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Bridge across Jacobs Creek was world's first iron suspension bridge

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By Robert B. Van Atta
Sunday, May 19, 2002
 

Among many national historical distinctions tracing back to southwestern Pennsylvania was a bridge across Jacobs Creek between Fayette and Westmoreland counties that was the first of its kind in the nation and world.

It was the first iron suspension bridge, completed and said to have been opened 200 years ago this week, May 22, 1802.

The bridge, which spawned the town or village name of Iron Bridge, was the forerunner of many major structures nationally.

That basic bridge design was identical to that used for others such as the Delaware River Bridge in Philadelphia, George Washington Bridge in New York and Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Others earlier were in Brownsville, and the Neshaminy, Schuylkill, Northampton and Allentown in eastern Pennsylvania.

The pioneer bridge designer of iron suspension bridges was James Finley (1760-1828), a Fayette native who served as a county commissioner, state legislator and judge. He also was an inventor and engineer, as his first effort "on the principal turnpike between Connellsville and Mt. Pleasant" demonstrated.

A couple of decades later, wire was developed to replace chains on a bridge in eastern Pennsylvania, and it further improved the principle of suspension bridges.

Although Finley did not get his patent until 1808, it was used for many bridges throughout Pennsylvania and adjoining states as the populace sought to avoid fording streams.

The original Jacobs Creek bridge was solely supported on two iron chains extending over four piers, 14 feet higher than the bridge, fastened in the ground at both ends. The bridge had a 70-foot span and was 13 feet wide. The chains were 1-inch-square bars in links of from 5 to 10 feet long.

Finley's first bridge survived until 1825, when it broke under a six-horse team. It was repaired and put in service again, and lasted until 1833, when the commissioners agreed to build a new one in its place.

One history from outside the area cites his bridge as receiving little recognition, "because his patented chain bridge was too far ahead of its time."

A bridge originally was proposed by the Fayette County commissioners in a letter to the Westmoreland board of commissioners in March 1801. Four weeks later, the two county boards of commissioners met at the site.

The contract was signed in April, with each county then to pay half of the $600 cost. John Fulton and Andrew Oliphant built the bridge, which originally was intended to be completed in December 1801.

The town of Iron Bridge never became a major community, as much commercial development came on the other side of Jacobs Creek. A West Penn Power substation and a poultry farm (Weaver) were among its features.

WEST OVERTON 75TH

The West Overton Historical Society, which administers the village, buildings, and museum in that southern edge of Westmoreland County, will observe its 75th anniversary in 2003 with a year-long Diamond Jubilee program.

The society was formed in 1928 by Helen Clay Frick, daughter of Henry Clay Frick.

The village of West Overton was actually created by Henry Overholt in April 1800, so that the buildings and artifacts there cover a sweep of two centuries of important local history and life.

THIS DATE IN HISTORY

May 19 has figured in local history for more than two centuries.

On this date in 1798, the armed ship President Adams was launched at the Elizabeth boatbuilding yard for service against the Spanish on the lower Mississippi River.

A stagecoach line began operations between Blairsville and Indiana in 1842.

In 1871 (may have been May 18), the first train from Pittsburgh arrived in Washington on the just-completed Chartiers Valley Railroad.

Jerome post office was established in Somerset County in 1906.

In 1928, 194 persons were killed in the Buckeye Coal Mine disaster in Mather on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The mine in Greene County had 208 miners at work at the time. Coal dust and methane gas were cited as causes for the explosion.

A huge hailstorm hit the Monongahela Valley area in 1933.

In 1946, Charleroi's John K. Tener, who at one time was both governor of Pennsylvania and National Baseball League president, died on this date.

Point Park started in 1950 for its development.

In 1974, the Sunday Tribune-Review made its debut.

LOWER ST. CLAIR TOWNSHIP

While Upper St. Clair Township occupies a significant niche as a fine residential township in Allegheny County, Lower St. Clair township has disappeared.

The two began as one with the formation of the county. In 1789, the new county consisted of seven townships.

St. Clair was described as "… beginning at the mouth of Chartiers Creek, thence up the river Ohio to the mouth of the Monongahela, thence up the said river to the mouth of Street's run, thence …. to the head thereof, thence by a straight line to the mouth of Miller's run on Chartiers creek, and down said creek to the place of beginning."

The township was 15 miles in length, and ranged in breadth from 6 to 10 miles. The court was petitioned to divide the township in 1808, and the next year after appointment of a commission for that purpose, it was, although no record is known.

After that, Lower St. Clair was a continual victim of various borough and township annexations, including Pittsburgh, until it was all gone. These included Mt. Oliver, Knoxville, Allentown, Beltzhoover, West Liberty, Greentree, Pittsburgh's South Side and Baldwin Township.

First St. Clair settler was John Fife. John Connor settled in 1769 with his father, and both served in the Revolution.

PRESERVATION AWARDS

Awards for state historic preservation are being made in Harrisburg Thursday by Preservation Pennsylvania in partnership with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

While many awards go elsewhere in the state, southwestern Pennsylvania claims three, all in Pittsburgh.

The Stewardship award goes to the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a structure now on the National Register of Historic Places, in the inner city.

Another, once the largest ice factory in the city and now an artists' studio in Lawrenceville, is being honored for industrial building rehabilitation.

The Schenley Park picnic pavilion won in the special historic properties category. A 1908 building, it is across from the Phipps Conservatory, and had suffered from severe neglect.

VETERANS' HOSPITAL LOSS

An oil lease on the proposed site caused the planned veterans' hospital for World War I tubercular veterans to be moved from its proposed location in 1922 on a plateau at the 320-acre Lloyd Huff estate near Donohoe Station in Greensburg.

A search of several months turned up that site, purchase of which was nearly complete when the restriction was discovered. Statutes prohibited U.S. land purchases when there were such restrictions.

While doubt was expressed that no site could be found as ideal as the Greensburg one, U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon vetoed the recommendation. Greensburg lost the hospital to Aspinwall.

SPORTS HISTORY

Offutt Field in Greensburg, known by that name since 1928 when it was changed from Athletic Park, has been used for high school football for more than 100 years. It has also seen early pro football, college football, minor league (and an occasional major league) baseball; local independent, sandlot, semi-pro, and Little League baseball, track and field, and other sports.

An interesting game was that of Saturday, Oct. 12, 1895, when the Greensburg Athletic Association pro footballers walloped Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh since 1909), 42-2.

It turned out that the collegians' coach gave his team a set of signals in those pre-huddle days that had been used by Penn State the year before.

Two of the key players (including the playing coach) of the Greensburg team had starred for Penn State the year before, Atherton and Robinson. Thus, the team knew what was coming.

That game of 107 years ago was played in a drizzling rain and mud, but that had little effect in the face of the other handicap.

 

 
 


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