosity of Mrs Schenley [applause] and her desire to co-operate in this work.

Indeed, Pittsburghers owed a lot to Mrs Schenley. Thanks to her, the library and museum complex was set in a beautiful urban park. A lot of things in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh bear the Schenley name: The Schenley Hotel, Schenley Hall, and Schenley Park, to name a few.

Now, how did so much real estate come to be named for a foreigner who so scandalised Queen Victoria that she wouldn't receive him at court?

Thereby hangs a very romantic tale, indeed. But first, you need to know about Colonel O'Hara.

O'Hara Comes to Fort Pitt

James O'Hara (c1752-1819) was born in County Mayo, Ireland. Since it wasn't easy to get a good Catholic education in 18th-Century Ireland, he studied at the Jesuit College of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. This is important, because it's where O'Hara got the training necessary to be a successful businessman in Pittsburgh. If that surprises you, you aren't thinking about who lived in western Pennsylvania in the 18th Century, namely, French and French-speaking Indians.

After a stint in the Coldstream Guards O'Hara resigned his commission, worked in Liverpool as a sort of paid business internship, then took a ship to Philadelphia in 1772. The next year found O'Hara busy learning to trade with Indians and Frenchmen on the frontier – that is, in the settlement on the forks of the Ohio River, where the Monongahela and Allegheny meet. O'Hara throve there. He was fluent in French, he learned Indian dialects quickly, and he was a good trader.

O'Hara was such a good businessman that he ended up doing it as a service to his new country. During the Revolution, he served as an officer at Fort Pitt, conveniently located downtown at The Point. In 1792, O'Hara was appointed the sixth Quartermaster General of the US Army by President George Washington. He was a flourishing businessman with his own glassworks, salt business and brewery.

Colonel O'Hara was an accomplished man, but the most important things he did, as far as posterity is concerned, were to marry and sire six children, and to accumulate a large amount of land between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. He even kept the deed to his old log cabin, the one that he'd bought from a man named Neill, out in the wilds near Panther Hollow.

He really didn't know there would be a golf course there one day. Nor did he have a clue what his granddaughter would get up to. It's hard to tell if he would have laughed – or been as shocked as Queen Victoria, though we doubt it.

Mary Croghan Elopes, Though Not to Gretna Green

Colonel O'Hara was Mary Croghan2's grandfather on her mother's side. That might be where she got her adventurous nature from. It certainly wasn't from her businessman father, who literally collapsed when in 1842 she eloped at 15 with a 43-year-old British army captain, one Edward W Schenley. When the poor man had recovered somewhat – Mr Croghan had, in fact, suffered a mild stroke – he demanded that the government DO something.

Any government: first, he appealed to Washington. It being 1842, and Croghan being an influential man, Washington tried. The US government only failed to stop the ship containing a runaway schoolgirl and her much-older swain because the wily Schenley3 stopped off with his bride in Bermuda. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did its best to help, too: a bill passed in the legislature barred Schenley from getting any of his wife's estate, and placed her affairs in the hands of her father. So he'd better have married for love. Mary Croghan did: according to all who knew her, Mary stayed in love with Schenley for the rest of her life.

The Schenley elopement was a major international scandal. After all, Captain Schenley was not only a British officer, he was absent without leave, the scoundrel. While he was cradle-robbing in America, he was supposed to be ending the slave trade in Dutch Guiana. Since this was a thankless task, we're sure he'd rather be running away with heiresses. However, his boss, Lord Palmerston, was not amused. When the couple arrived in England, Palmerston sent Schenley packing back to South America – where he eventually escaped with his life, as the slave traders down there were a rough lot.

Queen Victoria was not amused, either. All of this scandal so upset her that she refused to receive the couple at court. Even though the Schenleys became part of British society, had seven children, and were apparently very happy.

The biggest loser of all from the affair was a certain Mrs McLeod. Mrs McLeod was not only the proprietress of the Staten Island, New York, boarding school from which Mary eloped... she was Captain Schenley's sister-in-law. People were paying this lady good money to keep their teenage heiresses away from men like Schenley. And sending them on long journeys, too – the trip from Pittsburgh to Staten Island took a whole week by canal and coach back then. Needless to say, the concerned parents all brought their daughters back home, and Mrs McLeod's school was ruined.

Pittsburgh's Legacy

Of course Mary's father relented. As soon as he saw the grandchildren. This is an age-old story. Croghan set the family up with an allowance, a house in London, and one in Pittsburgh, near his own. Mary was delighted to be home again. Unfortunately, Schenley was not. Pittsburgh was far too much of a backwater for the international traveller, and he soon took his wife back to Europe and civilisation. Even if they couldn't be received at court, the couple could still bask in the sun at Cannes.

So, if the Schenleys left Pittsburgh, how did it come to be that half the Oakland area of that city is named for this British officer and, let's face it, cad?

Remember O'Hara's legacy? Mary Croghan Schenley inherited it. And she outlived the rest of them. She was also a friend of Andrew Carnegie's.

Mary Croghan Schenley gave the city 300 acres of O'Hara land for Schenley Park, and sold them another 120 acres for a pittance. Although some people felt that the resulting green space should, by rights, be called 'O'Hara Park', they were grateful to Mary for this beautiful gift. O'Hara's old cabin is still there, though it has on occasion been used as a utility shed for the golf course.

Mary donated five acres to the Pittsburgh Institute for the Blind to build a school. In 1895, she gave the city the oldest building in Pittsburgh: the old blockhouse – which is why re-enactors can hang out there today. She gave Andy Carnegie the land for his Carnegie Institute – now Carnegie Mellon University. And, when the old gent came calling on her at her French villa, she cheerfully gave over another 19 acres for his library and museum.

Walking around Pittsburgh, it is hard to imagine what the city would have been like without this woman's gifts. Because of her generosity with Colonel O'Hara's land, the city has green spaces, educational and cultural opportunities, and a bit of history all its own.

Not a bad combination of romance and real estate.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress

1Later the Mendelssohn Choir, an accomplished musical group.2Pronounced 'Crawn".3This was Schenley's third such outing. He was a serial eloper, and had experience.

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