Gritty, Urban Infrastructure Supports the “The City of Bridges”: Pittsburgh’s Tunnels, Overpasses, Archways and Bridges

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If you’re claustrophobic, the route into the city may feel oppressive, suffocating, and dark. Traffic slows to a crawl, as you move closer to the entrance of the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Two lanes carry cars, motorcycles and trucks (so many trucks) on Interstate 376, U.S. Route 22, US 30, and US 19 Truck. Once inside the tunnel, traffic picks up speed, motorists confident that everyone will stay in their lane.

On the other end of the tunnel, sprawling panoramic views greet visitors to Pittsburgh, PA. Your eyes take a minute to adjust, from the dim, artificially lit tunnel, to bright daylight. Or you are greeted by the chaos of the city at night – small lights outline the interstate, exit ramps, and interchanges. You can follow the lights along the river, towards entertainment venues, industrial parks and private residences.

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Or you might drive deep into the city, where street lamps take over, and you notice dozens of lit windows, in the business towers and skyscrapers. Those who have the determination and drive to work, late into the night, are doing so. I hope they get ahead, but wonder what parts of life they are missing out on. Maybe it’s the cleaning crews, lighting up one office after another, happy to have some peace and quiet to do their work, while the rest of the city’s residents hurry along.

Traffic as you get closer to Pittsburgh can be harrowing, but the city definitely has an elaborate infrastructure in place. After several hours of driving through the hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, the appearance of a major metropolitan city is a little disorienting.

Pittsburgh is known as “The City of Bridges,” and the landscape demands it. The city is located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Neighborhoods are steeply sloped, with houses built into the hills. Because of the topography, Pittsburgh is therefore an interlaced network of tunnels, overpasses, archways, and trestles, connecting residents and visitors to all parts of town.

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Coming out of the tunnel, motorists are dumped directly onto one of Pittsburgh’s bridges, many of which are painted Aztec Gold. Some were constructed and painted with this color, while others were painted after the fact.

“Without bridges, the Pittsburgh region would be a series of fragmented valleys, hillsides, river plains, and isolated communities. A 2006 study determined that Pittsburgh has 446 bridges, with its proximity to three major rivers and countless hills and ravines.” (Wikipedia)

It’s a city known for its bridges and for the official city colors Aztec Gold and Black. The Three Sisters bridges, named for Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson, are painted in the city color, and residents are very insistent that it remain that way, when renovations are underway, and there is an option to paint the bridges a different color.

These three suspension bridges allow passage across the Allegheny River, at 6th, 7th, and 9th street. They are quite unique, and their color stands in sharp contrast to the river below, the trees that create a backdrop, and the sky above, whether it is an overcast grey or a rich blue. The industrial feel of Pittsburgh is balanced by the swooping lines and colorful character of the bridges.

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“It is the fact that they are nearly identical, as well as their unusual design, that makes them historically significant. Built between 1924 and 1928, the Three Sisters are the only trio of nearly identical bridges in the country. They were built with a self-anchored suspension design, modeled after a bridge over the Rhine River in Germany. The Three Sisters were the first such bridges to be built in the United States, the county said.” (Post-Gazette)

There’s not a lot of time to take in the view, because traffic is (almost always) heavy. It is a busy downtown area, after all. Locals will tell you exaggerated tales of hours spent trying to get in or out of town during rush hour, which means most daylight hours, M – F. The bridges, tunnels and overpasses do have limits to the number of lanes they can accommodate.

I’ve spent almost 7 years driving from Columbus, OH to “The City of Bridges.” Sometimes a year has gone by, between my visits. But there have also been periods that I visited 4 times, in as many weeks. The GPS says the drive is 3 hours and 6 minutes, but I’ve never made it in that little time. Even the trip that earned me a speeding ticket, as I passed through a small portion of West Virginia, on I-70, took closer to 4 ½ hours to get to my destination. I’ve made the trip, out and back, in the same day – that was a long day.

As I’ve come to know the city, with its universities, museums, historic districts, and local restaurants, I couldn’t help but notice the infrastructure, so different from major cities I’ve lived in. Chicago and Milwaukee perch on Lake Michigan, which no one is trying to cross on their way to work in the morning. At home, residents who live and work on the East side of Columbus could go weeks without crossing a bridge, if they weren’t all that adventurous.

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Things are different in Pittsburgh, and the engineering it takes to construct these vast bridges is art. They are functional and beautiful, having to be approved by the fine arts commission. (Here and Now) In classifying the many bridges, take note of the crossing, considering what (or who) it carries, which river it crosses, its aesthetic and its location. Is it a suspension bridge, cantilever, or an arch?

Bob Regan, historian and author of Bridges of Pittsburgh considers bridges “serious business.”

