When Driving Pittsburgh’s Major Roadways Was ‘An Experience,’ Complete With Picnic Stops
Allegheny River Boulevard hugs the southern bank of its namesake waterway, carrying travelers between Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood to the borough of Oakmont. But the road includes distinct architectural features that make it different from others.
Good Question listener Melanie Apollo has lived in Penn Hills for about 10 years. Driving along Allegheny River Boulevard, she noticed a formation between Nadine and Sandy Creek roads near the entrance to Penn Hills.
“It looks almost like an old fort,” Apollo said. “It’s a beautiful stone structure, but there’s no indication of what it is.”
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There are actually several of these structures along Allegheny River Boulevard and they catch the eyes of drivers because they appear out of place on an otherwise normal roadway. According to Oakmont Historical Society’s Gary Rogers, their origins date to the beginning of the boulevard’s construction in 1926. Pittsburgh residents and new suburbanites loved automobiles and took any opportunity to drive them.
“The culture was changing, so they needed a highway to get into the city,” Rogers said.
The county had money from a bond to build four new boulevards: Mosside Boulevard through Monroeville, Saw Mill Run Boulevard through the South Hills, Ohio River Boulevard along that river’s eastern bank and Allegheny River Boulevard between Highland Park and Oakmont (Rogers said the original name of the road was Riverside Drive).
As far as road construction projects go, it didn’t take long to build Mosside, Saw Mill Run and Ohio River boulevards. But Allegheny River Boulevard was a different story. The road was designed to run along the river next to the existing railroad, but crews had trouble with the path’s topography. Rogers said they considered tunneling through some hillsides, but ultimately decided to try to cut away the land.
“They had so many landslides while they were building it,” Rogers said. “That delayed the project. That was a constant problem.”
Then there was the issue of land ownership. Adam Prince, who blogs about infrastructure in southwestern Pennsylvania, said most of Allegheny River Boulevard’s construction went as planned until workers came across some land by Nadine Road. The Pennsylvania Water Commission owned the roughly 1,300 feet needed to complete the link between Pittsburgh and its northeastern suburbs. Three years of lawsuits ensued, Prince said, and local papers frequently commented on the bureaucratic situation.
“It was pretty much a political joke,” Prince said. “[The boulevard] was known as ‘Blunder’ or ‘Bungle’ Boulevard.”
County officials even considered building a ramp that went over the land to avoid encroaching on the Water Commission’s property. After about three years, thanks to a bill from the governor, the land rights were granted. Prince said the news was received with a bit of sarcasm.
“The editorial boards of the papers basically said that an ‘old reliable item’ will be missed by newspaper readers,” Prince said. “And it was about the bottleneck at Nadine and the completion of the highway.”
At the time the boulevard was constructed, Rogers said the Allegheny River was dotted with industry, and the smoke and railroads made it difficult to enjoy the scenic views.
“So even though we live near the rivers, we couldn’t really see them,” Rogers said, “because they were blocked.”
Engineers designed observational turnouts: green spaces, often with raised stone platforms. Families could park their cars, walk up a set of steps and have a picnic.
“It was an experience to come out to this boulevard,” Rogers said.
Listener Patricia Wilson remembers these lookouts from her childhood, saying her brother used to take her there to watch ice on the Allegheny River.
“Unfortunately they’re no longer available to pull over and get out of your car, but when I was a little girl, they were,” she said.
The pull-offs are overgrown and barriers have been erected to stop traffic from entering. But most of the original stone is still there, and at least one water fountain remains at the pull-off near the border with Penn Hills.
But that’s not the only ornate detail of the boulevard. Concrete towers called pylons were placed as gateways to towns. Two in Verona are still in good condition -- all four of the boulevards built in the 1920s and 30s had these pylons (12 in total), but Verona’s and a couple near Emsworth on Ohio River Boulevard are the only ones still standing.
Allegheny River Boulevard represents a different attitude toward county roadway construction. It was a time when driving was considered an experience that was more than just a trip from one place to another.
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