Fort Pitt Bridge celebrates 60 years as part of Pittsburgh’s grand entrance
In a place that has more bridges than any other city in the world, it’s hard to pick one that stands out from the other 445.
The ornate Smithfield Street Bridge, built in 1881, is the oldest through-truss bridge in the United States.
The Sixth Street Bridge, now called the Roberto Clemente Bridge, received an award in 1929 from the American Institute of Steel Construction for its self-anchored suspension design.
And there is the Fort Duquesne Bridge, also known as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” because of lengthy construction delays.
But perhaps no bridge in Pittsburgh evokes more visceral feelings from residents and visitors alike than the Fort Pitt Bridge.
Wednesday marked 60 years since the Fort Pitt Bridge opened as the world’s first computer-designed bowstring arch bridge and the first double-decker bowstring arch bridge. But all that takes a back seat to the dramatic view that the bridge affords to those who cross it.
The Fort Pitt Bridge is seen from West Carson Street.
The Fort Pitt Bridge famously inspired the New York Times to call Pittsburgh “the only city in America with an entrance” and say that it’s “the best way to enter an American city.” If you have ever driven through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and onto the bridge, you know exactly what the Times was talking about.
“The City of Pittsburgh gleaming suddenly before her … so startling in its vastness and its beauty that she had gasped and slowed, afraid of losing control of the car,” writer Kim Edwards said.
Mario Lemieux knew nothing about the city when he first showed up in 1984 but, once he came through the tunnel and onto the Fort Pitt Bridge, he knew he liked it.
Returning from a long road trip, Willie Stargell once said, “Last night, coming in from the airport, we came through the tunnel and the city opened up its arms and I felt at home.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough said, “Pittsburgh is the only city that makes an entrance.”
The Fort Pitt Bridge opened at 11 a.m. June 19, 1959, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by then-Gov. David L. Lawrence. A water cannon was fired some 100 yards from the bridge to celebrate its completion. The bridge, which spans just more than 1,200 feet, cost $6,305,000 to build.
“It was an engineering marvel,” said Heinz History Center President and CEO Andy Masich. “With the advent of automobile culture after World War II, everyone was driving. The bridges and tunnels and the streets of Pittsburgh were just jam packed and traffic was awful. They really needed that new bridge and tunnel to get cars off the city streets and on to the interstate highways. The Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel relieved all that pressure.”
“Whether or not its designers — the region’s own American Bridge — knew just how significant the structure would be, we can’t know,” said Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman.
The bridge has played a prominent role in popular culture.
Among its recent appearances is in the iconic scene from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” when Emma Watson stands in the back of a pickup truck with her arms raised as her friends drive through the tunnel and she emerges triumphantly on the bridge, silhouetted against the sprawling city skyline.
But the scene certainly wasn’t filmed at rush hour.
Unfortunately, the Fort Pitt Bridge is one of the more scenic choke points of the city. With some 150,000 cars crossing it on a daily basis, traffic is constantly backed up on the bridge, which has earned a reputation for difficult lane changes, particularly on the lower level, which often require motorists to go from the extreme left lane across two lanes to the extreme right lane in only 300 feet.
“I think it’s a love/hate relationship,” Masich said. “Yeah, the locals at commuter hours dread the pinch point that is the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Any tunnels slow down traffic. But, at the same time, it’s one of the things we’re proudest of when you hear newcomers come to Pittsburgh. When you come home from the airport and come through that tunnel and the city opens up before you as you pop out of the tunnel and you see the fountain and the skyline and the three rivers converging at the Point. Boy, there’s nothing that makes you more proud.”
Cars are gridlocked on the Fort Pitt Bridge.
Pashman says the Fort Pitt Bridge certainly helped to define the transformation of the region over nearly two generations.
“The bridge is a defining element in the way Pittsburgh presents itself to the world, conveying beyond traffic and commerce, a sense of excitement that one has arrived in a place with a promising future,” Pashman said.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].