From time to time, someone will ask me which Pittsburgh bridge is my favorite. I typically answer the Smithfield Street Bridge. The shape and color of its trusses are unique in a city of golden bridges. The lights gently rising and falling along the curves the the trusses create a soft reflection on the river. Walking over it placed the stress of work on the other side of the river. Walking over it, it’s best not to look down at the holes rusted through the sidewalk that reveal the rushing water underneath.
This question came up again when my family was visiting for the holidays. I had postponed my first walk across the new Fern Hollow Bridge about a week to share the experience with them. While we were walking across it, I was asked what bridge(s) I liked in Pittsburgh. While I answered that the Smithfield Bridge is probably my favorite, we had experienced that one multiple times in the past, so I started to think about what are the other bridges I find interesting that are less visible than the Smithfield Bridge. This spurred an impromptu driving tour of bridges in Pittsburgh.
We went from the Fern Hollow Bridge to the Greenfield Bridge, as the last time we were all in Pittsburgh together we watched the cloud of dust from the implosion of the former bridge through the trees of Schenley Park. We passed the Hot Metal Bridge, Birmingham Bridge, and South 10th Street Bridge before passing through the Armstrong Tunnel for the fun of it. That positioned us to encounter the CAP – which is one of those bridges that doesn’t look like a bridge – on our way toward the Allegheny River. I added an extra turn so that we could pass over the 28th Street Bridge – the only through truss bridge over the busway – before crossing the 31st Street Bridge (my other favorite bridge to walk, except for the fact that it is out of the way). We got out of the car at this point to walk the pedestrian/bike trail bridge to Herr’s Island. While that was the end of this unofficial tour, we did pass by the 40th Street Bridge and cross the R.D. Fleming or 62nd Street Bridge to complete our loop.
In March, you will have the chance to vote for your favorite Pittsburgh River Bridges in the 2023 Bridge Madness Tournament. Details will be announced on March 7.
Irony? Serendipity? A sign I’ve walked too many bridges? It’s been one year since Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed into Frick Park and another important arterial bridge is now closed and I am once again unable to fully explore due to another foot injury.
Shortly after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed, photos of temporary wires holding up the Charles Anderson Bridge supplementing the original metal structure that had rusted all the way through in places peppered social media and made the news with the question of would this be the next bridge to collapse? On February 1, 2023, the Charles Anderson Bridge was “immediately closed” to vehicular traffic (press release). Those with fully functioning limbs are still able to walk or bike across or under the bridge – it passes over another one of Pittsburgh’s major parks (Schenley Park).
The bridge was closed to facilitate interim repairs that may take four months. The bridge has been slated for a full rehabilitation for several years (see the City’s project page for more). The original projection was that this project would be funded this year, but according to a press release from the Mayor’s office on February 2, the expected funds have been delayed until 2027 and the City is looking for ways to expedite the funding.
Also, along the lines of serendipity, I happened to be browsing my copy of Bob Regan’s “The Bridges of Pittsburgh” (2006) this week for unrelated reasons and came across the section “Bridge Disasters.” The section opens with the statement: “Although Pittsburgh area bridges are quite safe and there has been an absence of bridge problems in modern times, this was not always the case.” (page 50) After identifying several of the bridge disasters from pre-modern times (summarized below), he ends this section with “Since that time  there has not been a bridge collapse in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and there has never been a collapse of an operating bridge. However, this record was somewhat blemished in late 2005 with the collapse of a portion (one side girder) of a bridge over I-70 near Washington, PA.” (page 51) Of course, any updated version of the book will now have to strike this claim due to the 2022 collapse of the operating Fern Hollow Bridge.
Driving over the new Fern Hollow Bridge this week, it looked in pretty much the same condition as in December with one lane of traffic in each direction and one shared path open. There were several bikers and pedestrians using it while we crossed during the latter part of rush hour.
Bridge disasters highlighted in “The Bridges of Pittsburgh:”
1845 – The original Smithfield Street Bridge burned down
1851 – The 16th Street Bridge burned down
1865 – Two spans of the 16th Street Bridge was washed away in a flood
late 1880s – The 6th Street/St. Clair Street Bridge burned down
1903 – The Wabash Bridge collapsed during construction
1918 – The 16th Street Bridge burned down (again)
1921 – The 30th Street Bridge burned down
1927 – The Mount Washington Roadway Bridge collapsed during construction
Below are the news updates on the Fern Hollow Bridge and other bridge maintenance and replacement efforts in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
The proposed artwork for the new bridge is among the elements not yet completed. I didn’t find any new information on this since the NextPittsburgh article of September 26, 2022, that I cited in the December update.
PennDOT’s project page regarding the reconstruction of the bridge has not been updated since March 2022, except to add a sentence at the beginning to say that the bridge is now complete and operational, despite the fact that it is not fully open yet due to ongoing work/finishing touches.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation into the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse was updated on January 26, 2023, with details of what has been investigated to date including photos of some of the parts of the collapsed bridge. It also now contains a link to a preliminary docket of materials that have been gathered in the investigation. They are still working out the cause of the collapse and recommendations to prevent such incidents in future.
