Pittsburghers have always been known for their cross-town rivalries, and a spirited competition dating as far back as the late 1800s led to the birth of Riverview Park. Owned by Samuel Watson in the 1700s, the land known as Watson Farm was once used for dairy farming and grazing. Early photographs show an open, pastoral landscape with upland meadows and grassy hillsides - a dramatically different look from its wooded character today.
Mary Schenley's donation of Schenley Park to the City of Pittsburgh in 1889 triggered the now-famous cross-town competition. Residents of the former City of Allegheny decided they also wanted a park to call their own and solicited the help of City of Allegheny Mayor William M. Kennedy. Under his guidance, the residents pooled their money and bought 200 acres of the Watson property in 1894. (Ironically, Mary Schenley’s obituary in the New York Times notes that she also donated large sums of money toward purchasing Riverview Park for the City of Allegheny.) Only two days after the acquisition, the land was dedicated as Riverview Park in the presence of about 25,000 people. The residents donated the park to the City of Allegheny, which became part of Pittsburgh in 1907.
Riverview Park developed more slowly than some of the other regional parks. In its early years, the park offered visitors an aviary and a small zoo with a flying cage, a bear pit, and elk paddock. A pond occupied the site where the swimming pool now sits. In 1913, many structures were built including several picnic shelters and a carousel mimicking the one in Schenley Park. Tennis courts and baseball fields entered the park around 1915, as did the beginnings of the equestrian trail system. By the early 1920s, one of the 1913 picnic shelters had been converted into the impressive Wissahickon Nature Museum, which predated similar structures in Schenley and Frick Parks.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Works Progress Administration workers built several rugged buildings and stone walls that still define the park's architectural character, including the park office, the Valley Refuge Shelter, and the elegant stone bus shelters and their adjoining steps. The park office now serves as the Riverview Park Visitor’s Center.