The Bridges of Pittsburgh: Washington's Crossing

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Motorists call it the 40th Street Bridge, but the stately piers say Washington's Crossing because a daring ambitious Virginian nearly drowned here while crossing the icy Allegheny River.

As a messenger of Virginia's governor, 21-year-old George Washington had traveled to Fort LeBoeuf in Erie County, where he urged the French to leave Western Pennsylvania. The French reply was an emphatic non.

So, Washington and his trusted scout, Christopher Gist, headed south, returning to the Forks of the Ohio in Pittsburgh.

PG Interactive: Pittsburgh's Bridges | Allegheny River

Click image above for an interactive tour of Pittsburgh's bridges across the Allegheny River, with histories and details about each.

To cross the Allegheny River, they used a hatchet to build a crude raft. On the evening of Dec. 29, 1753, the raft got stuck in the ice-choked waters and started to sink around modern-day Millvale.

While trying to free the raft with a pole, Washington lost his balance, fell into 10 feet of water and nearly drowned. He recounted the incident in his journal.

The two men made it halfway across the river to Wainwright's Island, where they built a fire and camped for the night.

By morning, the river had frozen and the two men crossed to the mainland.

Finished in 1923, the 2,366-foot span links Lawrenceville with Millvale. The engineer was Charles Davis and the architect was Benno Janssen.

In 1977, the bridge was converted from four lanes to three, with the middle lane alternating as inbound in the morning and outbound at night. In June 1991, the bridge closed for an $11.2 million rehabilitation that included a new deck, improved lighting, repairs to the superstructure and a paint job. The bridge reopened in September 1991.

In September 2003, PennDOT crews removed 304 cast-iron seals that decorate the bridge's handrails. Each of the 3-by-2-foot seals were sandblasted to remove rust and old paint, then coated with a rust-resistant primer.

More than 100 Boy Scouts and adult volunteers hand-painted the decorations, which feature the state seals of the nation's original 13 Colonies. Allegheny County seals on the bridge were refurbished, too.

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