While wandering around Rutland, Vermont’s third largest city coming in at around 16,000 residents, I found a bridge. Naturally, I walked across it. The bridge connects the worker housing on the flats to the cultural/civic center on the slope beyond which are the wealthier residences. In addition to overcoming the obstacle of the elevation change, the bridge spans the remnants of the formerly extensive rail yard much of which has been converted to a shopping center.
There was also a railroad bridge near the other end of the shopping center. By the time I found this bridge I was hungry, overcome by the humidity, and over a mile from where I was staying. A little farther on were some creeks that probably have bridges over them. I’ll have to look for those the next time I’m in town.
The New Bethlehem, PA, Memorial Bridge holds a special place in my heart. After going through the woods for hours on the way to grandmother’s house, New Bethlehem was a landmark that we were getting close. A few more wooded hills and a few more river crossings and we’d be there.
I wonder if in addition to the answer to “are we there yet?” changing from “no” to “almost,” I also enjoyed the intimacy of New Bethlehem after hours on the impersonal and distant freeway. In the previous five hours of diving, we crossed many bridges over many waterways including both the eastern and western branches of the Susquehanna River. But what little I remember of the bridges on Rt 80, they are distant from the water and between the speed and concrete barriers, there is not much to see. At New Bethlehem, the water is right there, almost within reach. Plus there’s a mini waterfall to enjoy.
In my new habit of taking “Sunday drives” (though usually on Saturday), I recently wended my way through the hills to drive across this bridge again for the first time since I was 12 (and first time across as the driver). Of course, I stopped the car to be able to get out and walk across. There is a nice riverfront park on the eastern side, which is either “new” or just not as noticeable when driving.
Kittanning is a small town of just under 4,000 residents on the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh. The name is from a Native American village destroyed in 1756 and is thought to mean “the place at the Great River.” It has a single bridge, the Kittanning Citizens Bridge, which was built in 1932 and renovated in 2010. According to historicbridges.org, “In a rare gesture of good faith to taxpayers and preservationists, PennDOT has made the logical decision to rehabilitate this bridge rather than demolish and replace it.” So while this bridge was an unplanned stop on my weekend wanderings and in my blog schedule, it fits nicely with the current theme of demolish & replace or renovate.
The northeastern shore (the Kittanning side) has a nice waterfront park with a boat launch, amphitheater, upper and lower walking paths, fishing and seating areas, and seasonal public restrooms. The southeastern shore (the West Kittanning side) has some houses set back across a road looking out toward the river.
Looking back at the original intent of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge and comparing it to its use today, I find myself asking a new question: what is the purpose of a bridge? The word bridge is often used metaphorically to describe something that brings two things together. At the same time, there is a running joke in Pittsburgh (the City of Bridges) that if it involves crossing a bridge, people would rather stay home. This conflict of ideas between a bridge as a connector and a bridge as a divider is illustrated by the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.
The Hill-to-Hill Bridge started out as a connector. A Y at the north end linked West Bethlehem and Bethlehem to the main span which connected to South Bethlehem. The ramps in-between connected the neighborhoods to the businesses on the flats by the water.* Over time, the priority on connection disappeared as the bridge was modified. Of the seven original approaches, three were demolished, one was permanently closed to through traffic, and one was changed to one-way traffic.
The explanations I came across for alterations to the bridge seem reasonable, but they do not tell the whole story.
Reason #1: Industry changed and shut down in Bethlehem as with other Rust Belt cities. Some of the business destinations connected to the bridge were among those that closed, removing the need for the connection.
Reason #2: Cars became bigger, faster, and more numerous, making it harder to navigate the tight turns on some of the approaches.
The story that is overlooked by these explanations is that in the 1960s a new highway was built from the north directly tying into the bridge. The introduction of high-speed traffic to the bridge, or to any roadway, certainly makes it less safe for local traffic.
As a result of the addition of the highway, instead of connecting the neighborhoods of West Bethlehem, Bethlehem, and South Bethlehem, the bridge funnels traffic directly toward the former steel mill, Lehigh University, and other points south. In fact, the residents of West Bethlehem are practically excluded from using the bridge to get anywhere, as the western ramp is closed to through traffic (though open to parking). To use the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to reach South Bethlehem, a resident of West Bethlehem would have to drive north several blocks to get on the highway going south. Alternately, a resident could go south by taking Spring Street, a road parallel to the western and eastern wings of the bridge, (by)passing under the main span, then skirting around the hill of historic downtown, and taking the Fahy Bridge instead.
