On Oct. 9, 1923, one week after the Boulevard of the Allies opened to traffic, thousands of people gathered in the Strip District and the East North Side. They watched Matilda Seefried drive her car through two silk ribbons, one black, one gold, on opposite ends of the new 16th Street Bridge. After Miss Seefried opened the bridge, driving north to south, a 2-mile-long procession of floats and bands followed her across.
Built for $1.25 million, the bridge featured electric lights at 100-foot intervals. Unlike many other spans in the city, the 16th Street Bridge met U.S. War Department height requirements. Secretary of War John Wingate Weeks had been having fits about the navigability of Pittsburgh's rivers.
The bridge spans the Allegheny, but the structure itself represents a confluence of engineering, art and architecture. The inspiration for the bridge may have been the Pont Alexandre III, which spans the Seine River in Paris.
After the parade, a grand banquet was held at the Heinz Auditorium on the North Side. Ketchup magnate Howard Heinz was the principal speaker. The crowd was shown photos of the old bridge burning down and the new span going up.
The event featured plenty of pomp and platitudes as flowery as some of the parade floats. Sadly, there was no mention of Morris C. Sparks, one-time construction superintendent of the bridge project.
Sparks, known as M.C., was a Maryland native and troubled World War I veteran. In 1921, he was 35, stood 6 feet tall and weighed 165 pounds. He had dark hair and dark eyes. On his right arm was a tattoo of an elk's head, likely signifying his membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. On his left arm was a tattoo of a truss bridge.
About 6 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1921, M.C. vanished. Bridge workers had seen M.C. throughout the night of Dec. 8. He was clad in his work clothes -- a long, heavy, brown overcoat, dark gray suit and knee-high arctic boots. He wore a dirty slouch hat on his head.
The last anyone could recall seeing M.C., he was walking toward his houseboat office, a mere 30 yards from the construction site. He seems to have been swallowed up by the night.
Five days after M.C.'s disappearance, a pedestrian spotted a body in the Allegheny, near what's now the Roberto Clemente Bridge. The police, aided by river men, brought it ashore. It wasn't M.C. The body was that of a well-dressed man, approximately 50. His neck was broken and his pockets turned inside out. Police suspected that the man was a victim of highwaymen.
The truth of the matter was that Pittsburgh's rivers at this time were devoid of wildlife but abundant with human dead. In 1921, bodies were found in the water on a near-weekly basis.
M.C.'s employer, Vang Construction Co. of Cumberland, Md., was very much concerned for him. It offered a reward of $500 for any authentic information regarding his whereabouts. At the time, $500 was quite a lofty sum -- enough to buy a 1920 Ford sedan. And gas. It was a year's worth of wages for some people. Vang publicized the offer in classified ads it bought in many of Pittsburgh's daily newspapers.
The ads ran throughout December. Someone had to know something. It had to be a hellish holiday season for M.C.'s brother in Baltimore.
Another Maryland native, Babe Ruth, spent Christmas 1921 in Pittsburgh. He was in town to promote Christmas Seals' work in finding a cure for tuberculosis, more commonly known as consumption. That was just one of the diseases taking a toll on WWI vets.
Beneath his slouch hat, M.C. kept horrible memories of his time in France. He had served as first sergeant of Headquarters Co., 313th Infantry. In battle, his lungs had been filled with poison gas. According to articles in the local papers, M.C. had been suffering from depression and nervousness due to his time at war.
The day he disappeared, the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times had run a story about the state hospitalization committee of the American Legion decrying the inadequacy of government hospitals, most notably their inability to manage the increase of war-related neuropsychiatric cases.
Young men with no outward appearances of injury were melting down and acting out. Local judges were alarmed and perplexed by the volume of veterans brought before them on various charges.
A teacher at a vocational school for disabled vets was found dead on the North Side. The teacher, a vet, had been killed by a student, also a vet. In Pleasant Hills, another vet committed a murder-suicide. In Forest Hills, family members searched for August Fritch, 22, who made it back from Europe only to disappear from the front porch.
The term "shell-shocked" was becoming part of the American vernacular. It would take another world war, and then some, for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be recognized.
The war generated well over $200 million for Pittsburgh industries, but it came at a cost. Allegheny County sent roughly 60,000 men to the armed services. More than 1,500, from the most densely populated city wards to the tiniest coal-patch towns, would be killed. And among the survivors, many thousands likely struggled with PTSD.
Many city police officers were WWI vets themselves. The previous July, they had gathered by the hundreds to escort the coffin of Bloomfield native Thomas Enright, one of the first three Americans killed in the war, when his body was returned to Pittsburgh from France.
M.C. had spent a good part of his life on the move, so, if he left on his own, it's difficult to say where he might have gone.
Before Pittsburgh, he had been the construction superintendent for a bridge spanning the Big Miami River in Lawrenceburg, Ind., south of Cincinnati. Before that, he worked for 10 years in the maintenance and engineering departments of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Pittsburgh police did what they could to find M.C. His pocketbook containing his money was found in his formal clothes, which were neatly folded inside of his trunk aboard the houseboat. Police checked hotels, opium dens and houses of ill repute. They searched hospitals and speakeasies. They looked for M.C. in every jail cell for miles around. They checked entries at the Allegheny County Workhouse.
As the weeks passed, the weather and the case grew colder. Work on the bridge continued.
Though hope began to wane, Vang Construction stood firm on its offer of a $500 reward. The Veteran's Bureau, the Elks and the B & O all joined the search for M.C. The March 1922 edition of Baltimore and Ohio Magazine ran a story about M.C. and asked readers for help.
But the mystery endures.
Only a couple of traces of M.C. remain. A 1922 history of the American Expeditionary Forces' 79th Division, of which the 113th Infantry was part, thanked M.C. for providing photographs. He could have provided the photos long before he disappeared.
On Dec. 8, 1930, the Cumberland Evening Times published a short story about the annual memorial service held by the Elks lodge in Frostburg, Md. M.C. was one of dozens of deceased lodge members listed in the story, but there's no information about when or how he died.
It would be nice to think that M.C. lived a long, prosperous life -- that he found peace. I'll likely never know. If he ever were "found," it probably wasn't in Pittsburgh because the newspapers would have reported it.
At 2 p.m. today, the 16th Street Bridge will be renamed for David McCullough, the Point Breeze native and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Following the ceremony a public reception will be held at the Heinz History Center in the Strip. It is fitting to think of M.C. today.
Update, July 15, 2013: On April 1, 1922, Sparks' body was pulled from the Ohio River at Ambridge, according to a story in the Cumberland Evening Times. The story, which a handful of Post-Gazette readers found online, speculated that Sparks had been robbed and killed and his body dumped in the river.
Michael Connors (email@example.com) is a Chalfant resident who has written six other history stories for The Next Page. He was instrumental in efforts to have the 16th Street Bridge renamed for McCullough. First Published July 7, 2013 4:00 AM