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Original BV-Speers Bridge spanned 60 years of area history

| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 8:03 p.m.
The opening of the Belle Vernon Speers Bridge on January 1st,1895.
The opening of the Belle Vernon Speers Bridge on January 1st,1895.

When did the original Belle Vernon-Speers Bridge, the one that is no longer there, open?

That question from a reader in Allenport is timely because this month is a significant one in the history of the bridge that initially linked Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon with Speers and other communities on the Washington County side of the Monongahela River.

According to such historians as the late R. Mitchell Steen Jr., longtime managing editor of The Valley Independent, the original span opened on Jan. 1, 1895,

It was built, according to Steen, under the direction of the Belle Vernon Bridge Company, which was incorporated on Feb. 1, 1891. Its stated purpose was, “To construct a wagon and foot bridge across the Monongahela River at Belle Vernon.”

But it was not until February 1893 that Congress authorized construction of the bridge.

The incorporators, Steen wrote in his popular Backward Glances column on May 8, 1976, were a “Who's Who of Belle Vernon.”

They included S.F. Jones, J.S. Jones, S.C. Speers, Charles J. Speers, Thomas P. Grant, J.S. Van Voorhis, J.C. Cunningham, Isaac S. Van Voorhis, A.L. Brown, T.L. Daly, R.J. Linton and W. J. Manown.

The directors in 1893 were J.S. Van Voorhis, T.L. Daly, Isaac S. Van Voorhis and Thomas P. Grant. S.F. Jones was treasurer and J.S. Jones was secretary.

Actual construction of the bridge began almost immediately after authorization by Congress. It continued through the latter part of 1893 and through 1894.

“There being no modern machinery, work on the Belle Vernon Bridge was necessarily slow and all construction was done by hand,” Steen said.

He continued:

“Concrete was unknown and the piers were constructed out of cut stone in sizes from one to three yards square and set in place by a huge crane. A small hole was cut in each side of the stones and the hooks of the entire structure fastened in these hooks, and the stones swung into place. Each pier was built on a raft and sunk to the river bottom.”

The work was done by the Jutte Coal Co. of Pittsburgh, which also helped finance the project.

The bridge was originally a toll span. That status remained in effect until July 9, 1910, when the “freeing” of the bridge took place.

Although the last toll for the bridge was taken on July 9, the span was legally made free earlier, when Judge J. A. McIlvaine of Washington County “affixed his signature in a decree approving the action of the Grand Jury considering the matter,” The Charleroi Mail reported on July 7.

An organization named the Civic League and comprised of residents of Belle Vernon and Speers led the court efforts in Washington and Fayette counties to have the bridge declared freed of tolls.

At a meeting of the citizens group on July 6, 1910, it was announced that plans had been advanced for a major celebration marking the end of those tolls.

The committee said the event would be held July 20 and promised “big doings.”

A contract for decorating the bridge and Belle Vernon was awarded to the V.D. Hardester Company of Carnegie, which had charge of “festooning” Charleroi for its Fourth of July celebration.

One of the features planned for the July 20 festivities was a “monster parade” in the morning, beginning at 10 o'clock. Some 100 automobiles were expected to participate, “the machines being brought from Charleroi and various towns along the river,” The Mail said.

It emphasized that freeing of the bridge “is a big item for owners of automobiles.”

The Civic League also said a basket picnic would be held at Lynn's Grove in Lynnwood “near Belle Vernon” in the afternoon and would include sports and speeches.

Several thousand area residents jammed both sides of the river for the July 20 festivities, which included orations by several prominent public figures.

Among those addressing the crowd at Lynn's Grove was Congressman John K. Tener of Charleroi, Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania.

Tener, the newspaper emphasized, “was accorded a great ovation” when he took the stand after being introduced by Edward L. Sears of the Civic League.

Cries of “Tener, Tener, Tener” greeted him and “he had to wait a few minutes after being introduced before he was able to be heard.”

John Irons was chief marshal of the parade, which featured myriad automobiles carrying officers of the Civic League and other prominent guests and dignitaries.

The Charleroi Mail reported that it had been at first decided to stage the parade to Monessen, “but upon learning that Fayette City made a request that the cavalcade come there as well, all was cut out.”

The Loyal Order of the Moose of Belle Vernon was recognized as having the largest delegation of any order in the parade, “the lodge being reinforced by delegations from Monessen, Charleroi and other places,” the newspaper reported. The Moose also had their own band.

The Hungarian Miners of Pricedale “turned out 300 strong, also with a band.”

“Other societies had large representations and some handsome floats,” The Mail said. “The high schools of Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon, as well as the primary grades, were in the line of march in elaborately decorated wagons.”

In addition to the picnic, speeches and a baseball game, a five-act high wire performance by the Pittsburg (yes, without the “H”) Hippodrome of Forbes Field highlighted activities at Lynn's Grove.

Evening boat races on the Monongahela River featured members of the McKeesport Yacht Club as well as owners of motorboats from Monongahela, Brownsville and other area towns.

“A better place for a race could not be found anywhere along the river than right here, as for over a mile there is a fine stretch almost straight,” the newspaper said. “Both banks and the bridge form a splendid place for witnessing both the start and finish.”

An unfortunate accident marred the July 20 celebration, as a four-year-old North Belle Vernon girl died after being struck by one of the automobiles in the parade. She was initially taken home and reportedly recovering from her injuries, but succumbed at 6:30 a.m. the next day.

The bridge was remodeled and rebuilt in 1940.

It closed not long after the new high-level carrying the “Super Highway,” “Expressway Highway” and Route 71 across the Monongahela River opened in 1952.

That highway, of course, became part of Interstate 70 and the four-lane span is known as the Belle Vernon-Speers Bridge.

Actual demolition of the original Belle Vernon-Speers Bridge didn't come until early in 1955.

A story on Page One of The Charleroi Mail on March 8, 1955, reported that Charles Zubik and Sons Co. of Pittsburgh “continued with the first task associated with the removal of the old Belle Vernon bridge today. This job entails cutting away of the old bridge railing.”

The story also recalled that several people went out on the bridge the previous day “just for the sake of being the last to go over it.”

“Just who was the last car owner to cross the span seemed pretty well settled in the minds of the demolition crews,” the newspaper said.

“It was the man who placed the barricades at the ends of the bridge and a Highway Department official who accompanied him.”

The newspaper also noted that Wooda H. Lange, a Belle Vernon druggist “who keeps a good record of Belle Vernon history,” and Fred Speers, “who is a close student of local history,” were helpful in tracing the origins of the bridge.

Demolition in 1955 marked the end of the bridge's 60-year existence.

It was one that spanned the ages.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writre for Trib Total Media.

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