People living and working in the historic downtown area (the Bethlehem neighborhood) are also now limited in their use of the bridge. If coming across the bridge from the south, they can take the eastern viaduct to enter the historic downtown, but to leave the area by way of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, they would have to drive north to the same highway access point as the residents of West Bethlehem. They could alternately take the Fahy Bridge for a more direct route south.
Use of the bridge is a little easier as a pedestrian, though it is still the most challenging for residents of West Bethlehem. For pedestrians to access the bridge from the west, they would have to use the sidewalks on Spring Street, walk under the main span, and climb a towering staircase up to the sidewalks on the bridge. If they are not able to use the stairs, they could keep going on Spring Street up the hill to the eastern end of the viaduct. Once on the bridge, both the historic downtown and south side are accessible. Given the history of the bridge, I imagine that there once was a time when there were crosswalks at the intersection of the main span and the east and west spurs so that pedestrians had full use of the structure just as drivers would have had.
The shift in the bridge’s focus from local to regional traffic seems like a classic case of the Urban Renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. The discussion among planners and officials in recent years is how do they undo or erase the mistakes of Urban Renewal. Pittsburgh is trying to reconnect the local by returning some one-way roads to two-way traffic and by building a cap over the highway that divided downtown and the Hill District. As I watch these developments in Pittsburgh, I wonder if there are ways to return the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to a focus on the local.
For example: The highway has to end at some point, which is currently at the southern end of the bridge. What if it were moved to the north end of the bridge? If a traffic light were introduced there, the western branch could be reopened to through traffic and the eastern branch could be restored to two-way traffic. Pedestrians would also be able to then use all the remaining approaches. Thus, West Bethlehem, Bethlehem, and South Bethlehem would be reconnected for the enjoyment of pedestrians and drivers.
This suggestion is based upon the assumption that the local community would want to be better connected by way of this bridge. Perhaps the question that should come before “what is the purpose of a bridge?” is “who gets to decide the purpose of a bridge?”
*By prioritizing connections, Clarence W Hudson, the bridge’s designer, was forced to develop a one-of-a-kind truss design to accommodate the railroad tracks beneath the bridge and the connections coming into the bridge. There is no record of this truss design being used on any other bridge.
I was in the midst of trying to understand what is a viaduct when I traveled to Bethlehem, PA, with my family. One of our activities was to explore the bridges (see also Cage-free Bridges). As we walked the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, my initial reaction was “now here is a viaduct.” I hadn’t reached the point of developing a semi-clear definition for viaduct but looking at the flat roadbed supported by multiple arches over the floodplain, viaduct seemed the most appropriate word for the structure.
As we kept walking, it turned out that the viaduct was only a portion of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge. In fact, it would be more appropriately called the Hill-to-Hill-to-Hill-to-Hill Bridge. There are two approaches to the main span on the south end and three on the north end, including the viaduct and one approach permanently closed to through traffic. When the bridge was built in 1924, there were a total of seven approaches at various points along the main span. With so many components, this structure brings me back to the question of how many is one bridge?
Unlike when I asked this question of the 30th and 31st Street bridges in Pittsburgh, here the main bridge, the intersecting viaduct, and the numerous connections seem to be considered one bridge. They are together called the Hill-to-Hill Bridge while the structure in Pittsburgh has three distinct names (including River Avenue Ramp). Perhaps the deciding factor in whether it is one or more bridges is the original intent. The Hill-to-Hill Bridge was designed as a multifaceted structure whereas the 30th and 31st Street bridges were developed independently.
The best indication of the original intent seems to be the name. The Hill-to-Hill Bridge has a single name whereas the 30th and 31st Street bridges have separate names. The other examples I looked at in 2012 were the Veterans Bridge (Pittsburgh), the Fort Duquesne Bridge (Pittsburgh), and what I called the Jubilee Bridge (London).
The Veterans Bridge joins three approaches into one bridge, all under a single name. Therefore, it is one bridge, not three.
The pedestrian walkway of the Fort Duquesne Bridge was built decades after the vehicular portion but does not have a separate name. Therefore, it is one bridge, not two.
What I called the Jubilee Bridge (despite the photo I took at the time of the dedication plaque stating otherwise) is actually called the Golden Jubilee Bridges. While these bridges share the support structure of the underground’s Hungerford Bridge due to concerns about unexploded WWII bombs in the area, they have separate names. Therefore, it is three bridges, not one nor two.
The summer I spent walking Pittsburgh bridges, I complained about the cages on the Millvale Avenue Bridge, the Highland Park Bridge, and the Graham Street pedestrian bridge. The narrow sidewalk and chain link fences on the first two examples and the chain link cage on the third example made me feel yucky and claustrophobic. Thanks to one of my blog followers, I recently learned that people tend to throw things onto moving objects, which is why bridges like the Millvale bridge have higher fencing along portions over roads and railroads. I still wished there was a cage-free option to meet the same goals of the bridge builders.
