Part 1
Allegheny River
Part 2
Monongahela River
Part 3
Ohio River
Bridges of the Ohio
The Ohio River is wider and deeper than its two tributaries. The best stories on the Ohio are the people who live beside it and work on its waters.
Reporting by
Photography by
The Ohio River
West End Bridge
McKees Rocks Bridge
I-79 Neville Island Bridge
Sewickley Bridge
Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge
Monaca-Rochester Bridge
Vanport Bridge
Shippingport Bridge
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With childlike awe, Jim Noble shows the photos on his smartphone — coal-filled barges caught in a sea of ice. No water in sight. The mighty Ohio River is paralyzed.

“I’ve been on the river almost 21 years and a pilot for 15. I’ve never seen it like that,” he said.

For six weeks in the winter of 2014-15, the crew of the towboat Robert Dean Moore was idle. Pilots and deckhands used to working 14 days straight to get 14 days off became restless. Thousands of tons of coal couldn’t be transported and hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost.

The Ohio shrugged. Beneath a foot of ice, life went on.

Millions of gallons of water still surge relentlessly toward the Mississippi as they have for millennia.

The largest and longest of Pittsburgh’s three rivers has seen legions of American Indians in canoes, pioneers on rafts, dandies on stern-wheelers, workers on work boats and recreational boaters on crafts of all shapes and sizes. None left a trace.

Bridges, locks and dams are the only marks humans can make on the Ohio. The gleaming spans and underwater works are celebrated for their ability to conquer and control the ebb and flow of nature. If they’re designed right and built well, they might last 70 years or more. But eventually they all fall or fail. And the river runs on.

This is the third and final piece of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bridges Project. The first, the Bridges of the Allegheny River, focused on the famous people whose names are inscribed upon their steel or concrete. The second, Bridges of the Monongahela, traced the steel mills, coal mines and other industries that lined the river and shaped its murky history.

This part, this river, is different. The Ohio is wider and deeper than the two rivers that feed it and it has fewer bridges spaced farther apart. Most are younger than those on the Mon and Allegheny and for the most part not as elegant or interesting.

The best stories on the Ohio are the people who live and work there. They fight, carry coal, raise bridges and build towns, institutions and legacies that linger long after they are gone. They all fall or fail eventually, but their stories run on, surging relentlessly toward … what? A river teeming with life.

Located about a mile below Point State Park, this blend of steel and stone attracts hundreds of spectators looking for a perfect view of July Fourth fireworks.

Formally dedicated on Dec. 1, 1932, the bridge was an early Christmas present to the citizens and merchants of the West End, North Side and South Hills. Dedication ceremonies featured a parade through North and South sides plus a dinner at the Fort Pitt Hotel. 

Great bridges blend architecture and engineering seamlessly and the West End Bridge is a fine example, said Todd Wilson, a traffic engineer and co-author of the 2015 book “Pittsburgh’s Bridges.” 

Local residents’ insistence that bridges be beautiful, not just functional, began in 1911 when John Beatty, head of the Carnegie Institute, urged the city to create an art commission. That year, the city completed annexation of the North Side, making Pittsburgh one of the nation’s 10 largest cities.

The art commission had the power “to approve or veto designs for public structures such as buildings and bridges,” Mr. Wilson said. “It had to be a beautiful bridge.”  

The commission opposed heavy utilitarian bridges like the Manchester Bridge. As a result, the only through truss bridges left in Pittsburgh are privately owned rail bridges like the Ohio Connecting Railroad Bridge, which opened four miles downriver in 1915 and is still in service.

Commissioners “really went out of their way to unite engineering and architecture. That’s what makes the collection of Pittsburgh bridges so special,” Mr. Wilson said.

Built to relieve traffic congestion in Downtown Pittsburgh, the West End Bridge was one of five major spans constructed during the late 1920s and ’30s. The others were the McKees Rocks, Tenth Street, Boston and George Westinghouse bridges. 

In the 1920s, the U.S. War Department insisted that the main spans on Ohio River bridges be at least 1,000 feet wide, which made them prohibitively expensive, Mr. Wilson said. When the War Department reduced that figure to 750 feet, new bridges were built.

“That’s why the McKees Rocks Bridge has a 750-foot main span and the West End Bridge main span is 780 feet,” he said.

This bridge is noteworthy for a feature that became a mainstay on the later I-79 bridge that connects Neville Island with the city and suburbs as well as the Birmingham, Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt bridges.

“The West End bridge was revolutionary for its time,” Mr. Wilson said. “It was the largest tied-arch bridge in the country when it was built.”  

