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Water Under the Bridge: Historic Lesnett family documents reveal life in 19th century

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Woody Lesnett was one of the most interesting members of the audience for our recent “Bridgeville Remembered” series, partly because the history of the Bridgeville area and that of the Lesnett family are nearly synonymous.

After the final presentation of the series, he loaned me a collection of family documents, knowing they would be of interest to me.

When I got them home, I looked over the set briefly and confirmed their significance. Since then, I have examined them in more detail, from the perspective of an amateur historian. Included are five old deeds, four surveys or maps, and a contract for coal- mining rights. Each document is an original and is in an extremely fragile state.

The oldest document is a survey of a Willson Lesnett property by Alexander Gillfillan in June, 1845. Having been both a surveyor and a cartographer in my youth I am quite interested in the this survey. It is exquisitely drawn, with elegant calligraphy. The block of land is roughly square, with eight sides, and a stump, stone, or post at each corner. The bearings for each side are recorded in degrees and half degrees; the lengths in perches. Surveyors in the 19th century used the perch (16.5 feet) as a basic unit for linear dimensions. The comparable unit for area was the square perch (about 272 square feet).

We suspect that this specific block of land was at the highest point of Lesnett Road today. The land north of this property was identified as belonging to James Kerr; the land to the southeast, to “Heirs of Patterson;” and that to the southwest, to Samuel Collins.

One of the deeds describes the purchase, at auction, of land belonging to the estate of Cornelius Conner, deceased, by James Conner, on Feb. 27, 1864, for $1,007.25. This deed is written longhand immaculately on legal paper and bears the embossed seal of the Allegheny County Recorder's Office.

A companion document records the subsequent sale, on April 18, 1888, of the same property, by John and Mary Conner, to John W. Lesnett, William W. Lesnett, and Thomas D. Lesnett, for $4,000. The land is described as 39 acres, 132 perches, more or less. Unlike the homemade 1864 deed, this one was prepared on a preprinted document, marketed by J. R. Weldin & Co. Attorney George P. Murray prepared the document; it was witnessed by John B Connor, Justice of the Peace. We suspect this block of land is the one still containing W. W. Lesnett's “round barn.”

There is also a survey of a property on the east side of the Pittsburgh and Washington Turnpike, prepared for Willson Lesnett on July 25, 1874, by surveyor J. S. McKnight and Son. We suspect this is the property shown on the 1878 map on page 19 in our book, “Bridgeville,” the corner lot just north of Bank Street Extension.

It, too, is a neat document, though it lacks some of the flourishes of Mr. Gillfillan's plot. It clearly shows the turnpike, a street to the south, the Chartiers Valley Railroad to the east, and the proposed route of “the McDonald Branch of the Chartiers Railroad to the north.

Two of the deeds appear to deal with a different Willson Lesnett property, on the turnpike, the lot on the northeast corner of the intersection of Washington Avenue and Bower Hill Road. The first deed, dated Oct. 14, 1849, conveys two lots from Nicholas B. Hickman and his wife Nancy, to Alexander Akin and his wife Eleanor, for $1. This apparently was a family transaction; Eleanor Akin was originally Eleanor Hickman.

A second deed, dated Oct. 15, 1849, records the sale of the property north of the first lot, by Nicholas Hickman and Alexander Akin to Willson Lesnett for a consideration of $512.50. We assume this is the lot shown in John Poellott's 1859 map on page 16 of “Bridgeville.” The deed was witnessed by John Boyce and Samuel McKown.

The contract, dated May 16, 1888, is an agreement between John Lesnett and A. Cummins, of Wilkinsburg, transferring rights to mine coal in the “Pittsburgh Bed of Coal” under Mr. Lesnett's property (52 acres) in return for $100 per acre mined. No mention is made of other mineral rights.

We are grateful to Mr. Lesnett for sharing this information with us and to his Lesnett ancestors for their preservation of these very special documents. We hope this column will inspire some of our readers to take another look into their family treasures — old deeds and surveys are valuable sources of historical data.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343- 1652 or

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