Highway Tunnel #1
The Neeld Tunnel
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Four years before construction began on the Liberty Tunnels, Allegheny County began construction on the Neeld Tunnel. This subterranean vehicular highway under Mount Washington was envisioned to have been the transportation improvement that spurred development and economic prosperity in the South Hills area. Construction in 1915 only lasted for a few months before stopping. Eventually the project was abandoned in favor of the present-day Liberty Tunnels. Below is the back story behind the short-lived Neeld Tunnel project.
EARLY GROWTH IN THE SOUTH HILLS
The Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, opened in 1904 for streetcar traffic only, had an exponential effect in spurring residential and commercial development in the South Hills. Land values soared as speculators and home buyers flocked to the area. What was once considered just rural farmland dotted with coal mining ventures became prime real estate for developers.
Just a couple miles south of the tunnel, three farms in Brookline increased in valuation from $68,000 to $1.3 million. The total cost of houses being built in the West Liberty, Beechview, Brookline, Dormont and Mount Lebanon sections of the South Hills immediately adjacent to the trolley line amounted to $1.5 million in 1910.
While this building activity in the South Hills was impressive, there were limits obvious limits to expansion. The streetcar tunnel was not built to accommodate heavy team freight. This restricted the movement of goods from the city and kept the transportation cost of building materials high. In 1910, the South Hills Board of Trade, a local booster organization, estimated that transportation charges added $450,000 to the cost of goods coming into the South Hills.
Thus, the introduction of streetcar service initiated the process of suburbanization in the South Hills, but could not adequately sustain it. In addition, although the streetcar connection to Pittsburgh fueled a building boom in Beechview, Brookline and Dormont, its effect on Mount Lebanon and the other communities further out in the South Hills was more subdued.
While Dormont increased its population almost six-fold between 1910 and 1920, Mount Lebanon grew by only thirty percent. Because of their location near the end of the streetcar line, Mount Lebanon and nearby communities had to wait for better connections before their growth could match those areas closer to the city.
As early as 1908, residents of the South Hills, in an effort to spur further growth and expansion, formed themselves into groups calling for a "traffic tunnel" under Mount Washington. Unfortunately, the political climate in Pittsburgh favored further development of the more topographically accessible East End. Without adequate financial support from downtown interests, the problem of finding a way to get the tunnel built was left largely to the residents of the South Hills themselves.
A TRAFFIC TUNNEL IS PROPOSED
The South Hills Board of Trade, formed in 1908, began working to secure a highway and tunnel route from downtown Pittsburgh to the South Hills. Comprised of businessmen from the South Hills communities of Allentown, Beltzhoover, Mount Oliver, Knoxville, Carrick, Beechview, Brookline, Mount Lebanon, Castle Shannon and others, the organization boasted a membership of 250 in 1910.
At that time, over 100,000 persons lived in the South Hills and the district required 2,000 wagon loads of supplied daily. The group attempted to persuade county commissioners to build a tunnel and bridge combination that would provide access to Pittsburgh's downtown. Frank I. Grosser, president of the Board of Trade, maintained that a new traffic tunnel would pay for itself in increased county land valuations and higher tax revenues in a few short years. The effect of a vehicular traffic tunnel, he argued, would be even more substantial than that of the Streetcar Transit Tunnel in 1904.
The idea of a highway and tunnel connection between the South Hills and downtown Pittsburgh was initially well received. A plan was presented to the Allegheny County Commissioners in late-1909. Although in favor of the proposal, the commissioners gave no promise as to the date of construction.
The proposed plan, known as the "Shingiss-Haberman" or "high" tunnel, was for a tunnel with a northern portal on Mount Washington above Brownsville Avenue (present-day Arlington Avenue) and Carson Street, and a southern portal at Haberman Street near Washington Road (present-day Warrington Avenue). The plan also included a double-deck bridge crossing the Monongahela River, with the upper deck connecting on the river’s north shore with Shingiss Street. The lower deck connected Carson Street with Forbes Avenue. The planned grade of the road leading to the tunnel was 3.78 percent, making the north portal of this tunnel eighty feet higher than the present-day Liberty Tunnels, and 184 feet higher on the south side.
Although everyone involved in the tunnel proposition began with the best interests in mind, the issues involved in getting the South Hills Tunnel became more a matter of politics than engineering. Both Pittsburghers and their South Hills counterparts were well aware of the political and economic implications of the tunnel location. This led to a variety of plans being presented, each with different portal locations. Each of these differing plans would have had different effects for the future direction of development in the South Hills. Thus, the location for this proposed initial highway became one of the greatest significance.
DEBATE OVER TUNNEL LOCATION
The first group of residents to split from the South Hills Board of Trade was the Liberty Bridge and Shalerville Tunnel Association. Although this group shared the original group's desire for a tunnel, they wanted it in a completely different location. Comprised of residents from Carnegie, Bridgeville, Oakdale, Greentree, Crafton, Rennerdale, Scott Township, Union Township, Robinson Township and South Fayette Township, this group advocated a tunnel that would pierce Mount Washington from the south in Shalerville, below Duquesne Heights, near the intersection of Banksville Road.
This "Shalerville Plan," or "western" tunnel, would have been located near the site of the present-day Fort Pitt Tunnels, and would have provided access along the ridges running south and west of the city, an area not well served by the “Shingiss-Haberman” plan.