In the early 1900s, McKees Rocks hummed with mills and foundries employing thousands of European immigrants and native sons. Those who lived on the North Side walked across the Ohio River on the O’Donovan Bridge to labor at Pressed Steel Car Co. or the Schoen Steel Wheel Works, both of which stretched across the Bottoms, the flat part of McKees Rocks closest to the river.

In 1913, government officials discussed building a new bridge linking the booming blue-collar community with the North Side’s Brighton Heights neighborhood and northern suburbs. But the financial and technical challenges of building a bridge with clearance for river traffic was too much, and nearly two decades passed before the McKees Rocks Bridge was begun.

Pittsburgh engineer George Richardson modeled its design on New York’s Hell Gate Bridge, which opened in 1917 and was the largest span built with Carnegie Steel. Its engineer, Gustav Lindenthal, also did Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street Bridge. Henry Hornbostel, founding dean of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, was the architect for the Hell Gate Bridge.

Todd Wilson, author of the 2015 book “Pittsburgh’s Bridges,” said there is a ceiling mural of the Hell Gate Bridge in the College of Fine Arts Building on CMU’s Oakland campus.

“You could see how important this bridge was to Andrew Carnegie. That bridge really inspired the McKees Rocks Bridge,” Mr. Wilson said. 

When construction began in 1930, cranes appeared on Munson Avenue. McKees Rocks children enjoyed playing in the huge sand piles created by earth movers. By then, America was mired in the Great Depression and the public works jobs created by the new bridge were desperately needed.

The bridge cost $7 million, required 12,000 tons of steel and linked McKees Rocks with not only the North Side but also Avalon, Bellevue, West View and Sewickley.

On dedication day in August 1931, C.A. Neuhart had tears in his eyes as he rode across the bridge for the first time. The leader of the bridge committee for nearly three decades tipped his hat toward a plaque that marked the May day in 1909 when Graham’s ferry capsized and 24 people drowned. Among the victims were two messenger boys he once employed.

A traffic circle that marked the McKees Rocks end was removed in 1957 and replaced with traffic signals. From the borough’s Island Avenue to the North Side’s Ohio River Boulevard, the bridge stretches a total of  5,900 feet. The bridge and its approaches snake across the Bottoms, a neighborhood that is no longer booming as it did in the first half of the 20th century but is still home to beautiful Ukrainian and Russian churches. 

Western Pennsylvania’s biggest steel arch bridge carries Interstate 79 over the Ohio River to Neville Island. Its opening was celebrated on Labor Day weekend in September 1976.

Five months later, fanfare turned to frustration. An observant riverboat captain spotted a 10-foot-long crack in one of the bridge girders while maneuvering barges in the river’s back channel.

The state Department of Transportation blamed the crack on an error in the electroslag welding process and closed the six-lane bridge for three months. In addition to strengthening structural steel on the I-79 Neville Island Bridge, workers did the same for the Birmingham Bridge over the Monongahela River, which also opened in 1976 and used the same welding process. The Federal Highway Safety Administration eventually banned the use of electroslag welding on bridges. 

The I-79 Neville Island Bridge consists of a 3,700-foot steel arch over the Ohio River’s main channel and a shorter box-beam bridge on the back channel. Built between 1971 and 1976, the spans and connecting ramps cost $51 million. The bridge, which links Neville Island with Glenfield, was the final link in the Interstate 79 corridor from Erie, Pa., to West Virginia. 

Located seven miles below Pittsburgh’s Point, Neville Island takes its name from Gen. John Neville, who tried to collect a federal tax on rye whiskey in 1794. Instead of paying, angry farmers fired upon him and burned down Bower Hill, the homestead of Neville’s 1,200-acre South Hills plantation, Woodville.

Neville Island’s farmers were much more congenial; they were famous for growing excellent asparagus and strawberries in the 1920s. In the early 20th century, the island’s character changed swiftly from rural to industrial. In 1919, Dravo Corp. opened a shipyard and during World War II fulfilled $490 million in military contracts.

Pittsburgh Coke and Chemical Co. produced coke, pig iron, cement and agricultural chemicals on the island during the 1930s and ’40s. By the 1970s, some people were calling the island a “floating factory” because its eastern tip housed 57 companies, including Calgon, Dravo, Gulf Oil, Exxon, Shenango Steel and U.S. Steel.

In 1998, PennDOT announced in 1998 that it would spend one year and $1.8 million to repair hairline cracks in the bridge, closing one lane at a time.