“Oh Lord, I think bridges mean everything [to the identity of the city]. I mean, you just look around to the city or you go to some grocery stores, there are models of bridges. A lot of the businesses have the bridges in their logo. And so I think it’s everything. I think Pittsburgh is really identified with them.” (Here and Now)

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Pat Hassett, assistant director of the Bureau of Transportation and Engineering Department of Public Works, City of Pittsburgh, explains that the city is reluctant to take bridges out, if they have passed their useful life. This might happen due to a change in industrial commerce (and need for a bridge to transport raw materials) or because of the deteriorating structural integrity of the bridge, so that it no longer serves its intended purpose. Yet the residents of Pittsburgh do not want such a bridge removed.

“[W]e’re reluctant to take them out because the bridges are more than just connections in communities, they’re icons. Neighborhoods and people come to relate to these bridges so we are looking at ways of maintaining these bridges.” (Here and Now)

So, Pittsburgh works hard to repair what is already in place, rather than build from the ground up. Any visitor to the city will notice that what’s already in place extends far beyond motorized transportation, across the three rivers. Trains pass overhead, as you are driving around town, and the sounds of the railroad become a part of the city’s background noise.

In addition, to clear some of the traffic on the roads, downtownpitsburg.com reports that the 10-county Pennsylvania Commission region is serviced by 10 fixed route public transportation agencies. Most service downtown. You can hop on a buss, use light rail, or the incline. Did I mention the hills? Perhaps next time I’m in Pittsburgh I’ll ride the Duquesne Incline (see link below for info).

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Where there are bridges high above, there are secluded spaces down below. And there are people who seek shelter there. These spots may not be easy to get to – that’s the idea – but they provide cover from inclement weather, and just enough privacy to be left alone.

They also provide a space for graffiti artists to leave their mark. (Some would say that they are vandalizing city property.) Pedestrians, motorists, and train passengers up above may never catch a glimpse of the colorful artwork (territory tagging?) at the base of the bridge.

What pedestrians do see, on several of the bridges in town, is an opportunity to symbolically “lock” their love, romantic or otherwise, in place. A padlock in locked to the bridge’s fence, as a symbol of the permanence of a relationship. Whether it’s a combination lock, a custom engraved lock, or a Master key lock, simple and unembellished, the trend has definitely caught on in Pittsburgh.

On Valentine’s Day, or as part of an engagement, couples attach a lock to the bridge near Phipps Conservatory, where hundreds of other locks are already in place. It’s a colorful array, but a heavy weight for the fence to bear. Families attach a cluster of locks, pink and blue, large and small, to represent each member of the family. (Some would say that they are vandalizing city property.) The engineers of the Three Sisters certainly never factored this extra weight into their calculations, and are keeping an eye on it.

A childhood friend once told me that on family trips, all passengers in the car were supposed to lift their feet off the floor, whenever they drove over a bride, for the duration of the crossing. I’m not sure if this friend ever passed through, or visited, Pittsburgh. If he did, my guess is that after the 30th bridge the novelty of the exercise had worn off. Apparently, some folks also practice this tradition when ever they are crossing railroad tracks.

“Superstitions about crossroads have abounded in many cultures for centuries, so this may be one modern version. Apparently, it also helps if you touch the roof of the car with your fingers as you lift your feet. Some say that if you don’t, you’ll lose your sweetheart.” (Endurance)

I just hope the driver keeps his feet where they should be.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

List of Bridges in Pittsburgh – on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bridges_of_Pittsburgh

Architecture & Engineering: Wikipedia Resource: Kidney, Walter C. (1999). Pittsburgh’s Bridges: Architecture and Engineering. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. ISBN 978-0916670214

How Many Bridges: Wikipedia Resource: “Just How Many Bridges Are There In Pittsburgh?” https://thePittsburghchannel.com  Sept. 13, 2006.

Yellow Bridges: http://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/why-are-the-bridges-in-pittsburgh-painted-yellow/Content?oid=1335862

Here and Now (WBUR 90.9):http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2016/04/26/pittsburgh-bridges-infrastructure

Bridges of Pittsburgh by Bob Regan:https://www.amazon.com/Bridges-Pittsburgh-Bob-Regan/dp/0977042928

Post-Gazette – Three Sisters:http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2015/07/03/The-votes-are-in-Pittsburghers-want-3-sisters-bridges-repainted-Aztec-gold/stories/201507030267

Downtown Pittsburgh (Public Transit):http://downtownpittsburgh.com/visit/getting-here/public-transit-passenger-rail/

Duquesne Incline:http://www.duquesneincline.org/

Endurance: http://blog.esurance.com/4-weird-car-traditions-explained/

One comment

  1. Great narrative and pictures! Interesting about the 3 Sisters. I’m not a fan of crossing bridges but this was truly a fascinating read. I’ve heard of the Valentine tradition. I think the weight causes removal of the locks periodically to make room for new ones,
    BLOG ON!

    Like

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