Bridging Past to Present
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was officially incorporated as a city on March 18, 1816. Over the course of its 200 years, our city has evolved from a military fort to become a center for commerce, industry, technology, athletics, and education. As the city has grown the geography has demanded the construction of bridges connecting valleys, crossing rivers and streams, and enabling the transportation of people, goods and services.
There are at least 2,000 bridges in Allegheny County with 446 of them within Pittsburgh’s city limits alone. This makes Pittsburgh home to the largest number of bridges in the world, believed to even surpass Venice, Italy! Indeed we live in the “City of Bridges.”
Before bridges painted in the iconic color of Aztec Gold dominated the Pittsburgh landscape, visitors and residents relied on ferries for transportation across the rivers. In 1818, the wooden Monongahela Bridge was built and is believed to be the first river-crossing bridge in Pittsburgh, marking a transition that would change life in Pittsburgh and unify the region. The Monongahela Bridge was destroyed in the Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845 and replaced with the first Smithfield Street Bridge, designed by Brooklyn Bridge architect, John Augustus Roebling. The current version, built in 1881-1883, is the second steel bridge in the United States.
The practice of replacing old bridges with newer, updated versions while keeping the name has been a common one in Pittsburgh, the Point Bridge and Smithfield Street Bridge being just two examples. This often occurred when the former bridge suffered damage or became outdated. Many of the original Pittsburgh bridges were toll-bridges and built to carry pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. As time went on they were updated or replaced to incorporate vehicles, trolleys, and locomotives. In some cases, a bridge was not replaced when it was razed, often just leaving behind its pillars.
In fact, Pittsburghers may not even be aware they are crossing a bridge as many land bridges have been buried as the ravines they crossed were filled, like the Bellefield Bridge which was never demolished and currently lies underneath Schenley Plaza.
One has to simply look around to see that Pittsburgh is home to a wide variety of bridges of varying styles, colors, and distances. Throughout the late-nineteenth century and twentieth century, Pittsburgh was a site for engineering progress, especially in relation to bridge building. Pratt-truss, plate-girder, cantilever, arch, Whipple truss, footbridges, and suspension bridges among others can all be found in the Pittsburgh area. Each one is uniquely beautiful and tells a story of its own.
It is through these images that we “bridge” the distance between Pittsburgh’s rich, colorful history and the present, all the while looking toward an even brighter future.
Intern, Archives Service Center
About the exhibit
These photos are also part of a physical exhibit that is available to view at Hillman Library on the ground floor in the main hallway. The prints should be available to view from now until the towards the end of the 2016 fall semester.