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Viaduct's visability in Monessen spans nearly a century

| Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

His name may not ring a bell with many people – except, of course, for his descendants – but Dr. William D. Hunter holds a unique place in Monessen history.

It was nearly 100 years ago – on Thursday, June 5, 1913 – that Dr. Hunter drove the first car across the new and long-awaited Third Street Bridge in the city. The towering structure that spans Third Street became more commonly known as the Reed Avenue Viaduct or just the Viaduct.

Hunter, the first practicing physician in Monessen, was a member of borough council at the time the Viaduct opened. Monessen did not obtain city status until Sept. 16, 1921.

According to a story on Page One of The Daily Independent of Monessen on June 5, 1913, the bridge was formally opened to traffic “at 2 o'clock this afternoon when the gates were thrown open at each end and four automobiles passed gracefully over.”

There were no traditional ceremonies, “no pomp and splendor, neither were there any accidents or excitement.”

The “parade” comprised only four automobiles.

“The bridge bore up its burden and not a groan was heard,” the story said.

The first car over the Viaduct was the Cadillac owned and operated by Hunter. It had as its passengers the doctor's two children, G.F. Wright, Mary Bindley, Clark Baer and superintendent James McCullough of the Nicola Construction Company of Pittsburgh, which built the bridge.

C.S. Duvall, borough engineer A.W. Jones, Harry R. Pore, editor of The Daily Independent, Dr. H.W. Day and William Frantz formed the party in two other cars.

The fourth automobile was a Maxwell roadster driven by Mrs. George T. Barban and had as passengers Mrs. Harry R. Pore and Mrs. W.D. Cowan.

“From henceforth the bridge will be used for vehicle traffic,” the newspaper stated. “It was built at a cost of approximately $55,000 and is without doubt the greatest improvement the town has ever made.”

While the June 5 event marked the official opening of the Viaduct, traffic was permitted on the span more than one week earlier to accommodate the throng attending a special evangelistic service at The Tabernacle.

The revival, which was expected to draw thousands of people to Monessen, began Sunday, May 25, with the highly acclaimed Rev. John Hamilton of Cleveland leading the services. His opening presentation highlighted the dedication of The Tabernacle located on McKee Avenue, between Sixth Street and Park Way.

The building had a seating capacity of 3,000 and an estimated 1,500 braved inclement weather for the first night ceremonies. The presence of the Viaduct provided easier access to the revival for hundreds of those who attended the event.

The Daily Independent provided extensive coverage of the revival, which ran four days, and lauded Hamilton as “without a doubt a powerful platform man. His general appearance and his manner indicate that Monessen will experience a great religious awakening in the next few weeks.”

Divine intervention notwithstanding, plans for building the Viaduct to connect the two hillside districts of Monessen were often discussed by the Monessen Board of Trade and borough officials at the turn of the last century. But it was not until 1911 that bids were let and the contract was awarded to Nicola Construction Co., a highly regarded firm that had built other bridges in the Pittsburgh region.

A newspaper story on Monday, June 3, 1912, emphasized that “appearance of activity indicates immediate start on Third Street Viaduct.”

It continued:

“The contract is in the hands of Nicola and Company of Pittsburgh, one of the best bridge contracting firms in the country, and judging by the activity already manifested the town will soon enjoy this monster improvement. It is just a little more than a year since the matter was first introduced into the Board of Trade. At the meeting following it was taken up in council and step-by-step progress was made until the contract was let. This is one of the greatest improvements the town will have as a direct effort of the Board of Trade. The contracting firm is going at the work in a manner which speaks complimentary for the earnestness of the contract.”

The newspaper also said “some difficulty is being experienced in getting places to store the material” to be used for construction.

“All the vacant lots and portions of the streets in the vicinity are already occupied and premiums are being asked for the remaining lots,” it said. “One party refused $50 for the use of his lot for temporary storage. Property owners in the vicinity of the improvement should lend a helping hand to further work and thus bring to the town at an early date a structure that will be a great benefit to every person.”

