Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct and Silver Lake

Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct - 2018.

There are so many fantastic and monumental works of masonry hidden around Pittsburgh. Two of these engineering marvels are the Pennsylvania Railroad Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct and the Lincoln Avenue Bridge that stand together along Washington Boulevard near East Liberty.

Fed by runoff from Negley Run Creek, a fair-sized lake, listed on an 1890 map as the Ice Pond and officially known as Silver Lake, once stood under the viaduct, surrounded by wooded park land. The property owner, George Finley, grew carp in his pond and ran an ice house. Silver Lake became a popular place to ice skate in the winter. During the summer months it was a hot spot for swimming, fishing and boating in the summer. And it was all for free.

A few picnic shelters were constructed near the lake, attracting families from all around the city. Outdoor musical concerts and festivals were also held in a nearby pavilion. The lake became so busy with swimmers that the City Parks Administration stationed a lifeguard there. Some local ministers even held group baptisms in the sparkling water.

Postcard image of the Brilliant Cutoff
Aqueduct and Silver Lake.

In 1902, the Pennsylvania Railroad was expanding and modernizing its lines. The Brilliant Cutoff was built to help relieve congestion by detouring traffic around downtown Pittsburgh. The massive stone six-arch bridge constructed over the Silver Lake valley was built to withstand seasonal flooding and carry the heaviest locomotives of the foreseeable future.

Built by the Columbia Contracting Company, the 468-foot viaduct rises seventy-five feet above ground level and has a forty-eight degree curve. It was built to accomodate four rail lines. There is a forty-eight foot steel girder span over Lincoln Avenue, five eighty foot stone arches and one measuring 100 feet.

Hopkins Map 1890 showing Silver Lake.    Hopkins Map 1910 showing Silver Lake.
Hopkins Maps showing Silver Lake in 1890 (left) and after the viaduct construction in 1910.

The arch rings were built with 42-inch thick limestone blocks, while the piers and walls were built with stones that varied from eighteen to twenty-four inches. The piers, walls and the tops of the arches were filled with Portland Cement concrete. The tops of the arches were then covered with asphalt to provide a watertight surface.

Three years later, in 1905, the city of Pittsburgh needed to replace the wooden Lincoln Avenue Bridge, which passed under the Brilliant Viaduct. Considering the picturesque landscape and the existing stone viaduct, city engineers opted to build a similar two-arch stone bridge for trolleys, vehicles and pedestrians.

Lincoln Avenue Bridge - November 12, 1909.
Laying a new road surface and sidewalks along the Lincoln Avenue Bridge on November 12, 1909. The bridge passes
under the steel girder section of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Brilliant Viaduct.

The condition and appearance of Silver Lake began to deteriorate during the Great Depression. By the mid 1940s, pollution in the creeks and storm runoff that fed the lake soiled the water and the surrounding buildings were in a state if disrepair. In 1947 the area was closed to the public and the stagnating pond drained and filled.

The valuable real estate was quickly repurposed, and on September 9, 1949, the 550-car Silver Lake Drive-In opened on the reclaimed land. Only ten minutes from downtown and equipped with modern in-a-car speakers, it was the only outdoor theatre in the city of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Press clipping - September 9, 1949.

The feature presentation on that first evening was "California," starring Ray Miland and Barbara Stanwyck. The Silver Lake Drive-In Theatre was in operation for nineteen years. The final shows, "Teenage Mother" and "High School Honeymoon," were shown on September 15, 1968.

The land under the viaduct is now occupied by a set of industrial buildings and a car wash, with all signs of the once scenic ice pond and park land erased. The only reminders of Finley's former carp pond is "Silver Lake Road," which passes under the viaduct.

The Brilliant Railroad Viaduct - Tom Delegram photo.    The Brilliant Railroad Viaduct - Tom Delegram photo.

The Brilliant Cutoff and Lincoln Avenue stone arch bridges, on the other hand, were built Pittsburgh strong and will stand the test of time. These Romanesque monuments will tower over Washington Boulevard for hundreds of years as testaments to a bygone era of old world stone craftsmanship.

* Click on images for larger photos *

Pittsburgh Press - May 12, 1904.

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