Boulevard Of The Allies Isn’t So Much A Memorial To War Heroes As The End Of The Streetcar

Aug 23, 2018

The Boulevard of the Allies begins at the Golden Triangle in downtown Pittsburgh, crosses Grant Street and lifts off onto a ramp. The intersection is flanked by two stony eagles perched atop pillars. 

Those eagles got listener Bill Gasson thinking. He said he was once told the Boulevard of the Allies was supposed to be a monument to World War I, complete with statues of important military figures of the Allied Armies. 

"I noticed the pillars with the eagles on top, as if they had started something but it never got completed," Gasson said.

Once it leaves downtown, the Boulevard runs along the Monongahela River, hugging the cliff-side and giving drivers a spectacular, if slightly scary view of the South Side. In the rightmost lane, a passenger might think the car will fall right off the edge. The Boulevard then veers safely into Oakland and comes to an end in Schenley Park.

The view of Pittsburgh's South Side from the Boulevard of the Allies heading east toward Oakland.
Credit Niven Sabherwal / 90.5 WESA

Altogether, it's about 3-and-a-half miles long.

In the late 1800s, Pittsburgh had an extensive streetcar network. Dozens of transit companies operated hundreds of trolleys. When automobiles hit the streets in the early 1900s, traffic piled up on major crosstown roads like Forbes and Centre avenues, because they were filled with trolleys.

In 1913, Pittsburgh City Council proposed a new street to get people from the East End to Downtown -- one meant only for cars.

"This was sort of the modern automobile age answer to Pittsburgh's trolley clogged streets," said western Pennsylvania historian Brian Butko. The idea was proposed as "Monongahela Boulevard." In 1917, the county's road commissioner was quoted as saying, "I know of no improvement so badly needed in the city of Pittsburgh as the Monongahela Boulevard."

Butko said after World War I ended and before construction began, city councilman Robert Garland said, why not name it the Boulevard of the Allies?

"He was pretty progressive for his time," Butko said. "He wanted to honor both the men and women who had served."

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

Building the road was a major engineering feat. The original project was just short of two miles long, and used 300,000 pounds of steel in retaining walls, and more than 29,000 tons of steel for the viaducts, or supports, that raise the road.

According to the book "Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City" by Stefan Lorant, the estimated cost of the Boulevard in 1922 was $1.6 million per mile -- which would be almost $24 million today.

Butko said the statues our listener asked about were proposed by a different city councilor.

"He wanted statues of the war heroes from the different countries," he said. "That never came to fruition, all that ever happened there are the eagles to the entrance of the ramp."

According to a newspaper article from 1921, the final plans for the Boulevard had space reserved for statues and memorials at different points along the route. The article notes the Department of Public Works took suggestions for names of Pittsburghers who died in World War I, to be honored on tablets along the road. However, it never happened. 

The front of one of the statues.
Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

Two decades later, another article reports Garland -- the city councilor who advocated for the street -- said Pittsburgh had failed in the construction of the war monuments, but still had the opportunity to include icons from both the first and second World Wars.

Though these ideas never came to life, the Boulevard of the Allies has the name to prove it was intended to honor those who served.

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