As of 2010, a bit more than 1,000 people lived on Neville Island, according to the U.S. Census. On the island's western end, Island Sports Center opened in 1998, attracting adult and youth hockey teams and people eager to take figure skating lessons. In 2003, Robert Morris University paid $10 million for the 32-acre complex, which includes an 18-hole, miniature golf course, running track and lacrosse fields. A Fairfield Inn & Suites opened on the island in 2008.

Growing up in Sewickley in the early 1900s, Audley Nicols probably never met an American Indian. The Assiwikales, the Shawnee tribe whose name inspired locals to call the town Sewickleyville in 1840, had disappeared a century earlier.

Audley Dean Nicols, an artist who grew up in Sewickley, sketched and painted Native Americans looking in awe at the new Sewickley Bridge in 1911. The bridge was demolished and replaced in 1981. Courtesy of the Sewickley Valley Historical Society
The view from the Nicols painting above looks like this today. Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

But Nicols knew the story of Scarouady, the Half King of the Iroquois who sided with the English in the French and Indian War. For a poster celebrating the September 1911 opening of the Sewickley-Coraopolis Bridge, the young artist depicted Scarouady and two other Native American spirits gazing in wonder at this modern marvel. Befitting his name, which means “on the other side of the sky,” Scarouady looks down from the heights of Moon upon the bridge, the Ohio River and prosperous-looking Sewickley.

Pittsburgh newspapers praised the bridge committee for selecting a local artist and listed other activities: the National Guard’s “realistic reproduction of an Indian attack” on Andrew Montour’s cabin and a float bearing the “slender, dark-haired daughter” of an unnamed Sewickley matron portraying Queen Aliquippa sitting in a teepee with a papoose.

Mostly the newspapers celebrated this “immense and ponderous but withal graceful superstructure,” the first Allegheny County-funded bridge over the Ohio and its largest at 1,855 feet. The $575,000 bridge, which replaced Stoops ferry, joined “proud and sequestered Sewickley” with “busy, bustling Coraopolis,” said the Pittsburgh Press. Only the Pittsburgh Post called it the Coraopolis-Sewickley Bridge.

Sixty years later, no one was bragging about the Sewickley Bridge. Drivers peered through holes in its deck as they crawled along at a 10 mph speed limit. A 3-ton weight limit prohibited buses, trucks, ambulances and fire engines. The state Department of Transportation closed the span for five months in 1977 and again in the winter of 1978-79. With no state money for replacement, North Hills residents feared they had lost their only direct route to the Greater Pittsburgh Airport.

Enter Coraopolis businessman Jack Simpson, chair of the Committee to Save the Sewickley Bridge. For six years, the group lobbied, finally winning over Gov. Dick Thornburgh to their cause. The old bridge closed in May 1980 and was gently disassembled, its center span lowered on cables to waiting barges so that the river would be closed to commercial traffic for only one day. Seventeen months later, on Oct. 21, 1981, the governor joined Mr. Simpson to dedicate a new $16.4 million Sewickley Bridge.

Audley Dean Nicols wasn’t there. He had died 40 years earlier in El Paso, Texas, famous for paintings of the plains and deserts of the Southwest, according to his obituary in the Pittsburgh Press. The newspaper was notified by his nephew, Frederick Way Jr. of Sewickley, a legendary steamboat captain who passed countless times beneath both Sewickley bridges and the gaze of so many Ohio River spirits.

In the early 20th century, a bridge linking the mighty steel towns of Ambridge and Aliquippa made perfect sense.

On the south bank of the Ohio River, Jones & Laughlin's Aliquippa Works produced iron, tin and steel after the mill opened in 1905. On the north bank of the river stood American Bridge Co., founded in 1903 and, according to the plant sign, home of “the largest structural steel fabricating plant in the world.”

In fact, American Bridge, which was originally a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, fabricated many of the bridges on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and what were once the longest arch bridges in the world: New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia, Bayonne Bridge in New York and New Jersey and Hell Gate Bridge in New York City. The company was also responsible for the U.S. Steel Tower in Downtown Pittsburgh in 1970, Willis Tower in Chicago and the Empire State, Chrysler and Woolworth buildings, all in New York City.

But there wasn’t much fanfare for the bridge in its hometown. In a single paragraph, The Pittsburgh Press noted that the Beaver County bridge’s opening on Dec. 30, 1927, was celebrated with a banquet.

