Mon City: The Day the Bridge Caught Fire
Monongahela Valley Review, Vol. IV, No.7, September 1988
Copyright acknowledged. This article is reproduced here for historical and educational purposes.
Imagine in 1860 only four bridges crossing the Monongahela River along its entire length. One of these bridges was at Monongahela City. (The abutment can still be seen at the mouth of Pigeon Creek). Before building the bridge, the only method of crossing was a river ferry. During bad weather or high water, the crossing could be fatal. Ironically, this type of tragedy may have led to the construction of the Monongahela bridge which enabled thousands of settlers to safely continue westward and provided an economic boom for Monongahela City.
In 1830, James Manown was operating the DeVore Ferry. He had recently married Cassandrew DeVore Elliot, a member of the original DeVore family who had owned the ferry for sixty years. Cassandrew was previously married. Her first husband had worked the ferry until he drowned while trying to rescue their son from the river. We ask ourselves: Was Cassandrew afraid would repeat itself, and did she pressure Manown to quit the ferry business? In any case James Manown transferred his river frontage to the Williamsport Bridge Company for the bridge approach and became its first president. This was at a time when private industry built and maintained public improvements such as locks, dams, and bridges. Thus the first bridge was built without government funds.
Though it created jobs for Monongahela the bridge was a risky engineering feat. Yet it was completed in one year without modern machinery. The bridge was longer than three football fields. Constructed of wood, at the old Van Hooris farm along Pigeon Creek, it was completely enclosed with a roof and walls with rows of windows the length of the bridge. It was the ultimate kissing bridge on a grand scale. During construction of the wooden part, the bridge toppled before it was half completed resulting in several injuries, but no fatalities. on the west bank, the bridge had double portals that wagons could enter and exit separately.
This mammoth structure was suspended above the river by three abutments. To construct these, workmen quarried stone from Maple Creek. Sam DeVore was responsible for shipping the stone by keelboat. Men hand-cut these stones precisely and to various sizes depending upon their location in the abutment. Their workmanship was so accurate that one hundred and forty seven years of fire and weathering has left the stones still linked solidly together. Workmenbuilt a large box, and then fitting it with stone and debris, sunk it into a natural hole in the soft river bottom. This provided a base for the two abutments in the river.
Mrs. Charles Crall, in 1838, was the first person to cross the covered bridge, and forty five years later, Mr. Lowry, Gas Works superintendent, was the last person to cross the bridge. Between those years, the town grew and the bridge caused the town to grow from a frontier settlement to an important crossroads city on the the great migration to the West. In addition to people with new ideas, the bridge also brought wealth to the city. As the Daily Republican reported, the bridge is a "trade artery through which a great deal of our business life has flowed." However as important as the bridge was to Monongahela City, it was more important to the people on the Allegheny County side. Eliminating the river obstacle, it enabled them to identify themselves with Monongahela instead of Elizabeth. They attended Monongahela churches, shopped at Monongahela stores, and part of that area was even called East Monongahela.
One fateful day in 1883 Mr. Lowry's crew had just finished repair on the gas pipe that provided navigation warning lights for the bridge. Some would later blame him and his men for the fire that destroyed the bridge. Others claimed the tugboat "South Side" passed underneath, and sparks from its smoke stack flew up, igniting the bridge. However, when the fire started it spread quickly. So sudden was it, W. T. Gregg, tollkeeper, did not have time to return to his drawer to rescue the receipts or his revolver. The Daily Republican described the fire: "At five o'clock Wednesday afternoon, the cry of fire again rang through our streets. The first sound came from Gee's stream marble shops, soon joined by the shrill noise of a dozen mill whistles, and the clangor of alarm bells. The general alarm brought almost the entire population to the streets, and the words 'it is the bridge' drew the surging crowd to the scene of the fire. It needed no words to tell late comers the story, for a vast column of smoke spanned the river and showed what and where it was. Arriving at the river bank, the scene was truly grand, and made a picture never to be forgotten. Starting about midway of the second span, the fire rushed along the line of dry pine timbers toward the Allegheny side; the shingles burned, the weatherboarding dropped off; and then there was a bridge of real fire, every timber, rafter, arch, key, stay, floor-piece. seal and joist in perfect relief, clear and clean, like a structure of perforated lighted gas pipe. Each piece in beautiful symmetry outlined in bright flames, all burning, standing steadily in place, blazng, glowing, like some grand piece of fireworks, the perfection of pyrotechnic beauty.
In twenty minutes the span nearest the east side fell with thunderous crash into the river; a great shower of spark flew heavenward; the waters seethed and bubbled as the hot timbers slowly sank for a moment, then reappearing turned the frenzied waters into steam and a great white column followed the smoke, and disappeared into the clouds. Then slowly like as if melted, drooping-swaying-crash! into the water went the others, one after another until a thousand feet of livid fire had turned into a mass of blackened timbers floating on the bosom of that river which the bridge had spurned for half a century."
Thus ended the service of the first bridge to cross the Monongahela River at Monongahela City.
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Original Document: "The Day the Bridge Caught Fire". Monongahela Valley Review, Vol IV, No. 7, September 1988