We at the Digs have always appreciated the grand splendor of the George Westinghouse Bridge, but until we examined an envelope of images showing its construction, we never truly understood how awe-inspiring the span must have been to Pittsburghers in the early 1930s.
The pictures show massive frameworks of steel and wood rising as high as 200 feet above the Turtle Creek Valley. We looked closely and saw, perched atop the beams, tiny figures — workers tasked with the hazardous job making the engineers’ designs a reality. Concrete for the structure was delivered by massive buckets carried along cables swaying high above the site.
Those beneath the span knew the risks. Railroad companies directly below covered the roofs of their steel sheds with heavy wood planks to withstand the impact of falling objects — timbers, tools or workers who’d made a misstep. The bridge claimed its first victim on Dec. 31, 1931 when laborer Joseph Urban, 28, of McKeesport slipped off a beam and fell more than 200 feet to his death.
The bridge was ready for traffic on Sept. 10, 1932. Motorists wanting to be among the first to cross waited in their cars for hours while officials conducted a dedication ceremony on the bridge deck. Politicians climbed on a small stage and droned on, their voices amplified and flung at the masses gathered on the bridge and surrounding hillsides. Newspapers estimated attendance at 30,000. Boy Scouts roamed through the crowd, ready to assist those overcome by the heat.
Shortly before 4 p.m., Herman Westinghouse, brother of the famous inventor for whom the bridge was named, sliced a small ribbon and the Turtle Creek Valley echoed with the shrieks of factory whistles celebrating the event. Drivers pressed on their horns, adding to the bedlam.
Pittsburgh at the time was accustomed to doing things big. And here’s the proof: The George Westinghouse Bridge was declared the largest structure of its kind in the country. The center arch, 425 feet long, was then the longest reinforced concrete arch in the country. The bridge is 1,510 feet long, with the center arch clearing the Pennsylvania railroad tracks by exactly 200 feet. At this point, an 18-story building could be placed under the span.
This is what a publication called the Engineering News-Record had to say:
“The George Westinghouse Bridge claims a place in the select company of other great engineering achievements of recent years, such as the Holland Tunnel, the Hudson River Suspension Bridge and the Hoover Dam.”