The bridge cost $570,648 and connected Ambridge with Woodlawn, an unincorporated village that became a company town designed and built for steelworkers employed by Jones & Laughlin. Eventually, the towns of Woodlawn and New Sheffield merged with Aliquippa.

The historic, two-lane bridge received a $16.6 million rehabilitation in 2012 and 2013. The bridge links Route 65 in Ambridge with Route 51 in Aliquippa and carries an average of 12,588 vehicles daily. The logo of Ambridge Area High School carries an image of the three peaks of this through-truss bridge, and the team’s name is the Bridgers.

Ambridge and Aliquippa’s high schools began a hard-fought football rivalry in 1920. Since then, the teams have competed 83 times. The Quips have won 49 games while Ambridge emerged victorious in 34 games.

Though the bridge was closed for repairs in 2012 and 2013, the rivalry continued with the Quips winning 44-13 in 2013 and 36-0 in 2012. Now the teams are in different conferences so they no longer play each other.

Mike White contributed to this story.

The first person to cross a bridge is usually an ironworker unafraid to test the narrow steel stringer between two riverbanks. It’s not a nervy Nelly.

Yet it was 16-year-old Nelly Morgan of Monaca who “cleared the middle of the stream with the airiness of a professional tight-rope walker” on Nov. 12, 1896, according to the Pittsburgh Post. Bridge workers and hundreds of others on both sides of the Ohio River watched breathlessly as the teen walked 1,200 feet, 300 of it on a 3-inch wide girder 95 feet above the water. She had quietly planned her feat on a ferry to and from the Rochester hat shop where she worked. She wasn’t worried about falling, she said. She could swim.

Swimming or a ferry ride were the only ways to get from Monaca to Rochester before the first of three bridges was dedicated in January 1897. The Ohio River Bridge Co. spent $176,000 on a “model” suspension bridge with an 800-foot span, then the longest on the Ohio between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Tolls were 3 cents for walkers, 15 cents for single-horse vehicles and a quarter for team-driven wagons.

That model lasted only 33 years and was replaced in September 1930 by a $1 million steel bridge built by American Bridge Co. in nearby Ambridge. This time, engineer and Col. James P. Leaf was the first to cross the unfinished bridge. Nelly’s husband, J.D. Robinson, was on the parade committee.

The Pittsburgh newspapers probably called it the Monaca-Rochester Bridge because Monaca was the much larger town. But the borough, which is named for American Indian Chief Monacatootha (“Great Arrow”), often misses the mark on bridge names.

Three railroad bridges have been built between Monaca and Beaver, in 1878, 1890 and 1910 (now used by CSX Transportation). All three have been called the Beaver Bridge, perhaps because the tracks parallel the Beaver River on the north side of the Ohio. Even though Monaca is much larger than East Rochester, Monaca is usually mentioned second when people point to the toll bridge that opened between them in 1960.

Does it really matter who’s first? It does in this elbow of the Ohio River, almost as much as high school football. A new $15.2 million bridge opened between Monaca and Rochester in December 1986, replacing the 1930 span. Less than two years later, Rochester manager Ed Piroli and Monaca manager Tom Stoner shook hands on a wager — whichever team won the fall football game would see its town listed first on bridge signs for a year.

For 22 years, parades and lots of trash talk preceded “The Bridge Game” between the Monaca Indians and Rochester Area Rams. Rochester came out on top 14 times from 1988 until 2009, when the rivalry died. Monaca merged with Center Area School District to become the Central Valley Warriors.

So who’s listed first now? It depends on which end of the bridge you’re on. Each town is first on its side of the river.

Andy Banas knows exactly where he was when he decided his future was building bridges — 120 feet in the air, hanging by one arm from a steel beam.

The young ironworker had chosen to work on the outer edge of a building addition near Duquesne University “to watch the girls go by.” He reached up for a cable, tripped and lost his balance. As he fell, Mr. Banas somehow grabbed the beam that tripped him with one hand and pulled himself up.

“I inhaled a cigarette and vowed not to work Downtown anymore,” he said. “I switched to bridges.”

Mr. Banas, 69, is a little too young to have worked on the $10.5 million Vanport Bridge, which opened on Dec. 19, 1968, the same day as the dedications of the Glenwood Bridge on the Monongahela River and the Tri-Boro Expressway through East Pittsburgh, Turtle Creek, Wilmerding and Monroeville. The late 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were mostly boom times for bridges and other major public works, he said.

The union ironworker had a hand in demolishing the old Sewickley Bridge and building its replacement in 1981. He also worked on the third Monaca-Rochester Bridge in 1986 and repaired many other bridges on the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers during a 36-year career.

