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Flick of switch starts age of enlightenment for Clemente Bridge – Fireworks, lights create attention span

By Tom Barnes,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Friday, November 22, 2002

Charlie Magnus, a 28-year lineman with Duquesne Light Co., flipped a switch last night that lit up a big blue company logo on the northern end of the Roberto Clemente Bridge

That triggered a 10-minute fireworks extravaganza featuring colored rockets exploding into the nighttime sky and cascading off the bridge deck like a waterfall spilling into the Allegheny River.

The stunning pyrotechnics announced the debut of a $500,000 architectural lighting project on the 78-year-old span, a project paid for by Duquesne Light.

Local officials hope it will persuade other companies to underwrite the lighting of other city bridges, starting with the Ninth Street Bridge just up the river.

The Aztec gold towers of the Clemente Bridge were bathed in bright white light, which will continue to shine each night from dusk to dawn, while the curved upper superstructure of the bridge was accentuated with low-energy blue “light emitting diode” bulbs.

Magnus, who lives in Cecil, Washington County, normally builds and maintains power lines. But since late August he has worked with a crew of seven other Duquesne Light workers to install many of the new fixtures on the bridge.

“It was different from anything we’ve done before,” he said. “It was all new to everybody. It was good to have the employees involved.”

On hand for last night’s festivities was Gov.-elect Ed Rendell, who said he’d had some experience himself in lighting bridges.

He worked with PECO, a power company in Philadelphia, to light five bridges in Downtown Philadelphia on “millennium eve,” Dec. 31, 1999.

“It was one of my last acts as mayor,” he said. “I had persuaded PECO, our energy company, to light the five bridges over the Schuylkill River. We flicked the switch at 6 p.m. and bingo — all five bridges lit up.

“People have loved it. I am a great believer that when cities are done right, no one can compete with them. They have a vitality– a special feeling — a dynamism — of their own.”

Morgan K. O’Brien, chief executive officer of DQE, Duquesne Light’s parent company, quipped, “I told the governor tonight how excited we are to light up the Clemente Bridge and he told me that PECO had lit five bridges in Philadelphia.”

The bridge lighting fireworks display as seen from the Sixth Street Garage. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

O’Brien called the Clemente Bridge “a shining symbol of our commitment to the region and an important addition to the ongoing initiative to create one of the most striking urban waterfronts in the country.”

Rendell also let slip that he’d helped find some of the financing for the Philadelphia bridge lighting project, leading Arthur Ziegler of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to wish aloud that maybe, as governor, Rendell could help find funding for some additional Pittsburgh bridges.

Ziegler, who worked as a project manager and adviser on the Clemente project, said he’d like to see the Ninth Street Bridge lit next because it’s so close to the new convention center.

History & Landmarks lit the first bridge in Pittsburgh — putting white “necklace” lighting atop the Smithfield Street Bridge — back in 1983.

Another person heavily involved in the bridge lighting project was City Councilman Sala Udin.

“I went up to Mount Washington one night after being elected and all our beautiful bridges seemed to disappear at night,” he said, deciding to do something about it.

Referring to Duquesne Light’s investment in the Clemente Bridge lighting, he leaned over the microphone and boomed, “Will anybody else step forward with $500,000 to light another bridge?”

Also pushing the lighting project has been the Riverlife Task Force, a 3-year-old, privately funded group trying to improve the appearance and vitality of city riverfronts.

Rendell, like the rest of the several hundred onlookers gathered in a Duquesne Light tent outside PNC Park to watch the fireworks, said lighting bridges will improve Pittsburgh’s already impressive skyline.

He said that as an outsider, he perhaps appreciates the city’s beauty more than some longtime residents.

“I think this is an awesome city,” he said. “It’s a city that’s got a lot going for it. The old theory about Pittsburgh being a dead place — that theory’s gone. The city has tremendous potential.”

The new lighting includes four “portal” light fixtures atop piers at both ends of the bridge, 32 white globes atop fixtures stretching down both sides of the bridge, floodlights illuminating the gold towers and the piers under the bridge, and smaller blue lights along the top of the span.

“The blue pinpoints of light will add sparkle and excitement to this grand old bridge connecting Downtown to the new ballparks,” said Paula Garret, senior vice president of Forum Lighting of Pittsburgh, which designed the blue lights.

Tom Barnes can be reached at or 412-263-1548.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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