Pa. bridges, roads pay homage to famous, fallen

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

They're easy to miss: names written on plaques, passed thousands of times a day by hurrying motorists.

They're the names of athletes and generals, police officers and politicians adorning bridges, highways and interchanges.

Some are famous, such as football star Joe Montana.

Others are lost to time, such as Robb McCray, a police officer who died while trying to save a comrade more than a century ago.

Pennsylvania has more than 500 pieces of public infrastructure named for the famous or the fallen.

Sometimes, the christenings honor a notable local.

Often, it's done to honor an act of heroism like that of West Virginia Deputy Sheriff Michael Todd May, 41, who died in 2012 during a high-speed chase that took him across the Pennsylvania line near Mt. Morris, Greene County.

An Interstate 79 interchange in Mt. Morris was named for May last week. State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, and state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, sponsored a bill to honor the fallen officer.

That's generally how a road or bridge is renamed.

“It's pretty straightforward. A senator or member of the House can submit in bill form a piece of legislation, a request for naming of a highway or a bridge or a park,” said state Sen. Richard A. Kasunic, D-Dunbar Township.

Kasunic spearheaded this year's renaming of a bridge and an interchange in Fayette County.

The Crawford Avenue Bridge over the Youghiogheny River in Connellsville became the Officer Robb McCray Memorial Bridge.

McCray was a police officer sent to a circus with his partner to break up a disturbance. McCray was shot twice in the chest while trying to pull an assailant off his partner.

The slaying happened in 1882, and although thousands attended his funeral, McCray's story was lost until a researcher rediscovered it in 2012 and brought it to Kasunic's attention.

“I've lived right outside the city, Dunbar Township, all my life, and I never knew this had happened,” Kasunic said.

His bill also renamed an interchange linking Route 119 and Walnut Hill Road in South Union after Fred L. Lebder, a longtime Democratic leader and county commissioner.

Once the state approves a name, PennDOT makes the change official and places a plaque on the road or bridge.

PennDOT maintains a list of more than 500 named bridges, highways, interchanges and underpasses, but it's not comprehensive. Although most bridge names are handled at the state level, others are named by local authorities.

There's often some confusion because people sometimes refer to bridges and roads by their old names.

That's the case with the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which spans the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh and often is called the Sixth Street Bridge, its former name.

It is rare for a proposed bridge name to be shot down by lawmakers, Kasunic said, but the fight to preserve a piece of history sometimes overpowers the desire to make something new.

A bridge in Oakmont, carrying Route 2082 over the Allegheny River, stood for generations without an official name. It was built in 1908, and locals called it the Jonathan Hulton Bridge for the settler who ran a ferry across the river in the early days of Oakmont.

In 1989, a group of politicians tried to rename the bridge for state Rep. Joseph F. Bonetto, who had died the year before.

Local residents fought back, remembers Ralph Hays, who lived in Oakmont at the time.

“Well, my mother found out about that, and she just had a fit,” he said.

Elva Hays, who now is deceased, rallied Oakmont residents to protest the change. Lawmakers backed down and instead named a highway for Bonetto. In 1993, the state officially named the span the Jonathan Hulton Memorial Bridge.

The Hulton Bridge is slated for closure, then demolition, and will be replaced.

Hays said he is confident the new bridge will be named for Hulton.

“If they don't, my mother is going to come back and haunt me,” he said.

Donora Mayor John “Chummy” Lignelli rallied his community to rename the Donora-Monessen Bridge, which carries Route 1022 over the Monongahela River. In 2011, it became the Stan Musial Bridge, named for the baseball hall-of-famer and Donora native.

“One day I thought, ‘We haven't named nothing worthwhile after Stan Musial, who was one of the best baseball players who ever lived,' ” Lignelli said.

Musial died in January 2013.

Sometimes plans to rename a road or bridge never come to fruition.

Two years ago, Allegheny County Councilman Jim Ellenbogen set out to rename one of Pittsburgh's many bridges for Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. He proposed the idea to council, but it was vying for attention alongside another suggestion: to name a bridge for author David McCullough.

“There's a lot of people to honor, and we got into the McCullough thing, so I kind of backed off and let that go with the McCullough thing, which I thought was well-deserved,” Ellenbogen said.

The 16th Street Bridge became the David McCullough Bridge last year.

“There's only so many bridges, and it gets to the point where you can't honor everybody,” Ellenbogen said.

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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