The Union Bridge (1874-1907)

The Union Bridge in 1905.
The southern portal of the Union Bridge at Pittsburgh's Point in 1905. It was the first bridge built at the Point.

The Union Bridge Company was incorporated on February 18, 1873, with the purpose of building a bridge across the Allegheny River linking the cities of Allegheny and Pittsburgh. On June 19, Pittsburgh and Allegheny Councils approved a Union Bridge Company proposal to build, erect and maintain that bridge, to be constructed of wood or iron. It would be the first bridge to be built at Pittsburgh's point.

Ground was broken on July 21, 1873. The bridge was built mostly of wood, with a covered roof, at a cost of approximately $300,000. The wood superstructure was the result of caution in the quality of early iron. This was the fourth, and final, covered bridge built in the City of Pittsburgh. The others, none of which were still standing, were the Monongahela Bridge, the Pennsylvania Canal Bridge, and the original Sixth Street Bridge.

The Golden Triangle - 1892
A sketch showing the city of Pittsburgh from Duquesne Heights in 1892.
At the point stand the Union Bridge (left) and the Point Bridge.

This toll bridge was built upon four stone piers, with elaborate portals at each end which were constructed of wood to represent a stone facing. It was constructed in five equal spans, and included a two-lane roadway with double-tracks for trolley traffic, and twin sidewalks. John McGraw was contracted to handle the stone work and William Crisswell to erect the wooden part of the bridge.

After over a year of construction the completed bridge was opened to traffic on October 1, 1874. About the same time as the Union Bridge opened, plans were being implemented by the Point Bridge Company on the West End to construct a companion bridge, called the Point Bridge, from the point across the Monongahela River to Carson Street.

The Union Bridge in 1902.
The northern portal of the Union Bridge. The last wooden bridge built in Pittsburgh, it stood for thirty-three years.
The photo was taken on March 2, 1902, during a flood when the river crested at nearly thirty-six feet.

Unfortunately, the bridge clearance was only thirty feet above the river level, and this lack of foresight caused an obstruction to river traffic. In December 1875, only a year after the bridge was finished, Major Merrill of the Army Corps of Engineers, lamenting that his earlier objections to the bridge height were ignored, wrote a letter to the Chief of Engineers in Washington D.C. calling the bridge "a serious and unnecessary obstruction to navigation" and recommending that the bridge be modified and possibly converted into a draw bridge.

Although Major Merrill had identified a serious flaw in the bridge design, nothing was done for a quarter century, and then the action was only in writing. By 1889, the bridge height had became such a problem that the Secretary of War decreed that all bridges on major inland waterways, including Pittsburgh's three rivers, had to be raised to a height of at least seventy feet above water level or replaced. An Act of Congress on March 3 of that year reinforced that decree and made it a federal regulation.

Exposition Park
The Union Bridge leads to the multi-purpose Exposition Park II, located along the Allegheny riverfront
on the North Side, included a race track. The venue was replaced by Exposition Park III in 1890.

This caused concern among civic leaders on both sides of the river, and delight among the inland shipping industry, but still no action was taken by the parent company for another eight years.

On July 1, 1895, a Daily Post feature on local bridge tolls stated that the Union Bridge fees were as follows: Men, one cent every day, including Sundays; Women and children (under age fourteen), Free; Single horse and wagon, 5 cents; Double horse team and wagon, 10 to 15 cents; Man on horseback, 5 cents; bicyclists, one cent. Tickets were sold to foot passengers at a rate of 33 tickets/$1 and yearly toll-rates were available for horse and wagon customers. Traction Companies paid either a yearly fee or a single car fee.

The inside of the Union Bridge in 1902.
The interior of the Union Bridge, showing the roadbed, trolley tracks and walkway on each side.

Beginning in 1899, business was booming during the month of September, when the Pittsburgh Exposition Society held its annual fair at Exposition Hall, located near the southern portal of the bridge. For several years the Pittsburgh Exposition was considered one of the finest in the country. Another busy week occurred on October 6-10, 1903, when the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted four games of the first World Series against the Boston Red Sox at Exposition Park, which stood near the northern portal of the bridge.

As the city grew and the amount of traffic increased from Allegheny and the other municipalities downstream along the Ohio River, the toll bridge became a convenient shortcut for those wishing to avoid traffic on the Sixth Street Bridge. Several Pittsburgh Railways routes also used the span. It was soon an indispensable part of the city's transportation network.

The Union Bridge during the Flood of 1907.
The Union Bridge during the Big Flood of 1907. The damaged bridge was demolished later that year.

The local Rivermen and the Pittsburgh Coal Exchange, in 1902, took the Union Bridge Company to court over the issue, contending that the bridge was a serious impediment to river commerce. Despite a series of court losses, the bridge owners refused to act. The government then filed suit, in 1904, a case that eventually went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

In late-February, 1907, the United States Supreme Court decided in favor of the Rivermen and the Pittsburgh Coal Exchange over the status of the bridge. While the bridge stockholders scrambled to find a solution to the court order, the bridge sustained considerable damage during the Big Flood on March 15, 1907, when water levels rose to nearly thirty-nine feet.

Engineers deemed repair of the bridge too expensive, and a replacement, estimated to cost between $250,000 and $500,000, was not within the means of the owners. Efforts to sell the franchise rights to both the B&O Railroad and the Pittsburgh Railways Company failed.

Considering the federal demands for action, the Union Bridge Company decided to remove the bridge. On April 10, calls went out for contracts to dismantle the structure, the cost of which threatened to bankrupt the company.

The Union Bridge dismantling May 1907.
Engineers and tradesmen begin the dismantling of the Union Bridge began on May 4, 1907.

With regards to the Supreme Court decision regarding the bridge and enforcement of the War Department decree on clearance heights, the owners of the other bridges across the three rivers were put on alert that they too would soon be held accountable for adhering to the new policy. It took quite an effort, but by 1918 all of the major bridges in Pittsburgh were in compliance.

On May 3, 1907, the damaged bridge was officially closed to pedestrian and restricted small vehicle traffic. Work on the dismantling of the bridge began the next day. The loss of the bridge to traffic between the cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny caused major transportation problems. Vehicular and light rail traffic was diverted to the Sixth Street Bridge where daily congestion was disconcerting to both commuters and commercial enterprises.

The Union Bridge being dismantled in 1907.
The Union Bridge being dismantled on July 1, 1907. The view is from the Pittsburgh side at the point.

While deconstructing the vintage wood structure, engineers commented that the "graceful lines of the Union Bridge are as fine a specimen of the old wooden covered bridge type that can be found. The great beams yield slowly to the axe. The wood is still in good condition, with the covering of the expansive roof helping to preserve it."

From the time the bridge closed, a ferry was installed at the point to move commuters from Allegheny to Pittsburgh. The business thrived for the next few years while a replacement bridge was planned and constructed. The ferry was for passengers only, and vehicular traffic was forced to take the long detour along Sixth Street.

The ferry that operated at the Point
while the Union Bridge was out.
The ferry that operated at the Point while the Union Bridge was out, shown here on September 8, 1907.

The franchise rights to a new point bridge were bought by the City of Pittsburgh after the annexation of Allegheny City in 1908. By 1911, work had begun on a replacement bridge, then called the North Side Point Bridge. Construction of the span took four years.

The new bridge opened on August 8, 1915. The steel-framed structure by then had been renamed as the Manchester Bridge. Fifty-five years later, in 1970, the Manchester Bridge came down and was replaced with the present-day Fort Duquesne Bridge.

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