"Pittsburgh's Hard-Luck Bridge"
By Joe Bennett
from special issue "Pittsburgh Bridges Falling Down," The Pittsburgh Press Roto
Sunday, June 5, 1977
Copyright acknowledged. This article is reproduced here for historical and educational purposes.
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When they finally tore down the Wabash Bridge in 1948, nobody was sorry to see it go. The 812-foot railroad span seemed to live under a curse from the beginning, perhaps haunted by the ghosts of the men who died building it 45 years before.
By the time it was dismantled, it had become a useless, dead skeleton hanging over the Golden Triangle. When the job was done, Roto magazine ran a cover photo showing the "new look" of Downtown Pittsburgh without the old eyesore.
The Wabash's sorry history began in 1902 when railroad entrepreneur George Gould commissioned its construction as part of what would be his transcontinental system.
Pittsburgh, then the nation's freight capital, generating more traffic than New York, Chicago and Philadelphia combined, was to be the crown jewel of the Gould empire, but he had to fight to get it. The Pennsylvania Railroad was financially and politically entrenched here, and Gould spent millions just to remove the obstacles local politicians threw up.
Gould's bridge, linking his new terminal on Water Street to the Wabash Tunnel through Mount Washington, loomed 109 feet above the Monongahela River. Its construction was costly in lives as well as dollars.
The morning of Oct. 20, 1903, was a key one for the bridge project. The two ends of the bridge, being built from opposite sides of the Mon, were to be joined that day.
Supply barges were maneuvered into position in the river, and cranes on the bridge started hauling steel up. Earl Crider, on one of the barges, helped hook five beams to ropes from a crane. Later he described what happened:
"There was an awful crash over our heads. Looking up I saw beams and girders in the air. Then it seemed that the entire part of the bridge extending out over the water had begun to fall. I had only an instant to see all this. Then I jumped into the water. I was hit on the side of the head with a beam of wood, but the water saved me from being crushed."
Crider was one of the lucky ones. The carrier supporting the crane had broken loose, catapulting toward the edge of the bridge. Machinery, steel and men were crushed and swept off the bridge.
"They fell through the air like flies," said John McTighe, who watched the disaster from Water Street. "The men were shrieking and yelling as they fell. Some were clinging to pieces of iron and beams."
In all, 10 men died. Seven had been on the bridge, three on the barges below. Five others, including Crider, escaped by jumping into the river. They may have been warned by the quick action of the hoisting engineer, who sounded an emergency horn as soon as he saw what was happening.
There were miraculous escapes, too. One unidentified worker, swept off the bridge, made a convulsive midair grab for a safety rope and hung there while the deadly steel cascaded around him. Then he slid down the rope to a boat and joined in the rescue operation. Another man lay semi-conscious on a beam at the very edge of the bridge. When he came to his senses, he looked around, saw where he was, and scrambled to safety.
At least two men survived the 109-foot plunge to the water. Thomas Shelley landed between two of the barges and suffered only a leg injury. "My fall to the river was quick," he reported, "but I thought a whole lot in that short time."
Rescue work, begun almost immediately, was severely hampered by crowds of curious Downtown workers, who had flocked to the river banks to watch the show.
The Oct. 20 disaster was the worst in a series of misfortunes that beset the Wabash job. Weather was a constant problem, and a smallpox epidemic hit the workmen. There were strikes, riots, landslides and floods.
Nor did things improve after the bridge opened with much fanfare in 1904. Despite Pittsburgh's rich freight market, Gould's railroad never made enough money to pay for itself. The line was an engineering marvel, cutting straight through the worst terrain Western Pennsylvania could present, with hardly a hill or a curve to mar the traveler's ride. But construction had cost about $1 million a mile, and the Wabash never wrested control of the market from the Pennsylvania.
In 1908, the Wabash was forced to go into receivership, and in 1917, the local spur was absorbed by the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad. After 1931, passenger traffic was discontinued, and only freight traffic moved through the elaborate Downtown terminal. Then, in 1946, fire destroyed the terminal. The Wabash bridge became a useless hulk.
A plan to use the bridge and tunnel as part of a mass transit system into the South Hills had been dropped. Somebody suggested taking the bridge down and putting it up elsewhere. Finally, the old bridge was scrapped and the steel melted down for use in the Dravosburg Bridge that was going up in 1948.
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Original Document: Bennett, Joe. "Pittsburgh Bridges Falling Down: Pittsburgh's Hard-Luck Bridge" The Pittsburgh Press Roto. Sunday, June 5, 1977