February 1971: The artistry of Pittsburgh’s potholes
We at the Digs see a number of similarities between our city’s potholes and those freaky crop circles found in the English countryside. Both materialize somewhat mysteriously and have brought great fame to specific geographical regions. And each pothole, like every crop circle, possesses unmistakable artistic merit. You just have to squint to see it.
A few weeks ago, while driving along Fort Pitt Boulevard, we squinted at the monster pothole at the Market Street intersection and discovered that it resembled, in both shape and size, a barnacle-encrusted humpback whale. Our vehicle then fell into the hole and everything went dark until we emerged on the North Side.
That particular pothole has since been filled with several tons of asphalt and so now it resembles a Vermont-sized liver spot.
Back at the PG archives, we checked our clipping files and found 21 folders labeled “Potholes.” While this isn’t a record (the Steelers clippings consume more than 200 folders), it certainly qualifies as an obsession. Pittsburgh newspaper reporters love writing about roads resembling swiss cheese.
The first file we opened dated from the mid 1970s. This was our city’s “Golden Age” of potholes. Some were so large a reader suggested building bridges over them. In 1972, one article noted, the 3700 block of Bigelow Boulevard was declared a “disaster area.”
Then, in 1976 came an age of enlightenment, at least for one Pittsburgh Press writer. “It’s pothole blossom time!” he cheered.
Newspapers soon developed a pothole rating system. On Ohio River Boulevard, a reporter spotted a “six-hubcapper,” which meant that six lost hubcaps littered the immediate area. Roads at the time were choked with Chevy Vegas and Ford Pintos and AMC Gremlins, cars so loosely bolted together that they geysered auto parts when encountering even the shallowest of potholes.
Late in the decade, a mean-spirited and maniacal pothole on William Penn Highway in Monroeville flattened the tire of a Pittsburgh optometrist. He pulled into a nearby gas station and found five other motorists waiting to get their tires repaired. Enraged, the optometrist formed an organization called Pothole Victims of Pennsylvania. Potholes would finally face justice.
And in February 1977, experts discovered a possibly bottomless pothole on Friendship Avenue. “Granddaddy,” it was labeled. In an effort to determine the hole’s depth, Scientists dropped a Dodge Omni into the abyss. Eerily, the vehicle was never heard to hit bottom. Perhaps the hole was a window into another universe.
Top photo: A young girl discovered potholes made excellent “wading ponds” on Babcock Boulevard in Pine Township. (Pittsburgh Press photo)
The Pennsylvania Highways Moblog turned 4 today! It seems just like yesterday that it was created.
The day before Fort Pitt Tunnel opened in August 1960, The Pittsburgh Press editorial page suggested that it will help the city “get rid of some traffic headaches…” Yep. You read that correctly.
In all fairness though, the editorial’s author maintained a grounding in reality by finishing his piece with “… and perhaps acquire some new ones.”
For those involved these days in a daily morning traffic snarl on the Parkway West through the tunnel and into the city, the state’s effort toward a passage under Mount Washington in the late 1950s might now seem a folly.
The tunnel cost $10 million and was part of a larger $32 million state-funded highway program announced in October 1956.
At the time, it was the most expensive project in Pittsburgh history.
The idea of making the tunnel a toll passage garnered support from the Automobile Club of Pittsburgh and city residents. The notion was ultimately scrapped when state funding came through. Pennsylvania politicians such as Sen. Frank Kopriver Jr. said charging tolls was not fair since Squirrel Hill Tunnel drivers paid no tolls.
Construction of Fort Pitt Tunnel began in spring 1957. Just before Thanksgiving that year, Fred Jones of The Pittsburgh Press explored the construction site. The job of the drillers was made more difficult by the fact that when you exit the tunnel in the city, you’re 20 feet higher than when you enter.
It took workers six months to drill the 3,600-foot tunnel at an average of about 46 feet a day, Jones wrote.
A year later, when the tunnel was completed, David Kelly of The Pittsburgh Press characterized the view coming out of the tunnel as “a canyon-barrel view of Pittsburgh’s steel and cement canyons.”
That much, at least, has not changed.
For more on the Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel, see http://www.pahighways.com/interstates/I376.html.
November 1961: The trouble with those tunnels
Shortly after the Squirrel Hill Tunnels opened in 1953, leaders at the state’s highway department proudly proclaimed they’d discovered a solution to one anticipated problem — keeping the gleam on the tunnel’s sparkling white tiles. Officials showed off two custom-built trucks that sprayed the tunnel walls with soap and water.
