The Story of a Croatian Community
Between 1890 and 1910, the highway corridor where you are now standing developed into a Croatian community known as "Mala Jaska" (or Little Jastrebarsko), after the town from which many of the immigrants came. The area was initially settled by German and Swiss immigrants who established tanning, lumber, brewing, and metals production concerns. Industrial and residential growth flourished between 1840 and 1880, aided by several transportation improvements: the Pennsylvania Canal (1829); Pittsburgh and Butler Plank Road (1849; later part of E. Ohio Street and State Route 28), the Western Pennsylvania Railroad (built on top of the canal after it closed in 1864); and the Pittsburgh and Western Railroad (1873).
Croatians began settling in the North Side in 1882 in response to governmental changes that deprived them of political power, agricultural markets and land ownership. In Croatia, most of the immigrants had worked as agricultural laborers in a region knonwns for its grape production. In America, the immigrants worked long hours at industrial jobs. By 1900, food production, animal by-products, railroad, and steel industries became the dominant employers in the area, resulting in a demand for unskilled laborers that attracted a large number of immigrants. An 1873 federal law required animals to be removed from box cars, fed, and rested after 28 hours of confinement, and Herr's Island was a convenient feed and rest-stop between Chicago and eastern markets. The Pennsylvania Railroad operated stock yards at Herr's Island between 1903 and 1965, providing a range of livestock-related jobs to the neighborhood.
Unlike the earlier German settlers, the immigrants typically lived in rented quarters, either in subdivided homes or in boarding houses in which a dozen or more single men would live. The nearby Sarah Heinz House aided the Croatian community in its transaction to American life by providing boys and girls with educational and recreational facilities.
Mala Jaska's Croatian population was distinguished by its political activism, and such sentiments were expressed through a number of organizations and newspapers. The Croatian newspaper, Danica,
and the Croatian Fraternal Union of America were begun in 1894 by Zdravko Mužina, Josip Marohnić operated America's first Croatian bookstore at 1420 E. Ohio Street and published the first Croatian-English dictionary for fellow immigrants.
Withing a generation, many residents of Mala Jaska owned their own homes. Bound together by a common faith and language, a tight knit and independent community developed along this narrow stretch of E. Ohio Street. The area's topography gave it a unique character: houses on the northwest side of the street were banked into the hillside, allowing the use of masonry vaults for cold storage; on the southeast side of the street, houses only two-rooms deep were squeezed between the street and railroad, allowing trains to pass within a few feet of the rear windows. The steep hillsides were terraced for growing fruits and vegetables, which were shared among neighbors. Residents took great pride in their community and beautified their yards with terraced flower gardens.
The neighborhood's greatest asset, its proximity to numerous modes of transportation, ultimately became the source of its demise. In 1921, E. Ohio Street was expanded from two to four lanes, resulting in the removal of all buildings on the southeast side of the street and the demolition or alteration of numerous building on the northwest side of the street. Further decline occurred in 2014 with the completion of the State Route 28 safety and improvement project, which razed the neighborhood's remaining buildings on the northwest side of the street.