The 40th Street Bridge connecting Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood with the borough of Millvale is unlike the rest of the city’s more than 460 bridges.
The three light blue arches supporting the span appear to bounce across the Allegheny River. On the concrete deck above, drivers, runners, and cyclists make their way back and forth from Route 28 to Lawrenceville. Listener April Friges crosses this bridge a lot, and said she was intrigued by the colorful seals fixed to the railings.
“We are a city of bridges and I feel like a lot of our bridges aren’t hand-painted as intricately as that bridge,” Friges said.
Listener Alexis Jabour also noticed the seals and noted that they appeared to be state seals repeated for the length of the bridge.
“I was sitting in traffic and looked out at the river and saw something on the side of the bridge and said, ‘Does that say New Hampshire?'”
These 14 seals, or shields, are a tribute to American colonial history, according to Lawrenceville Historical Society’s Jim Wudarczyk.
“They represent the first 13 colonies of the United States and the seal of Allegheny County,” Wudarcyzk said. “They’re repeated constantly and there are 292.”
A 1924 Pittsburgh Daily Post article describes the 3-by-2 foot shields as “ornamental iron work.” They were colorless, likely just brass, until 1976, when Shaler resident Stan Hubstenberger petitioned officials to refurbish and paint the shields, offering his services along with about 200 others. In 2003, another few hundred volunteers removed and repainted the plaques again.
Prior to the 40th Street Bridge’s construction, a wooden span called the Ewalts Bridge spanned the river slightly upstream from the current bridge. Wudarcyzk said many Lawrenceville residents noticed the old bridge’s shortcomings as automobiles gained popularity.
“Every time you went over with a car, the next day the maintenance crew had to come out with hammers and nails because all the boards lifted up,” he said. Plus, it would catch fire frequently. Wudarcyzk said when the time came to demolish the Ewalts Bridge, the wood was sold to the local Diamond Match Company to be converted into wooden matches.
The Ewalts Bridge, like most others in the region, was privately owned and financed by a toll. Just after World War I, Allegheny County officials decided to purchase all the area bridges and make them free. This change coincided with what many historians refer to age the Golden Age of infrastructure construction in Allegheny County.
“In those days they wanted bridges to look beautiful, be aesthetically pleasing to the public,” Wudarcyzk said. “Because [they were now] using public funds.”
With this idea in mind, officials sought out architect Benno Janssen. The Missouri native was already well known in the city for designing the Pittsburgh Athletic Association club and Masonic Temple (now Alumni Hall at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland and the William Penn Hotel downtown.
“He builds an arch bridge to make it look like a Roman bridge,” Wudarcyzk said. “But the difference, of course, is that they’re using concrete and structural steel.”
The Washington Crossing Bridge was built higher off of the water than previous installations to accommodate river traffic. Along with the seals, small Washington Monuments were placed at each entrance to the bridge.
On opening day of the new bridge, hundreds of schoolchildren, marching bands and automobiles paraded across the more than 2,366 foot span. It was an opportunity for car-owners--still a rarity for many residents--to show off their vehicles, and for officials to show off the strength of the steel bridge. LHS president Tom Powers said newspaper articles lauded the bridge’s design and what it represented.
“They made a special effort to make it more than just a conveyance, but to make it a historical marker,” Powers said. Its formal name is the Washington Crossing Bridge, a nod to the time General George Washington and British explorer and translator Christopher Gist ventured across the freezing Allegheny River in December 1753.
According to a 1924 Pittsburgh Post article, the bridge's ribbon cutting, which coincided with the 171 anniversary of the crossing, was done with a tomahawk, a reference to the Washington-Gist journey where they reportedly were only equipped with a raft and a tomahawk.
And to say Washington “crossed” isn’t exactly accurate, either. By most accounts, he nearly drowned making his way across the icy river. He didn’t, of course, and went on to complete his journey to Virginia for British Gov. Robert Dinwiddie.
There are other Pittsburgh bridges with reliefs or carvings reminiscent of the city's history, including the old Manchester Bridge, the sculpture from which still sit on Pittsburgh's North Side (near the Fred Rogers monument). It features Christopher Gist and the Native American Seneca leader Guyasuta, along with the City of Pittsburgh seal.
The 4oth Street Bridge is more than 2,344 feet in length and 72.5 feet above typical river levels. With the seals and the monuments, the span is one of the most decorative in the region.