“Hooey,” said the folks in charge of cleaning the Liberty Tubes. The Tubes had been in operation for a quarter of a century. The crew there knew something about filthy tiles. Most problematic were tobacco chewing drivers who befouled the Tubes with streams of brown spit.
“You just try to get that off these tile walls without using a brush,” said one Tube attendant. “Tobacco juice won’t come off it you don’t rub.”
In the life of the Squirrel Hill Tunnels, it was an optimistic time, when a battle against grime was worthy of a press conference. Soon, a more vexing problem would arise. And if you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for more than a day, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
Originally, the posted speed limit on the Penn-Lincoln Parkway (now known as the Parkway East) was 50 mph. In the tunnel the limit was reduced to 35 mph.
The result? Traffic snarled at the tunnel entrances. So authorities raised the tunnel speed limit to 50 mph.
The jams persisted.
State police were urged to stand at tunnel entrances to try to “whip motorists through the tunnels with gestures, scowls, shouts or whatever it takes” to keep traffic moving at a proper speed. Signs were posted inside the tunnels, urging drivers to maintain a 55 mph pace.
Still, drivers slowed to 35 or even 25 mph.
Part of the problem, officials said, was the structure’s design. The tunnels were barely six years old in 1959, yet they were inadequate for the amount of traffic carried by the Parkway.
So the state highway department decided to convert one of the tunnel’s outbound lanes to an inbound lane during the morning rush hour. Highway workers on the east side of the tunnel set out traffic cones that allowed drivers to cross over the median and enter a “fast” inbound lane. “Desperation Plan in Desperation Situation,” blared one newspaper headline.
Allowing two-way traffic inside the narrow tunnel was “suicidal,” warned a county police officer named David Wallace. “It’s virtually an invitation for sideswiping and head-on collisions.”
The plan didn’t last.
Overcapacity wasn’t the only issue. In 1960 an engineer named Robert Klucher summed up a study on the jams: Motorists entering the tunnels slowed down and didn’t pick up speed until their incarceration ended and they once again saw daylight. Thus enlightened, the Pittsburgh Press blared, “Slow Pokes Cause Jams in Tunnels.”
“Tunnel driving tends to cause a recognizable psychological restraint on many drivers,” said Klucher, a master of understatement.
Declared one motorist, “It’s just one of those quirks of human nature that we can’t do anything about.”
Or maybe drivers are just slowing down to admire those sparkling white tiles. If so, a little tobacco juice would solve the problem.
Top photo: Officials experimented with allowing two-way traffic in one of the tunnels in the early 1960s. (Pittsburgh Press photo)
For more on the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, see http://www.pahighways.com/interstates/I376.html.
1939: ”The Mon Wharf”
The Mon Wharf may be the most newsworthy parking spot in America. And not only because it appears in the news every time the Pittsburgh river goes on the rampage.
Has anyone counted how many cars have been fished out from the Mon after the flooding of the Wharf? Photos from the Post-Gazette archive capture Buicks, Chevrolets, Alpha Romeos and even U-Hauls being pulled out from the river.
In the early 1900s, before the Mon Wharf became what it is today, the sloping bank along the Monongahela, from the Point eastward to Smithfield Street, was in the news as a center of Pittsburgh’s river traffic and commerce.
Back then, the cobblestoned Wharf served as a parking spot, but of a different kind. Steamboats docked here to deliver passengers and supplies to Downtown. The riverfront was used also as a temporary docking place for coal barges whose final destinations were the steel mills upstream. Remember, in the beginning of the 20th century Pittsburgh was the largest inland port in the United States.
As motorized vehicles became more common in Pittsburgh and river traffic tanked, partially due to railroad development, the Wharf became a parking spot for automobiles. In the 1930s, the need to develop the area and accommodate the growing population of vehicle owners Downtown became more obvious.
As the 1930s drew to a close, the city government approved a plan to build an expressway above the Wharf and transform the Wharf itself into a parking lot. Warehouses were replaced by office buildings, the cobblestone surface was converted to a well-paved road.
The Pittsburgh Press reported on the construction of the Wharf in February 1939: “It’s been difficult for members of the Association of the Construction Watchers to figure out from their various vantage points along the Monongahela River side of the Golden Triangle — how Pittsburgh’s first elevated river boulevard will look when it is finished.”
The plan was close to being perfect, a reporter wrote. “There is just one drawback: the parking area and the sunken express highway, which will be connected with the higher level by means of three ramps, one at Ferry St. and two at Wood St., will be under water when the river goes on the rampage.”
"The sunken portion of the highway will be only five feet above normal river stage and will be closed when floods come. The same holds true of the parking area."
