30th Street Bridge
(Herr's Island/Washington's Landing Bridge)

30th Street Bridge

The 100-foot 30th Street Bridge, also called the Herr's Island Bridge, provides access to the Washington's Landing residential, commercial and marina complex. The tiny back channel span is dwarfed by the much larger 31st Street Bridge, which stands nearby and crosses both the Allegheny River back and main channels from East Ohio Street to Penn Avenue.

The plain and unremarkable modern 30th Street Bridge was built in 1986 as part of the Urban Renewal Authority's Herr's Island reclamation project. It's northern approach is off of River Road. There's nothing to it, really, especially in a city known for its many elegant, historic bridges.

However, this small river crossing, the fourth to stand on this spot, has a past that dates back over 160 years to a time when industry flourished on and around the island, and the 30th Street Bridge was much more than a simple, nondescript 33 1/3-yard back channel overpass.

30th Street Bridge - 2011

The 19th Century

The Herr's Island Bridge dates back to around 1850, when a two-truss iron bridge was erected over the Allegheny River back channel in what was then Duquesne Township. The 29th Street ferry provided access to the island from the Strip District along the southern shore. A devastating 1882 flood destroyed most of what stood above ground on the island, including the small bridge, which was swept away in the raging current.

Pittsburgh tanner James Callery stepped in and built the first stockyards on the island in 1885. The enterprise grew quickly and soon rendering and packing plants sprung up on the island to process the livestock. Access to the island was now provided by a new, much larger bridge that spanned both the Allegheny River's main and back channels.

Built in 1887, the 30th Street Bridge, also called the Herr's Island Bridge, consisted of both a main and back channel span. The main channel span, made of steel girders and wood planking, was in three sections from shore to shore.

30th Street Bridge
The main channel sections of the 30th Street Bridge, shown looking north towards Herr's Island circa 1900.

There was a small strip of 30th Street at ground level on the island itself with turnoffs to the right and left. Thru-traffic continued straight ahead to the back channel span, a single arch steel and wood design that led to River Road on the northern shore. Another short length of bridgework continued straight on to East Ohio Street, spanning several rows of railroad tracks.

A Vital Link In The Food Chain

In 1903 the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased land on the island to create more stockyards to use as a rest area for livestock on long voyages. This provided a steady stream of fresh meat from weakened animals culled from the herd.

Soon Herr's Island was occupied end to end with factories, stockyards, and a few other enterprises, including the city dump and a soap factory. The island became America's tenth largest livestock terminal and the second largest east of the Mississippi in terms of the volume of cattle, pigs, and sheep processed.

Several thousands of laborers from both the north and south shores of the Allegheny River crossed daily to work at the plants. The 30th Street Bridge became an essential link in the Pittsburgh food chain. A large portion of the livestock distributed to neighborhood slaughterhouses and other meat products destined for the local grocers came across the Herr's Island bridge.

In 1911 the county obtained ownership of the bridge at a cost of $165,000 and it was made a free public bridge. There was a slight increase in pass-through traffic. In April 1919, it became the only river crossing between Ninth Street and 43rd Street after the 16th Street Bridge was destroyed by fire. This resulted in a dramatic increase in thru-traffic across the main and back channel spans.

30th Street Bridge - 1914
A view of Herr's Island from the 29th Street dock on November 09, 1914. To the left is the 30th Street Bridge
single arch back channel span, and to the right are the first two sections of the main channel crossing.

Disaster Strikes

Then, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 9, 1921, disaster struck. No one is sure exactly how the fire started, but a watchmen noticed smoke on the main center span that soon turned to flames. The bridge attendant sounded an alarm and immediately joined motorists E.G. Miller, of Mount Lebanon, and George F. Stoker, of Mount Washington, in trying unsuccessfully to extinguish the flames.

Several more alarms were sounded and soon firefighters from companies on either side of the river were on location, as well as a pumping boat. Activity on both sides of the river came to a halt as all eyes were on the bridge. The tar and creolin that covered the wooden planking quickly went up in flames.

In no time the heat from the flames weakened the supporting stuctural girders and beams. Firemen working on the northern span heard the metal beginning to give way. They quickly retreated back to the island. No sooner had they reached safety the northern two sections gave way and collapsed into the main river channel, narrowly missing the pumping boat. Two coal barges were sunk and two other set ablaze by falling debris.

30th Street Bridge - 1921    30th Street Bridge - 1921
Two sections of the 30th Street Bridge lie in the Allegheny River main channel after collasping during the fire.

The fire was eventually extinguished. Four firemen were injured and $500,000 in damages done. Countless more was lost in utility lines that crossed under the bridge.

What worried authorities most was the disruption to the food distribution system throughout the city. The lack of access to the island for the thousands of workers on the south shore was another urgent problem.