In January 1990, the Vanport Bridge was closed for three days after state Department of Transportation inspectors found corrosion and more than a dozen cracks, including some nearly 3 feet long, in a plate holding a structural beam on the central span. The 30,000 vehicles using the Beaver Valley Expressway each day had to be rerouted to the adjacent Monaca-Rochester and Shippingport bridges.

Today, Mr. Banas can see one of his proudest achievements from his hillside home in Moon. In the late 1970s, he and other ironworkers replaced worn-out rivets with high-strength bolts and welded portions of the 1911 Sewickley-Coraopolis Bridge to carry it through another year of service. Next he was on a demolition “gang” that cut the bridge into huge pieces that were lowered by cranes onto barges. The 300-foot-long center span, which weighed 3,000 tons, was taken away in one piece.

“You cannot close down river traffic,” he said.

Mr. Banas’ favorite — and most dangerous — job was connector on the raising gang. Young ironworkers loved to be 100 feet above the water at one end of a huge beam supported in its center by a crane. They directed the crane with hand signals, bolted the beam in place, detached it and moved onto the next piece. Though tied to the structure by “monkey lines” laced through their belts, connectors had to be able to move freely. They could still fall.

“You have to be aware of where your feet are all the time. I would be fine up in the air, then get on the ground and trip over a painted line,” he said, laughing.

Connectors always work in pairs. For the 17 months that it took to demolish and build the Sewickley Bridges, Mr. Banas’ partner was Jim Tunney. “It has to be someone you’re in sync with, who knows what your next move will be.”

He believes that newer safety rules and equipment have taken some of the skill and camaraderie out of building a bridge.

“It takes a certain bearing or maybe lack of brains,” he said. “If someone has to be tied off all the time, they don’t belong there.”

Mills and power plants, not bridges, are key landmarks for the crew of the Robert Dean Moore. It’s what most people call a tugboat, but it’s officially a pushboat because its 3,000-horsepower engines push as many as 15 barges up and down the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

For pilot Jim Noble, the Vanport Bridge is simply a reminder to square his tow before heading into the Montgomery Locks and Dam between Industry and Shippingport, home to 214 people and the Beaver Valley Nuclear Generating Station.

Since it doesn’t burn coal, the nuclear plant is anathema to the crew, who were joined on this trip by two reporters, a photographer and David Podurgiel, vessel operations manager for Murray American River Towing. Coal, the company’s lifeblood, accounted for 65 percent of commodities that passed through the Ohio River’s Montgomery, Dashields and Emsworth locks and dams in 2012.

Murray boats carry low-sulfur coal to power plants and coking coal and other types to steel mills along the three rivers. Their biggest tow is 15 jumbo barges, each 35 feet wide and 195 feet long with a capacity of 1,500 tons of coal. On this trip, the boat is pushing nine empties.

Mr. Noble gives instructions by walkie-talkie to deckhands Sean Denney and Caity White as they tighten the “wires” holding the barges together. The 35-foot-long fore and aft wires weigh about 90 pounds. Ms. White, the only woman on the crew, can handle the lines, but the winter weather is a little tougher.

“You blink and your eyelashes freeze together,” she said.

Even in warmer weather, it’s brutal work. Though deckhands make around $42,000 a year, almost half quit within 12 months. Some, including Ms. White, train to become pilots after four or five years. Mr. Noble didn’t think he was ready after six years as a deckhand.

“But my body told me differently,” he said, noting that he has had two knee surgeries and has arthritis in his back.

The crew includes four deckhands, three pilots and a cook, all working 14 straight days. Though the boat has radar, fog is the enemy. More than 50 years ago, a Consolidated Coal tug pushing 11 empty barges collided with the Shippingport ferry in heavy morning fog. Two ferry passengers were rescued and two drowned in the 50-degree water. Both were Allegheny County residents heading to work at Crucible Steel in Midland.

Two months later, on Nov. 30, 1964, the $3.8 million Shippingport Bridge opened. The builder was Ben Construction Co. of Pittsburgh and the architect and engineer was Michael Baker Jr. Inc., now Michael Baker Corp., a 70-year-old engineering firm based in Moon. Capt. Lee Jenkins, 62, has looked up at their bridge work for more than 35 years.

“I was a deckhand when I was 21. Once I started, I knew I’d never leave.”

Mr. Jenkins, Murray’s most senior captain, said he enjoys the challenge of changing weather and water conditions. “It’s a thrill and an adrenaline rush. It never gets old.”