The three rivers that meet at Pittsburgh produce a beautiful scene. What it also creates is a rugged terrain full of big hills, deep valleys and smaller creeks traversing through the area. With such a distinct topography we need an endless number of bridges just to keep the people connected to the heart of the city. While the city of Pittsburgh owns nearly 450 bridges, one estimate for the Greater Pittsburgh area tallies up to more than 2,000. Repairs are constantly being made to keep these structures safe for pedestrians and vehicles. It’s a tremendous financial and labor-intensive responsibility and even then water damage, fire and even collapses can still occur. Residents would find Pittsburgh isolating and lonely if not for the bridges which connect us all.
When the first Europeans arrived here, they were forced to wade streams and climb steep hillsides if they wanted to travel anywhere. In fact, Colonel George Washington commented on the lack of progress British General Braddock’s troops made in 1755 on their march to ‘The Point,’ the site where the rivers merged, saying, “Instead of pushing on with vigor…they were halting to level every mole-hill and to erect bridges over every brook, by which means we were four days in getting twelve miles.”
Traversing streams and rivers and hiking hills quickly became an annoyance to the early settlers. Soon wooden bridges were built to connect the newly constructed roadways and span the waters and valleys. As building materials were developed, bridge construction changed. Iron bridges replaced wooden ones and those gave way to steel structures. Technology also changed bridge design and construction. Simple covered wooden bridges were replaced by suspension, truss, and cable-stayed spans. Pittsburgh boasts every type of bridge except a drawbridge.
Pittsburgh’s need for bridges gave birth to three bridge pioneers. John Roebling, a native of nearby Saxonburg, is the father of the modern suspension bridge. He designed the first Smithfield Street Bridge. The present-day Smithfield Street Bridge, a lenticular truss type, was designed by Gustav Lindenthal. He was a widely respected engineer who moved to Pittsburgh in 1877 to open his own engineering company. George Ferris, the designer who developed and named the Ferris Wheel, also lived in Pittsburgh and began his illustrious career designing bridges.
Many of the bridges have a personality all their own. Those with sleek arches seem to gracefully curve to connect one bank to another, while others appear more boxy and squatty and inspire feelings of strength and purpose.
The Smithfield Street Bridge, which spans the Monongahela River connecting downtown Pittsburgh to Station Square, is the oldest steel bridge in the United States. It was designed by Lindenthal and completed in 1883. It is the third bridge at the site. The first, known as the Monongahela Bridge, was designed by Lewis Wernwag and was a covered wooden bridge. It was destroyed by fire in 1845. The second, as mentioned, was designed by Roebling, who also built the Brooklyn Bridge, and was replaced by the current bridge. The Smithfield Street Bridge is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. In 1983, the city feted the bridge’s 100th birthday, fitting it with architectural lighting.
The 40th Street Bridge, or Washington Crossing Bridge, spans the Allegheny River and connects Lawrence to Millvale. It is located where the young George Washington and his guide, Christopher Gist, crossed the river in 1753 while acting as a messenger of the governor of Virginia to the French forces. The bridge is unusual in that it is decorated with the seals of the 13 original colonies.
A trio of identical bridges crosses the Allegheny River, linking downtown Pittsburgh to the city’s North Side. The 6th, 7th, and 9th Street Bridges have a unique design. They are self-anchored suspension bridges with a large steel eyebar suspension system. In 1998, the 6th Street Bridge was renamed the Roberto Clemente Bridge to honor the late Pittsburgh Pirate. During Pirate games, this bridge is closed to vehicular traffic, turning it into a large foot bridge with a carnival atmosphere for the fans heading to PNC Park for a Pirate game. In 2005, the 7th Street Bridge was renamed in honor of artist and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol. Also during that same year, the 9th Street Bridge was renamed in honor of environmentalist Rachel Carson.
It’s not unusual to see lions guarding the entrance to a bridge, but what about panthers? The Panther Hollow Bridge, built in 1897, extends Schenley Drive over Panther Hollow in the city’s Oakland neighborhood. Sculptures of panthers grace each corner of the entrance to the bridge.
Near Pittsburgh is the Rochester-Monaca Bridge…or is it the Monaca-Rochester Bridge? Well, the name depends on the outcome of the annual football game between the two rival high schools of Rochester and Monaca. Besides bragging rights, the winner gets to put their school’s name first.
Perhaps the most notorious of Pittsburgh bridges is not a bridge at all. What became known as ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’ was an unfinished portion of what would eventually become the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Construction began on the new bridge in 1959. Due to delays the new bridge ended in mid-air. In 1964 a 21-year-old chemistry major from the University of Pittsburgh drove his car off the bridge. Luckily he and landed safely on the other side. In 1969 it was eventually completed.