The prognosis for the Mon Wharf from 1939 turned out to be true. And here we are today, loving to hate the Wharf when it’s flooded, loving it or not caring at all, when it’s not.
The eastbound lanes of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, or Parkway Central, now run above and the westbound lanes (as seen above) on the floor of the Mon Wharf. For more information, see http://www.pahighways.com/interstates/I376.html
We’ll forgive Apple Maps for still showing PA 299 since it was only decommissioned in 2011 with the exception of the bridge over the Norfolk Southern rail line.
An article in the May 3, 1961 edition of the Washington Observer on the many route changes that would be taking place that year in southwestern Pennsylvania. Several of them included PA 80 and its “child” routes 180, 480, and 680 that were eliminated due to conflicts with Interstate designations. The State Highways section of the website has the histories of these decommissioned routes, and the cover of the 1961 map, that is mentioned, can be seen on the Official State Highway Maps page.
While the Liberty Tunnel does not have a posted route number, it is designated as SR 3069.
March 7, 1939: Liberty Tubes come to life
The arrival of the age of the automobile nearly a century ago prompted local leaders to improve transportation to the growing South Hills.
In 1919, Allegheny County commissioners decided to bore twin tubes through the base of Mt. Washington to create the Liberty Tunnels. The project cost $6 million. In today’s dollars, that figure would be $82 million.
When they opened in 1924, the Liberty Tunnels were the longest auto tunnels in the world. Each tunnel is more than 5,000 feet long and 26 feet wide. About 400,000 cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated to build them.
The Liberty Tunnels (a lot of us call them the Liberty Tubes) were hailed as a boon to South Hills residents who no longer had to detour around the city but could drive directly to Downtown. Even horse-drawn vehicles were allowed to use the tunnels but were finally banned in 1932. That same year, about 25,000 cars passed through the tunnels daily. By 2000, that figure had risen to more than 63,000 vehicles each day.
The Liberty Bridge, which cost $3.4 million, opened in 1928.
In a 1975 article published in The Pittsburgh Press, transportation reporter Joe Grata observed that the Liberty Tunnels were “inadequate, dangerous and obsolete almost from the first day cars and horses passed through them.”
The tunnels underwent a $7.2 million rehabilitation in 1975. The road bed was widened by one foot to 22 feet and about 3,000 fluorescent lights were installed in each tunnel.
This year, motorists have watched the fourth phase of renovations, a project that began in 2008. This fourth phase, which costs $18.8 million, will restore the entry facades at both ends to very much how they looked when the tunnels opened in 1924. The tunnels’ interiors will be finished in a washable white surface.
(Top photograph: New lights and tile were added to the tubes in 1939. Photo credit: Unknown)
If you wanted to enjoy nature in beautiful Crooked Creek State Park, you could take PA 359. However, much like the state park, the route is no more as it was decommissioned in 1981.
Dec. 12, 1964: "The Bridge to Nowhere"
The Fort Duquesne Bridge now serves as a connection between Downtown and the North Side, spanning the Allegheny River. But that wasn’t always the case.
The bridge’s main span was finished in 1963. However, according to an article in The Pittsburgh Press, “red tape and governmental disagreement” kept it from being completed for several more years, earning it the nickname “The Bridge to Nowhere.”
"Police estimated the uncompleted bridge stands about 100 feet over the Allegheny River while the dropoff is about 90 feet from the shoreline — measured straight ahead."
To prevent people from driving across the bridge and plunging to their death, barricades were set up at the Downtown side of the bridge and at the end of the span.
But that didn’t stop a daredevil Pitt student from attempting a “flight” from the end of the bridge to the North Shore.
On December 12, 1964, Frederick Williams, 21, of Basking Ridge, N.J. — a senior majoring in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh — crashed through the barriers and raced across the span, his station wagon flying through space and landing upside down at the water’s edge.
Mr. Williams pulled himself from the wreckage, “shaken but unscathed.” He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital, where he was examined and released. According to the Pittsburgh Press article, he offered no explanation for his historic leap.
In the wake of the incident, the State Highways Department vowed to replace the broken barricades.
John S. Yard, assistant district engineer for the department, seemed dumbfounded.
"We didn’t think it was possible to do anything like that," he said.
For more on the Fort Duquesne Bridge and to explore the history of other bridges along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, check out the Post-Gazette’s interactive, with videos and photos from our archives.
(Photos: From the Heinz History Center, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development Collection)
For more on the Fort Duquesne Bridge, including pictures of its construction, see http://www.pahighways.com/interstates/I279.html