When a city is located on a river, you expect to find several bridges spanning the waterway. When that city is Pittsburgh, however, you find more than several bridges, but a seemingly innumerable amount of them. Pittsburgh is bursting with bridges. The area’s topography is exceptional. The city is nestled in the steep hills of western Pennsylvania and situated at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which form the Ohio River. One estimate puts the area’s bridge tally at nearly 2,000. Pittsburgh boasts more bridges than Venice, Italy!
The area’s rugged terrain, with its deep valleys, creeks, and rivers, would make the region isolating for the residents if it weren’t for bridges. When the first Europeans arrived here, they were forced to ford 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 Bridge Pioneers
Since necessity is the mother of invention, 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, a widely respected engineer who moved to Pittsburgh in 1877 to open his own engineering company. George Ferris, the designer who developed and gave the Ferris Wheel its name, 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.
Smithfield Street Bridge
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, connecting 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.
6th, 7th, and 9th Street A Trio of Identical Bridges
A trio of identical bridges, the only such group in the world, 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.
Rochester-Monaca Bridge or Monaca-Rochester 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.
The Bridge to Nowhere
Perhaps the most notorious of Pittsburgh bridges was not a bridge at all. What became known as ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’ was actually an unfinished portion of what would eventually become the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Construction began on the new bridge in 1959, but due to delays in acquiring right of ways for the ramps to the bridge, the new bridge ended in mid-air. Eventually it was completed, in 1969, but not before a 21-year-old chemistry major from the University of Pittsburgh drove his car off the bridge in 1964 and landed safely on the other side.
So whether you want to traverse a hollow, span a river or just drive off a bridge that doesn’t go anywhere, with the abundance of bridges in Pittsburgh, there’s sure to be a bridge for doing just that.