How a Pittsburgh-Area Forest, Once Used by a Bootlegger, is Now a Protected Green Space

The Hollow Oak Land Trust, a conservation nonprofit, purchased Vinegar Hollow in December 2022, furthering its mission to “protect and connect” green spaces in Allegheny and Beaver counties.
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A forest of hemlocks, hollies and ferns, home to foxes and coyotes, and once the hideout of a notorious bootlegger, is just 15 minutes from Downtown.  

Pittsburgh-area residents now have protected access to this 46-acre space called Vinegar Hollow after it was purchased by the Hollow Oak Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization. The deal gives the land new protection and allows for publicly funded trail building to improve accessibility.

“When Hollow Oak acquires land, we protect it in perpetuity,” says Sean Brady, executive director of the trust. “That’s what we do. And because the community was so passionate about the usage of the trails, walking your dog, you know, just spending time in nature, it was a very natural fit for Hollow Oak.”

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The woods mostly located in Kilbuck, take their name from John “Vinegar Jake” Signor — a Civil War veteran who allegedly brewed hard cider, or “vinegar,” on the land in the early 20th century. Prior to his time, the land had been occupied by the Lenape people, a Native American tribe.  

More recently, residents of Kilbuck, Ben Avon and Emsworth had unofficially been using the 2 miles of trails in the hollow. When the previous land owner, Louis Gilberti, was looking to sell, many feared that the new owners would bar them from the property. However, the Hollow Oak Land Trust, purchased the land in December, giving it protected status.

The 2 miles of trail include a 1.3-mile loop, which is accessible via a trailhead on Center Avenue in Ben Avon. The rugged terrain shoots visitors up a hill and down along a stream bank. With the purchase, the nonprofit plans to fortify the existing trails and build new ones to give hikers and cyclists more access to what the land offers, Brady says. 

In addition to adding in new switchbacks, Brady says they will install trail markers and educational signage. However, to keep it a “rustic place to experience nature,” Brady says there will be no added bathrooms or trash cans. 

For bird watchers, Vinegar Hollow hosts a healthy population of owls, while cardinals, chickadees, titmice and hawks make the seasonal rounds. When the migratory species return in the summer, Brady says visitors can expect to see a “wonderful array” of bird life.  

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Vinegar Hollow is the latest addition to Hollow Oak’s expanding collection of protected lands, an anchor in their initiative to “protect and connect greenspaces.” Brady says. Hollow Oak aims to create an interconnected corridor for wildlife and an urban oasis for the residents of Greater Pittsburgh. 

Joe Angelelli, a Ben Avon resident and former board member of the Avonworth Historical Society, says he goes there so frequently that his dog Bruno has come to be known as the “unofficial mayor.” Angelelli was one of the founders in the community initiative to purchase the land.  

Before Hollow Oak got involved, residents of surrounding communities “really came together” at several round tables to discuss how to best go about purchasing the land. Angelelli says when the land was officially put on the market, Brady stepped in with Hollow Oak to raise the funds in earnest. The trust purchased the land with a grant of $329,000 from the Allegheny County Trail Development Fund and $200,000 from the Colcom Foundation

“It’s created a sense that we can do more of this where we can kind of find other parcels [of land] and work together to think about how to preserve them,” Angelelli says.  

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Brady encourages anyone interested in helping build trails to come to “Trail Luv Mondays,” a weekly event held each Monday evening from April to October where volunteers are put to work and rewarded with free beer afterward. 

“I am hoping that green spaces in Greater Pittsburgh will no longer be islands,” Brady says.  

“That if you want to go for a hike or bike ride, you don’t have to drive to do it. And that’s whether you live in Pittsburgh, or Ben Avon, or Moon Township, or Coraopolis or McKees Rocks. My hope is that 50 years from now, you will be able to ride a bicycle or walk from your house on a trail to the nearest park or conservation area.”

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