The Panhandle Bridge, officially known as the Monongahela River Bridge, is a century-old railroad bridge that is now part of the Pittsburgh Light Rail System. The span is a combination truss-type and through truss bridge that carries rail traffic over the Monongahela River from a Y-section on the southern shore to a subway tunnel entrance near Fourth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. It stands between the Liberty Bridge to the east and the Smithfield Street Bridge to the west.
The Panhandle Bridge was built in 1903, and was the third railroad bridge on the site since 1863. The first bridge was built in 1863 and crossed the river via seven main spans, similar in length and location as current bridge. The deck of 1863 bridge was at the same elevation as downtown streets in the area and included grade crossings at Second Street and Fourth Street, where the tracks entered a converted railroad tunnel that was originally constructed for the Pennsylvania Canal in 1828.
The second bridge was built in 1889, incorporating most of the initial span and adding a second through truss on the northern end. This was to accomodate a grade seperation project with the B&O Railroad, which traveled along the northern shore, and with vehicular traffic along Second Avenue.
The railroad yard and Second Avenue were lowered and the additional through truss gave the necessary clearance for traffic. A series of plate girder extensions were constructed to carry the railroad line from the bridge past Fourth Street and into the tunnel, which led to Union Station at Liberty Avenue and 11th Street.
The third bridge, which is still in use today, was a complete replacement, built in 1903 to handle heavier loads and increased Pennsylvania Railroad traffic. The span was modified several times over the years to accomodate various grade seperation projects as the City of Pittsburgh grew and developed. The last major modification occured in 1982, when the bridge was renovated and reconfigured to accomodate light rail traffic.
When the first Panhandle Bridge was built, in 1863, the rail line that it served was part of the route built by the Pittsburgh and Steubenville Railroad Company, a division of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and Saint Louis Railroad. The route ran west to Steubenville, Ohio, and crossed the panhandle of West Virginia. This is how the rail route, and the Pittsburgh bridge, received the nickname “panhandle.” The Pittsburgh and Steubenville Railroad Company was eventually absorbed into the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The bridge's function was to carry Panhandle Route passenger, mail and express trains to and from Union Station. When heading south from the station, the Panhandle Bridge split after crossing the Monongahela River. The single-track eastern branch of the "Y" led to the Monongahela Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The double-tracked western branch of the "Y" was used by the Panhandle Divison.
In the 1960s, rail traffic over the Panhandle Bridge began to decline as passenger trains were discontinued. Amtrak became the only regular user of the bridge from 1971 to 1979. Conrail, the successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad, had no use for the bridge and the restrictive downtown tunnel. The Panhandle Bridge was sold to the Port Authority, who restructured the bridge, beginning in 1982, as part of the downtown light rail subway project. The renovated Panhandle Bridge reopened on July 7, 1985.
The southern approaches to the bridge were completely rebuilt, with the eastern branch of the "Y" connecting to the street-level Station Square passenger platform on Carson Street, and the western branch merging with rail traffic along Arlington Avenue.
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