Work on the Viaduct began in earnest the next day (Tuesday, June 4) as materials continued to arrive.

“Almost 40 cars of lumber have arrived and the first raise work for the big bridge is being started,” the newspaper reported.

Progress reports about construction of the bridge were issued throughout the project.

The Daily Independent announced on April 14, 1913, that “the new bridge which spans Third Street connecting the two hills is fast nearing completion and it is believed that within two weeks traffic will be crossing.”

“It will probably take the Nicola Company another month to move the raise work and complete the contract ready to turn the structure over to the town,” the newspaper said. “The bridge is without doubt one of the greatest improvements that has ever come to the town and it will be appreciated by more people than any other project. Teamsters, hucksters and grocers will save the climbing of one hill when they have orders for both hills. It will greatly facilitate the arrangement of the schools and will help in every way. It will be opened and dedicated with deep appreciation on the part of nearly every person, if not by pomp and ceremony.”

As the aforementioned revival at The Tabernacle approached, the newspaper announced on Tuesday May 25, 1913, that the Third Street Viaduct would be “thrown open to the traveling public this evening at 7 o'clock and will remain open for foot passengers only until 10:30 o'clock.”

“A committee representing the ministerial association took the matter up with the Nicola Construction Company, the burgess and police department so that people could get from the lower hill to and from The Tabernacle without first going downtown,” the story said. “All were agreed that the structure could be opened for a short time during the evening to accommodate the people who wished to attend the services. The bridge will be opened and closed promptly at the hours mentioned and no person will be permitted to cross before or after.

“Children will not be allowed across unless accompanied by parents or in charge of some grown folks and the bridge will be under police regulations during these hours.”

R. Mitchell Steen Jr., longtime managing editor of The Valley Independent and noted Mon Valley historian, wrote about the official June 5, 1913, opening of the Viaduct in his popular Backward Glances column on Saturday, Aug. 16, 1975.

“The opening of the big structure wasn't without its complaints,” Steen wrote. “Many residents along Third Street (below the bridge) complained about loiterers and pedestrians who threw stones down onto the street or spit on those below. One woman filed a complaint that she had her dress ruined by tobacco juice which came from above.”

Steen also noted that for some time after the bridge was opened a special police officer was stationed to patrol against such annoyances and finally, in time, that novelty of the huge structure wore off and it became the boon it was expected to be in in allowing persons from one hill to get to the other without having to go downtown.

Steen's 1975 column was prompted by actions involving demolition of and rebuilding the Viaduct at that time. He said it would cost the city nearly three times as much to tear down the bridge than it did to construct it 62 years earlier. “What's more, to rebuild the span over Third Street, it will cost 26 times more,” he said.

“The Viaduct, a 93-feet high bridge that carries traffic from one hill to another, was built in 1913 at a cost of $55,500,” Steen reminded his readers. “Work has begun on demolition of the bridge prior to rebuilding by Frank L. Irey Jr. Inc., at a cost of $148,000. Although no contracts have been awarded for new construction, low bidder on the project also is Irey, at $1.43 million. That's an increase of nearly 42 percent for each of the 62 years of existence.

“When originally built, the span was considered an engineering miracle,” Steen said. “Concrete for the huge structure was mixed at the site and hauled by wheelbarrow. Hundreds of workers toiled for months to complete the project. The bridge has stood for all these years with very little in the way of repairs. It underwent major repairs only once in all that time – in the summer of 1950, when $75,000 was spent for repairs.”

Steen concluded his essay by noting that “since that day 62 years ago, when the bridge opened, thousands of persons have crossed the Viaduct, both in vehicles and on foot.”

That number has grown even higher since 1975 and anyone who has used the Viaduct will recall crossing it on the way to school, church, funeral homes, social visits and countless other reasons.

Now nearing its 100th anniversary, the structure truly does represent one of the greatest engineering advancements in Monessen's long and storied history.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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