In Bethlehem, PA, I found just such an option on the Fahy Bridge. It is a fairly plain concrete bridge saved from the ugliness and gloom of many concrete bridges by using a functional, yet decorative, railing instead of the more common functional, yet ugly, chain link fence. This railing was installed during the 2016-18 renovation of the Fahy Bridge. Recent bridge renovations and replacements in Pittsburgh also feature more decorative railings. While the first of these new bridges in Pittsburgh tried to dress-up a chain link fence cage, the later ones are successful cage-free bridges even when they incorporate chain link fencing.* These examples give me hope that the days of caged bridges may be a thing of the past.
*Note: I have a to-do item to go back and photograph these new bridges for future posts, but no set timeline for the completion of this task.
While poking around the map collection at Chicago’s Public Library, I discovered that the structures carrying roads over the railroad tracks in Grant Park are considered viaducts. The word viaduct brings to my mind a Roman structure soaring over a valley floor and conveying a flat road on top of towering stone arches. The Chicago “viaducts” do not fit that image. To me, they look like bridges with no striking difference between them and Chicago’s river bridges other than color and style of ornamentation. Both groups of structures have fairly flat roadbeds supported by piers. I am puzzled why one set of structures is called bridges and the other viaducts.
The main difference seems to be that the bridges are crossing a body of water while the viaducts are crossing an obstacle on land. This doesn’t feel like the answer, though. I’ve walked over 50 bridges in Pittsburgh, the majority of which are over land. Not one of these structures is called a viaduct. To help find clues to solve this puzzle, I looked up the definitions of bridge and viaduct.
Merriam-Webster’s definitions are not much help:
Viaduct: a long elevated roadway usually consisting of a series of short spans supported by arches, piers, or columns
Bridge: a structure carrying a pathway or roadway over a depression or obstacle
The Oxford English Dictionary has similar definitions:
Viaduct: an elevated structure consisting of a series of arches or spans, by means of which a railroad or road is carried over a valley, road, river, or marshy low-lying ground
Bridge: a structure forming or carrying a road, path, or (in later use) a railroad, etc., which spans a body of water, a roadway, a valley, or some other obstacle or gap, and allows a person or vehicle to pass unimpeded over or across it
Based on these definitions, the features that seem to distinguish a viaduct from a bridge are elevation and short spans. This still doesn’t help solve the question of why the Grant Park structures are viaducts and the Chicago River structures are bridges.
Next, I turned to “How to Read Bridges” by Edward Denison and Ian Stewart. The glossary defines viaduct as “a type of bridge over land formed by a series of small (usually arched) spans.” This definition seems to work best for the viaducts in Chicago. They are over land and have a series of spans, though the spans are not arched.
To further develop my understanding, I paged through the nine examples of viaducts in “How to Read Bridges.” All nine examples are elevated (such as the 330-foot high Goltzsch Viaduct and the 407-foot high Garabit Viaduct) and have multiple arches or piers (such as the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, the 8-arch Wharncliffe Viaduct, and the 5-pier Busseau Sur Grusse Viaduct). All, but one, have no support system above the road deck. The exception is the Millau Viaduct, which uses a cable-stayed deck on top of seven piers that range from 253 feet to 800 feet tall. All, but one, are over land. The Garabit Viaduct spans the Truyère Valley and one-third of its length crosses the Truyère River. In another example, the approaches to the Cubzac-les-Ponts over the River Dordogne are considered viaducts, but it is a bridge that crosses the river.
I find myself again at a loss. While the definition in this book seems to work for the Chicago viaducts, the examples do not look like the Chicago structures. To help the Chicago viaducts fit in, I propose a new definition built from the three definitions and nine examples above:
Viaduct: an elevated roadway, supported by many arches or piers over land.
Yet, there are exceptions to every rule. The nine examples in “How to Read Bridges” include exceptions to the support system of the viaduct and to the obstacle spanned by a viaduct. Expanding upon this, the Chicago viaducts, which are supported by multiple piers over land, become the exception to the elevated part of the rule or definition.
My biggest take away is that it is no easier to define a viaduct than it is to define a bridge. In most cases, as with bridges, a viaduct is something you know when you see it, even if you cannot define it. However, sometimes it takes a label or a sign, such as the maps of Chicago’s viaducts and, prior to its restoration, the maps of Heth’s Run Bridge, to know what you are seeing.