“It requires a woman every time to come forward with a public improvement in Pittsburgh,” public works chief Edward Manning Bigelow told the Pittsburgh Daily Post in 1899.
He was referring to Mary Schenley’s gift of $1 million worth of land for the city to build a public park. “No wonder the chief was inclined to mix a little wormwood with his enthusiasm, for, while the donation comes from a woman, half a hundred men used all the influence in their power to prevent her giving it,” the paper wrote. Bigelow, the “father of Pittsburgh parks,” is credited with persuading Schenley to donate her inherited land — an inheritance she almost lost because of an international scandal in 1842.
Mary Elizabeth Croghan, a 15-year-old student at a New York boarding school, fell in love with Capt. Edward W. Harrington Schenley, a 43-year-old British army officer and twice a widower. The only heir to Pittsburgh’s largest estate eloped and ran to England with her new husband.
Writing in 1951, the Pittsburgh Press said the marriage “touched the life of every Pittsburgher. Pained the circumspect Queen Victoria. Sent millions of dollars of Pittsburgh rents to England. Gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a bigger playing field. Provided young lovers a quiet place (Schenley Park) in which to spoon. Threw the Pennsylvania Legislature into an uproar…”
Mary’s father, William Croghan Jr., fainted when he first heard of the marriage. When he came to, he said he’s shoot his new son-in-law on sight. He sent an armed ship after the new couple. After that failed, he pushed a bill through the state legislature that blocked the captain from touching Mary’s inheritance.
Croghan eventually forgave his daughter and upon his death in 1850, Mary received her vast inheritance. She owned much of Oakland and the North Side as well as large sections of Downtown, property that became increasingly valuable in the booming Steel City.
Her vast estate was fully sold off by 1951, with her last heirs in England receiving a final sum of $538,089, a fraction of the millions made off the land investments of Mary Schenley and her ancestors.