The City created a Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment in March 2022, but this commission has not been added yet to the city’s website listing all Boards and Commissions and I have not seen any announcements of any appointments to the new Commission.
Pittsburgh’s Swindell Bridge, which closed from July to September 2022 due to falling debris, is currently under lane restrictions and is expected to close for a month later this year for additional repairs. (Pittsburgh Union Progress, February 12, 2023)
The closure of the west sidewalk of the South Negley Avenue Bridge doesn’t phase some people as they by-pass the barriers and continue on their way, in fact one of the barriers had been completely moved aside the last time I drove across the bridge, presumably by someone who found it in their way.
The Lincoln Avenue and Fremont Street bridges were closed for repair January 2023 by PennDOT in Millvale, PA – a small town across the 40th Street Bridge from Pittsburgh (WPXI, January 27, 2023)
Map of bridges discussed in the Bridge Collapse series:
Oakland is a cluster of Pittsburgh neighborhoods east of downtown. It has the highest concentration of institutions and cultural amenities in the city. It is home to Carlow College, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), multiple UPMC hospitals, the Phipps Conservatory (Phipps), Schenley Park (the second largest city park), and the Carnegie Institute complex (housing the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the main Carnegie Library, and the Carnegie Music Hall). Most of these as well as much of the commercial and residential parts of Oakland were built on a shelf. The hospitals, part of Pitt, and some houses climb the slope toward the Hill District. Some houses also spill over the edge of the shelf, down into the hollows.
Several bridges span the Junction and Panther hollows in Oakland. The Forbes Avenue bridge connects CMU to the Carnegie Institute complex and one of the commercial districts. The Schenley Bridge connects Pitt and the Carnegie Institute complex to the Phipps and Schenley Park. The Panther Hollow Bridge spans a second hollow to connect the Phipps with the rest of Schenley Park. The Charles Anderson Memorial Bridge carries the Blvd of the Allies over Junction Hollow. A fifth bridge without pedestrian access carries 376 over the hollow. This bridge can be partially glimpsed from the Anderson Bridge, but its presence can be clearly marked by the traffic’s rushing whoosh that carries up the hollow.
By the Forbes Ave and Schenley bridges, Junction Hollow has an industrial feel. The railroad is mostly exposed at these points (further down it is surrounded by trees, shrubs, and other overgrowth). There are also several parking lots and CMU houses some of its facilities functions along the hollow. By the Schenley Bridge, a massive electrical substation was recently constructed across from the historic (and active) steam factory.
The Panther Hollow Bridge provides a completely different feel as its hollow is 100% park. It is the only one of these bridges that does not cross over the railroad and is therefore the only one without a cage. A small lake with walking trail is visible on one side (with the railroad beyond a row of weeds). The other side overlooks a forested hillside and valley floor. Hawks and/or falcons can often be seen gliding over this hollow.
The Anderson Bridge overlooks Junction Hollow at its most parklike point, but it has a less peaceful feel than the Panther Bridge. A combination of the almost-highway Blvd of the Allies, the bridge’s height above the hollow, and its pedestrian fence make the bridge feel isolated from nature when walking across.
In a recent post, I complained about the lack of engaging outdoor spaces in Pittsburgh. I recently realized that I was perhaps a little harsh in that assessment. One of the things that attracted me to Pittsburgh in the first place was the abundance of parks and welcoming open spaces. Now, as a naturalized Pittsburgher, I may take these places too much for granted.
Pittsburgh is home to five large city parks: Emerald View Park, Frick Park, Highland Park, Riverview Park, and Schenley Park. In addition, there are Point State Park, neighborhood parks and playgrounds, and parklets and green spaces.
Downtown has a welcoming outdoor space within a 5 minute walk of almost every office building. Come noon, the most popular ones are out of seats. Some have programming on different days. Market Square and Mellon Square regularly host farmers’ markets, live music, interactive art, and activities.
Yet, these oases are not spread out evenly across the Pittsburgh. East Liberty used to be considered Pittsburgh’s second downtown and was the third largest economic engine in the state. After decades of suburban flight and decay, this neighborhood is experiencing a resurgence that is recapturing much of its former dominance. Yet, when I worked in East Liberty, there were no welcoming outdoor places for me to reasonably get to in my lunch hour. I ended up eating everyday in the office, which meant the only time I left the office between starting and quitting times was when there was an off-site meeting.
It’s not just East Liberty that is missing out on these outdoor pockets and treasures. Much of the city’s riverfronts are still dominated by industry or freeways. Many neighborhood don’t have parks or the ones that are they have not been maintained.
Pittsburgh does have good outdoor spaces, but it could have better. The riverfront is a visible place to expand upon the earlier successes such as Point State Park and the Watersteps. The adult-friendly, public swings which spurred my previous post Engaging Riverfronts is one way to expand upon that. I look forward to more ideas and implementations across the city.