A second splinter group, calling themselves the South Hills Tunnel Association, was formed to promote yet another tunnel location. This one became known as the "Bell Tavern Plan," or "low" tunnel. Comprised of residents from Beechview, West Liberty, Brookline, Brentwood, Fairhaven, Dormont, Mt. Lebanon, Castle Shannon and Bridgeville, this group advocated a tunnel near the one originally suggested by the South Hills Board of Trade, but with a lower southern portal.
A low-exiting tunnel would provide access to communities lying due south of Mount Washington along the valley stretching through Dormont and Mt. Lebanon, as well as eastward along the Saw Mill Run valley into the boroughs of Fairhaven and Brentwood. These communities would not have been as well served by the originally proposed "Shingiss-Haberman Plan," which would have provided access to the communities located high in the hills such as Allentown, Beltzhoover, Mount Oliver, Knoxville, Arlington Heights, St. Clair and Carrick.
This "low" option was initially put forward by Edward Bigelow, the state highway commissioner and former director of the Pittsburgh Public Works Department. It called for a tunnel with a northern portal at Carson and South First Streets in the Southside and exiting low in the South Hills by the Bell Tavern in the Saw Mill Run valley, near the junction of West Liberty and Warrington Avenues. This tunnel would have been 6,280 feet long with a rising grade of 2.12 percent.
Not surprisingly, membership in the various tunnel groups was largely determined by geographical location. The only community to belong to more than one group was Bridgeville, located far enough to the south to benefit from almost any of the tunnel options.
The western-most tunnel, the Shalerville plan, failed to attract much attention and was quickly abandoned. As a result, the major dispute over the proposed tunnel’s location involved only the high and low options, a decision that ultimately lay in the hands of the Allegheny County Commissioners.
The tunnel supported by the South Hills Board of Trade remained the "Shingiss-Haberman High Tunnel Plan." They contended that the high route was clearly the best choice and indicated that this route would provide access to 1.091 acres within 2 1/2 miles of City Hall, and 7.408 acres within four miles. These numbers stood in stark contrast to 156 acres and 6,329 acres respectively for the low level route.
Board President Gosser also suggested that it was the only logical choice because it would connect an already developed and highly populated section of the South Hills with the downtown area, bringing one hundred thousand people miles nearer to the center of the city. Adopting the low-exiting Bell Tavern plan, he contended would be detrimental to the interests of the city as a whole and beneficial mostly to the interests of land speculators hoping to profit from the development of a vast vacant territory.
THE HILL TOP CUT
The debate over what was best for the development of the South Hills was not just restricted to the question of tunnels and their location. As it became increasingly funding would be provided for some sort of transportation improvement to the South Hills, other groups and individuals scrambled to present their plans. One suggestion that gained some momentum was entitled the "Hill Top Plan." Proposed by Pittsburgh City engineer W.M. Donley in November 1914, this alternative to a tunnel envisioned a large hill top cut.
Donley contended that people preferred the open air and views of their surroundings rather than the isolation and the fetid air of tunnels. His proposal was quickly supported by Dr. J.P. Kerr, a Pittsburgh City Councilman from the Southside, and Charles A Poth, a prominent Mt. Oliver attorney. Both these individuals had interests in promoting development high in the South Hills along the hilltops facing the city, rather than lower in the valley or along the interior ridge.
THE NEELD TUNNEL
Actual construction of a tunnel began in July 1915, by Booth & Flinn, Ltd., only to be halted by a court challenge testing the right of the county to build tunnels. This first tunnel project was named after its consulting engineer, A.G. Neeld.
The Neeld Tunnel was located approximately half-way between the high and low options. It would have connected Carson Street near South Third Street to a southern point sixty-seven feet below the grade of Warrington Avenue, near Boggs and Curtis Avenues, in the valley and adjacent to the streetcar line that ran to and from the South Hills Junction.
Contracts for the Neeld Tunnel, or Allegheny County Highway Tunnel #1, were let in the fall of 1915. In the meantime, Booth & Flinn contractors diverted a sewer on the west side of the tunnel before stopping work pending the outcome of the court suit.
In July 1916, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided the case in favor of the tunnel opponents, ruling the act of authorizing construction unconstitutional due to a defective title. Once the act was rewritten the following year and the authority of the county to build tunnels was firmly established, the Neeld Tunnel was re-evaluated. At this point, the county commissioners delegated the decision on tunnel location to the newly created County Planning Commission.
Although some work on the Neeld Tunnel had already been done, the commission rejected the project because its north portal, connecting with Carson Street at grade, would interfere with cross traffic. Also, the six percent grade of the approach along Warrington Avenue to the south portal was deemed too steep. When construction of a South Hills tunnel resumed in 1919, it was for a tunnel exiting even lower into the undeveloped valleys of the South Hills.
After years of controversy, lawsuits and false starts, the supporters of the "Bell Tavern Plan," or the low tunnel option were victorious. The plan was slightly modified from the original proposal made by Edward Bigelow. The southern portal location remained the same and the northern portal was moved slightly up on the Mount Washington hillside away from busy Carson Street. It was also decided that the connecting Liberty Bridge would be built in 1928 by the City of Pittsburgh after completion of the new tunnel.
Thus, on May 23, 1919, the Allegheny County Planning Commission decided unanimously in favor of the Bell Tavern Plan, and on December 3, 1919, the commission awarded the contract for a low-exiting tunnel to the same contractor of the ill-fated Neeld Tunnel, Booth & Flinn, Ltd. Ironically, the man who was to supervise the construction of the Liberty Tunnels as none other than Mr. A. G. Neeld himself.
Click on images for larger pictures.
* Information gathered from “The Saga Of The Liberty Tunnels,” by Steven J. Hoffman *
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