Second Annual Historic Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh

Steelerbot sculpture near the Sixteenth Avenue Bridge

There is something very special about Pittsburgh that attracts a first-time visitor and keeps him there for a long time. Established in 1758 by William Pitt, the city was home to the steel industry until it collapsed in the 1970s. It is home to the perrenial powerhouse the Pittsburgh Steelers in the American Football league NFL (National Football League). And lastly it is the city where the Carnegie Science Museum is located, the Heinz Ketchup company was founded, and where the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River, which meanders its way towards the Mississippi River for over 900 miles. Furthermore, as one can see with the “Steelerbot”- a sculpture whose body parts consist of the city’s bridges,  Pittsburgh is the city with the second highest number of bridges in the world with 442 structures, young and old spanning the three rivers and other tributaries and valleys. Only Hamburg in Germany has more with as many as 2479 structures reported to exist in the “Hafen City.” Therefore it is a foregone conclusion that the city, which prides itself in being called “Steeler Nation” would host a conference devoted strictly to historic bridges. For the second year in a row, the Historic Bridge Convention took place in and around Pittsburgh, where as many as 40 people participated in the event. This included the five guest speakers for the three day event that took place on 20-22 August, including one from overseas (Germany).

The event started out with a Friday night dinner at the Rock Bottom Restaurant in Homestead, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. The location was unique because of its location almost directly underneath the Homestead Bridge.  The special guest speaker was John F. Graham, Jr. who is a distinguished member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Principal, Mid-Atlantic Region, Osmos, USA, former Chief Engineer of Allegheny County Department of Engineering and Construction, and retired Pennsylvania Turnpike Deputy Executive Director and Chief Engineer, who talked about the effectiveness of monitoring bridges through sensors in comparison with the traditional visual checks and documentation, which he claimed was a waste of money and resources. In addition to that, Nathan Holth and Luke Gordon of Historic Bridges.org talked about compromises with historic bridge preservation policies and finding and solving problems with bridge rehabilitation, respectively. The former of which deals with finding the middle ground between preservationists and government officials.

The next day was divided up into a bridgehunting tour and a Saturday night lecture from two guest speakers. The tour, which was divided up into groups, took the guests to the northwestern part of Pennsylvania, Crawford and Mercer Counties where as many as 25 historic bridges were visited by many who have never seen them before and for some bridges, may only see them once in their lifetimes as they are scheduled to be replaced in the coming years. Already it was evident when the first bridge visited on the tour, the Kreiz Road Bridge was taken out when the tourists arrived. However, the other bridges that were visited on the tour are still standing at the time of this writing. This included the bridges along French Creek in Crawford County, like the ones in Cambridge Springs, Saegertown, and Meadville. The Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge and the Meadville Bridge, the two bridges profiled in the Chronicles are among the ones included in the list.

After leaving Crawford County, where these bridges were located, it was onto Mercer County where the Carlton Bridge, a Colombia Bridge and Iron Works piece of art from 1898 was waiting for a pose, together with Clark’s Mill Bridge and three other bridges. It was on the way to the Clark’s Mill Bridge that the tourists had to go through a herd of cattle and one of the pontists pointed out that it would be a perfect defense against the machines of progress, engineered by PennDOT. (For more information please view the bridges in Pennsylvania and their dire state).

Finally the last stop on the tour was also the centerpiece of the 2010 Conference, the Quaker Bridge. The person in charge of the project, Nathan Clark, saved the bridge from its imminent demise in the last second of negotiations before it met the wrecking ball in 2007 and plans to convert the 1898 structure into a park, which would be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. His lecture on the bridge, its history, and how it went from PennDOTs hands into his started at the bridge and ended at the Hilltop Tavern in Greenville. This lecture was followed by one on the attitudes of people towards historic bridges between Germany and the USA by Jason D. Smith of the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt, Germany and columnist for the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. The lecture was based on a questionnaire that was carried out during the spring and summer of this year on both sides of the Atlantic as well as two case studies in Germany that were presented in comparison with the US as a whole.

Quaker Bridge. Nathan Clark (pictured in a white dress shirt) explains to the public about the bridge and how he saved it.

The third and final day of the Conference was devoted to the tour of the bridges in Pittsburgh, or at least part of the city, as many guests had to leave for home that afternoon. For those who did stay, sections of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers were visited, where many pre-1960 bridges were located, including those along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and bridges like the New Kensington, and Hulton Bridges. It was rounded off with dinner with some fellow pontists at a small restaurant near the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Overall, the Historic Bridge Conference was a proven success as the themes for the event was more or less diversified, which includes focusing on technical and social aspects of historic bridge preservation. In addition, more participants were involved in the event than the first one, which took place a year ago. This included more people who are not bridge enthusiasts per say but were interested in the topic of historic bridges and preservation. A bigger eye opener was the fact that because one originated from outside the US, the Historic Bridge Conference has the potential to attract more people from overseas in the future. Furthermore the media in the greater Pittsburgh area and the northwestern part of Pennsylvania was curious about the content of the Conference and interviewed many people who were involved in the event. And finally the Conference set off a chain reaction which resulted in the birth of another website, the Bridgehunter Chronicles, a column which devotes its time and energy on providing readers with a tour of bridges worth visiting both in Europe and the US and in particular, the structures that are slated for demolition.  There is hope that this success can be fanned out further in many directions as the next Conference will take place in 2011 in St. Louis and vicinity and in 2012 in Iowa (where exactly will be announced in due time). And with that hopefully more people from abroad and those from other disciplines will come and share their experiences with historic bridge preservation so that in the end, there will be more than enough tools to protect these bridges from the grips of modernization, which includes making some fundamental changes in the policies that exist in the US as of present.

The author of the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to thank Todd Wilson and Lauren Winkler for coordinating the 2010 event in Pittsburgh and for providing the guest with a grand tour of the bridges in and around Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. It was great to learn more about the city and its bridges and we learned quite a bit from the tour. All photos taken by Jason D. Smith. More bridge photos from the Conference can be found on James Baughn’s website The Historic Bridges of the US, available at www.bridgehunter.com.

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