South Hills residents were so happy with completion of the Liberty Bridge in March 1928 that they celebrated with what newspapers called the largest parade in Allegheny County history. The procession began in Mount Lebanon with, of course, fireworks, then chugged through Dormont and Brookline and Allentown, past houses and businesses outfitted with flags and bunting. Residents lined the streets and cheered. Many were children, who either played hooky or were dismissed by administrators caught up in the moment.
At times, the 5-mile-long collection of automobiles, floats and motorcycles must have resembled a horrific traffic jam as much as a parade. It rumbled down Brownsville Road to Carson Street, across the Smithfield Street Bridge, through several Downtown streets, then up to the new bridge deck, where officials stood poised to cut a ribbon and make speeches.
Finally, the bridge was open. Cars moved four abreast across the bridge and poured into the Liberty Tubes, which had opened in 1924.
Later, the celebration moved to the William Penn Hotel. There, more than 1,500 people stuffed themselves at a banquet and then proceeded to party. Mayor Charles Kline, a dapper man adept at getting his picture taken and stealing city money, made what was arguably the best decision of his political career and suspended a 1 a.m. dancing ban. Flappers and their beaus stomped the Charleston until the wee hours.
The Liberty Bridge remains, 88 years later, a vital link from the South Hills to Downtown and communities north of the Monongahela River. It’s difficult to imagine the city without the span, though we’re now getting a glimpse of what that would be like, thanks to a tarp fire that sent thick black smoke billowing into the blue sky Friday afternoon. That blaze badly damaged a steel beam critical to the structure’s stability and forced closure of the bridge to make repairs.
It’s not the first time. Officials decided to close all lanes of the bridge in 1935 so the deck could be repaved. The result? Jammed roads leading from South Hills to Downtown, irate motorists, traffic police who simply threw up their hands. Drivers stuck in the Liberty Tubes suffered the most. They groaned and sweated in the summer heat while exhaust fans struggled to clear fumes from smokey automobiles. Folks griped that two bridge lanes should have been left open.
By 1945, traffic jams were an everyday headache, especially in the morning. One proposed solution was to open three lanes to inbound traffic. Another: Bore a third Liberty Tube. That idea wouldn’t work, argued William White, editor of the Sunday Pittsburgh Press. The problem wasn’t with the tubes, it was on the Downtown end of the bridge, where cars turned onto Forbes Avenue. White was a wise man. He predicted that one day a series of “ramps, overpasses, underpasses and whatnot” would solve much of the problem.
Over the years, the Liberty Bridge has suffered batterings by errant coal barges and a number of indignities — from a spat over the quality of paint applied to its steel structure to the attempted theft of one of its original lamps. (The Pittsburgh Press reported shortly after its opening that a man tried to climb one of the bridge’s original lamp posts so he could take the glass bulb home to his wife).
Now we can add a tarp fire to the list. And when the bridge reopens, we can all celebrate with a dance that goes way past 1 a.m. We hear it’s legal these days.