The cause of the blaze was never firmly established. Some suspected sparks from the passing steamer Harry Roberts, which had gone under the bridge just prior to the fire. Other reports said faulty electric wiring and a leaking gas main were also the culprit. Throughout the ordeal, the back channel bridge was undamaged.

Once the debris cluttering the river was removed the decision was made, for a number of reasons, not to rebuild. An 1889 decree by the War Department demanded a clearance of at least seventy feet above the normal pool level for all bridges over major inland waterways. Because of this, the bridge was long overdue to be raised or replaced.

The Pedestrian Walkway

Pursuant to the demands of the War Department, plans had been in development for the construction of a much larger high-level bridge at 31st Street as a replacement for the aging Herr's Island Bridge. These preparations were accelerated. The new span could not be ready for several years, and a crossing for the island's south shore employees was needed right away.

While work moved forward on the long range fix, the immediate short-term problem was solved by using the piers of the former bridge and building a temporary cable suspension pedestrian bridge to get employees across the river to work. Ferry service from the 29th Street docks transported workers across the river while the elevated walkway was constructed. This improvised pedestrian bridge was in service until 1928.

30th Street Bridge over back channel - 1924
The 30th Street (back channel) Bridge, looking south towards the island, in July 1924 after the road bed was replaced.

In the meantime, the other portion of the 30th Street Bridge, over the back channel, remained in place. Since the loss of the 16th Street Bridge the strength and durability of the tiny span was put to the test. In October 1923 the new 16th Street crossing was completed.

By then the remaining Herr's Island Bridge was in desperate need of repair. The bridge was closed for a few months in 1924 to improve the structural integrity and replace the crumbling road bed. The temporary closing did cut off all motor traffic to the island, but preparations were made beforehand with the railroad to minimize the disruption.

The 31st Street Bridge opened in 1928. It stood like a giant next to the tiny 30th Street span. It was also, either by fault or by design, built with no vehicular ramps directly to the island. It simply passed right over from East Ohio Street to Penn Avenue.

30th Street Bridge - 1914
The second and third iterations of the 30th Street back channel bridge sit side-by-side on February 20, 1939.

This made the 30th Street back channel bridge all that much more essential, being the only way on of off the island for the ever-increasing tide of motorised traffic. The 31st Street Bridge did provide a secondary link to the 30th Street Bridge via a short ramp to, or extension of, the River Road viaduct.

Commuters on foot from the south shore, who had grown accustomed to the pedestrian suspension bridge, now had a much longer walk to get to work. Despite this minor setback, business and employment on the island flourished. The temporary 30th Street Cable Bridge across the main channel, along with the forty-one year old stone piers, were removed.

Bridge Replaced and Reconfigured

In 1939 the aging back channel span was replaced with a similar single arch design. The new bridge, the third to stand at that spot, was built next to the old span and then slid into place.

One major reconfiguration to the traffic pattern came when the existing small ramp from River Road to East Ohio Street was removed. To get from the north end of the bridge to East Ohio Street, which was also in a process of renovation, vehicles and pedestrians would now turn onto River Road and use the high level bridge to reach the main highway.

31st Street and 30th Street Bridges - 1939
The 30th Street (back channel) Bridge stands to the right of the 31st Street Bridge after being replaced in 1939.
The new Herr's Island Bridge would no longer connect directly to East Ohio Street. Rather, it would end at the
River Road ramp, shown under construction. The remaining section over the railroad tracks would be removed.

And so things remained for the next fifty years. The stockyards, factories and meat processing plants on the island slowly faded away beginning in the 1960s. For a few years the abandoned and highly polluted island became known as a toxic wasteland, a visual nightmare in a city searching to rid itself of the sterotypical dirty, rust-belt image.

Washington's Landing

Along came the Urban Renewal Authority in the 1980s with its plans to clear the island, reclaim the land and construct a stunning, upscale commercial and residential complex. This recreation lover's paradise, surrounded by clean water, in the picturesque city of Pittsburgh, would be called Washington's Landing.

Once the land was cleared, the first step towards bringing the island project from the drawing board and into the field was the replacement of the rusting 1939 version of the 30th Street Bridge. The 1986 version was the fourth in the historic Herr's Island Bridge history.

The Washington's Landing project became a national model for urban reclamation. It took a some time for the city and surrounding area to catch up with the ultimate vision of the designers. But, after years of additional riverfront development and improvements, the area around Herr's Island really has buried it's rust-belt image and taken on a surprisingly refreshing and vibrant look.

Herr's Island/Washington's Landing in 2007
Herr's Island/Washington's Landing in 2007 during the rehabilitation of the 31st Street Bridge. The tiny
Herr's Island Bridge can be seen next to the towering blue high level bridge.

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