Trietley: Oakland once the hockey center of Pittsburgh

By Greg Trietley

Most locals know that the Pittsburgh Pirates once played on what is now part of Pitt’s Oakland… Most locals know that the Pittsburgh Pirates once played on what is now part of Pitt’s Oakland campus. Every fall, on the anniversary of Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning home run, fans return to the outfield wall of Forbes Field to listen to the game’s radio broadcast and celebrate the Pirates’ past.

But there was another Pittsburgh Pirates team that played in Oakland back in the day: the National Hockey League’s Pirates, which existed from 1925 to 1930.

In fact, until the construction of Mellon Arena, Oakland was the best place in town to catch a hockey game. It’s a zany history filled with trolleys, an ammonia leak and a bicycle club.

The story starts in 1893. Presumably rolling in a sludge-caked bundle of smelted cash, the city built the Chuck E. Cheese’s of its day, a multipurpose facility that featured both a theater and an ice rink.

The Schenley Park Casino — which sounds like a recruiting violation — stood at the current home of the Frick Fine Arts Building. Home to political rallies, winter carnivals and a day care center, the extravagant building had oil paintings hanging in the ice rink’s dressing rooms.

The place was a palace. It had luxury boxes and, as the Newburgh Daily Journal put it in 1896, “a modern and finely appointed roof garden … at cost of $45,000.” The New York Times, not one to editorialize, wrote that, “the Casino was conceded to be the finest of its kind in the world.” It had everything but an actual casino.

As Oakland reveled in its extravagant rooftop garden and lacy dressing rooms, the Keystone Bicycle Club, made up of students from Carnegie Tech and the North Side’s Western University of Pennsylvania, decided it didn’t like bicycles anymore. So the club gave up bicycling, renamed itself the Pittsburgh Keystones and played hockey at the Casino on Saturday afternoons.

By 1896, the four-team Western Pennsylvania Hockey League was operational, featuring teams from Duquesne, WUP and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, as well as the home “Casino” team, according to a 1901 article in the Pittsburgh Press.

WUP wouldn’t change its name to “Pitt” for another 12 years.

Flash forward to an empty Casino in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 17, 1896. According to a New York Times article so old that it spells the city “Pittsburg,” an ammonia cylinder in the ice machine under the rink exploded. The resulting fire devoured the Casino, burned the bridge to Schenley Park and melted the windows of Phipps Conservatory.

No one died in the inferno, but without a rink, the WPHL dissolved. Casino manager Harry Davis told the New York Times that “the Casino will be rebuilt at once,” but he was then unaware that his $540,000 building was only insured for an eighth of that amount. It was never reconstructed.

Enter politician Christopher Magee. Perhaps realizing that trolleys were on the way out, he purchased a trolley barn at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Craig Street in 1895, turned it into a 5,000-seat arena and named it Duquesne Gardens.

“It’s going to be a bad 100 years for trolleys,” Magee probably said at some point. “But it’s a great day for hockey.”

The building hosted its first hockey game in 1899. By 1901, the WPHL was back, a half-mile north of its old Casino home. Although the Keystones folded in 1904 (perhaps to take up biking again), the WPHL soon boomed to include local teams like the Bankers — which was comprised entirely of bankers.

By 1925, Oakland had an NHL franchise in the Pirates, which had formed from the remnants of the United States Amateur Hockey Association’s Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets. The Pirates made the playoffs in their first season, but the stock market crash of 1929 hit them hard.

Since Duquesne Gardens was much smaller than other NHL rinks, the team moved to Philadelphia after the 1930 season with an intent to move back to Pittsburgh once a new arena was built. That, though, wouldn’t happen for 30 years, and the franchise officially folded in 1936 after one season as the Philadelphia Quakers and a five-year hiatus.

Franchises and, eventually, leagues came and went as years passed at the Gardens. The Pittsburgh Shamrocks formed in 1935, joined the International Hockey League, played one season, finished fourth, lost $36,000 and folded. More successfully, the Detroit Olympics moved to Pittsburgh in 1936, became the Hornets, moved to the American Hockey League — which still exists — and played at the Gardens for 20 years until the day it closed.

That day came in May of 1956, when the dilapidated facility was unceremoniously razed to build an apartment complex that still stands. The neighborhood of Oakland has lacked an indoor rink since and has yet to regain its once-undisputed status as the hub of Pittsburgh hockey.