Environmentalist Rachel Carson's legacy remembered on Earth Day

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Tony Tye, Post-GazetteDaniel Montgomery and the Springdale High School band cross the former Ninth Street Bridge during an Earth Day ceremony yesterday to rename the bridge for "Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson, a Chatham College graduate and Springdale native.

As a college student in the 1920s, the famed environmentalist Rachel Carson lived in a Pittsburgh known as "hell with the lid off," an industrial center choking on smoke-filled skies.

Much has changed since then.

Yesterday, the 36th annual Earth Day saw cleanup crews fan out across the region's parks and river banks. Peregrine falcons now nest on the Gulf Tower and the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. And the city is home to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, one of the largest "green" buildings in the world.

The convention center sits at the foot of the Ninth Street Bridge, which Allegheny County officials yesterday officially renamed for Ms. Carson, a native of the county and a graduate of Chatham College when it was still the Pennsylvania College for Women.

"She observed here, as she could nowhere else, the contamination of the environment," Linda Lear, author of a biography on Ms. Carson, said during a ceremony on the bridge.

"Rachel Carson was about life. She cared about the whole of the living world."

Almost 18 miles upstream and a century ago, Ms. Carson lived in a homestead in Springdale Borough, where the waters of the Allegheny River inspired her interest in nature. At Chatham, she studied biology and eventually went on to write a series of hugely popular books about ocean and sea life.

Ms. Carson is known worldwide for "Silent Spring," which helped launch the modern environmental movement and catapulted her onto Time magazine's list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

The book, published in 1962, two years before her death, criticized the harmful effects of pesticides and sparked a confrontation with the chemical industry. A decade later, the pesticide DDT was banned in the United States.

Esther L. Barazzone, Chatham's president, has been pushing for years to increase public awareness of Ms. Carson's connections to Pittsburgh.

She and former Mayor Tom Murphy once discussed funding a statue, but the city's fiscal problems persuaded her to focus on renaming one of the three Downtown "Sister Bridges," owned by Allegheny County. She repeatedly pushed county Chief Executive Dan Onorato and County Council to consider the change.

In December, the 15-member council unanimously approved naming the Ninth Street Bridge for Ms. Carson, putting her in the company of Andy Warhol and Roberto Clemente as namesakes for the identical bridges that span the Allegheny.

Eight "Rachel Carson Bridge" banners are now in place, featuring a Life magazine photograph of a content Ms. Carson leaning against a tree in the woods of Maine.

Now, supporters of Ms. Carson's legacy are turning their attention to 2007, the centennial of her birth. Fiona Fisher, former director of the Rachel Carson Homestead on Springdale's Marion Avenue, is planning a major birthday celebration for May 27 of next year.

She's also helping organize a series of national and local events, including a symposium at Carnegie Mellon University on Ms. Carson's legacy.

Dr. Barazzone hasn't given up her campaign for a statue, which she says would be the city's first for a woman.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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