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The Bridges of Pittsburgh

Phoenixville News
Phoenix, AZ

The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn. – Davi Russell

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a bridge is “a structure that allows people or vehicles to cross an obstacle, such as a river, canal, railway, etc.”

Certain parts of the country are identified with their bridges. What would New York City be without the George Washington Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge? What would Philadelphia be without the Walt Whitman Bridge or the Betsy Ross Bridge? What would San Francisco be without the Golden Gate Bridge?

As of December 2004, there were 594,470 bridges in the United States (Better Roads magazine). Pennsylvania ranks eighth with 23,484.

Which city in the world has the most bridges? Most of us would answer Venice, Italy, which boasts approximately 400 (small) bridges or perhaps St. Petersburg, Russia (also known as the Venice of the North) which claims 308 within the city limits.
You may be surprised that the best estimate of the number of bridges in the City of Pittsburgh, Pa., is 446, the undisputed “City of Bridges ” in the entire world.
The three basic types of bridges are beam, arch, and suspension. A beam bridge is a horizontal beam supported at each end by piers. The farther apart the piers are spaced, the larger the beam must become.

An arch bridge is a curved structure with supports on both ends. With centuries of use, a simple arch bridge reaches across a span in an arching shape rather than straight across as a beam bridge does. Leonardo da Vinci once said, “An arch consists of two weaknesses, which, leaning on each other, become a strength.”
A suspension bridge has its deck suspended from cables and towers. The suspension bridge can span great distances but they are also very expensive and time consuming to build.

Pittsburgh is also known as the “City of Three Rivers”: Allegheny and Monongahela which combine at “The Point” to form the Ohio River. And when you combine those waterways with the local terrain, there is a perfect need for many kinds of bridges: pedestrian, automobile, railroad, bus, light rail, water, hot metal, and incline-carrying bridges. It has or has had covered bridges, wooden bridges, all steel bridges, toll bridges and bridges of every style, shape and form except for a drawbridge.

With that many bridges, one would expect some “bridge firsts” in Pittsburgh and here are a few:

* First all steel self-cleaning bridge (McFarren Avenue Bridge )
* First self-anchored suspension bridge (Pennsylvania Canal )
* First wire cable suspension bridge (Pennsylvania Canal )
* First computer-aided design bridge (Fort Pitt )
* First and only three identical side-by-side bridges in the world (The Three Sisters; ironically two of the three are named after men, i.e. Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol).

If this subject fascinates you as it does me, you may want to pick up The Bridges of Pittsburgh by Bob Regan (2006). There you can learn everything from bridge safety to bridge design and from their place in arts and entertainment to the origin of their names. You can even learn about how you can tour the bridges by car or bicycle or walking or by riding on the river.

The first time I drove into Pittsburgh was in the late 1960s. The last time was a few months ago. No matter how often I visit, however, I always find it a challenge navigating around and across those bridges. One wrong turn can get you far from your preferred destination.

If you suffer from gephyrophobia, the fear of bridges, you may want to avoid Pittsburgh. But now that I have read Bob Regan’s book I have a whole new appreciation for the transportation challenges between those three rivers.
In a month or so I am scheduled to go to Pittsburgh on business. I can only imagine what I will see that I had never noticed before.

Think about it.

Editor’s note: Dr. Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville. Responses can be e-mailed to

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633