The Bridges of Pittsburgh: Railroad Bridges

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Of all the bridges that cross Pittsburgh's rivers, railroad bridges get the least respect. Unused and often unnoticed by the public, they are nothing more than thin gray lines on Google maps. Yet they have a simple functional beauty that works well alongside the more graceful, brightly painted highway bridges that surround them.

"Works" is the key word here. The two hard-working bridges that span the Allegheny River between the Point and Washington's Landing carry on the history of Pittsburgh's railroading heyday and the brief canal craze that preceded it.

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.

The state Legislature began building the Pennsylvania Canal in 1826 in response to New York's Erie Canal and the Ohio Canal. By 1834, it was complete from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, running alongside the Allegheny by East Ohio Street before crossing the river on a wooden aqueduct near 11th Street. This elevated waterway connected to a Downtown tunnel under Grant's Hill and led to a pool near the Monongahela River. In the canal's first year, it carried about 50,000 tons of freight and 20,000 passengers, who paid $12 each for the four-day trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

In 1845, the wooden Allegheny canal bridge was replaced with a cable-supported aqueduct designed by engineer John Augustus Roebling.

All together, Pennsylvania spent about $40 million on the canal, which never turned a profit and was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857 for $7.5 million. Railroad workers promptly buried the canal and laid tracks upon its right of way. They may even have used the aqueduct piers for the first railroad bridge built across the Allegheny near 11th Street. Made of wood and named for its first user, the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad, it completed the rail route from Chicago to Pittsburgh. It was replaced in 1868 by a wrought-iron lattice truss bridge that stood until 1901.

Pennsylvania Railroad hired American Bridge Co. to build the steel truss bridge that stands to this day. Its deck was raised in 1918 to allow for taller boats. The bridge currently carries Amtrak passengers via nearby Union Station and Norfolk Southern freight traffic.

At 33rd Street, a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridge has served since 1920. It replaced another B&O Railroad bridge built in 1884 and was quickly put to heavy use. In the 1920s, it carried 29 freight trains and 34 passenger trains a day. Its two tracks had a narrow footwalk between them, the sort of path that was apparently irresistible to trespassers, according to T.H. Carrow, superintendent of safety for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1928, he reported that many children and youth were killed or injured every year on railroad bridges.

"These may be a shortcut but the hazard of being run over is ever-present and sometimes inescapable," he wrote in National Safety News.

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