The Monongahela Bridge

monongahela bridge

The Monongahela Bridge: Pittsburgh’s First Bridge

The Monongahela Bridge holds a significant place in the history of Pittsburgh. It was not only the first bridge to span the Monongahela River but also the first bridge of any kind built in the city to accommodate pedestrian, livestock, and wagon traffic. Explore the construction, importance, and eventual fate of the Monongahela Bridge, shedding light on its impact on the city and its residents.

Early Initiatives for Bridge Construction

In 1810, the State Legislature in Pennsylvania enacted a law calling for the construction of two bridges in Pittsburgh, one across the Monongahela River and the other across the Allegheny River. However, due to the outbreak of the War of 1812, the initiative was put on hold. It was not until 1816 that the project was re-enacted. Construction on the Monongahela Bridge commenced shortly after, with the building of abutments and seven piers to support the span from a point along Smithfield Street.

The Mastermind behind the Bridge: Lewis Wernwag

The Monongahela Bridge was designed by the renowned early-American engineer, Lewis Wernwag, and constructed by John Thompson. Wernwag’s expertise and Thompson’s skillful execution brought the bridge to life. The construction began in June 1818, and by November of the same year, the final arch was put in place. The elegant 1500-foot covered wood bridge, made of wood and iron, stood as a testament to their craftsmanship. The bridge was built at a cost of $102,000 and was owned by the Monongahela Bridge Company.

monongahela bridge

Connecting Pittsburgh to the South

With the completion of the Monongahela Bridge, Pittsburgh achieved a significant milestone. The bridge served as the only connection across the Monongahela River, linking the city to the growing municipalities in the south. This connection facilitated the transportation of goods, livestock, and people, contributing to the city’s economic development. Not long after the completion of the Bridge, another covered bridge called the Allegheny Bridge, located at Sixth Street, was constructed, linking Pittsburgh with Allegheny City to the north. Pittsburgh now boasted two splendid bridges over two mighty streams, a feat unparalleled in any other American city or town at the time.

Toll Collection and Profitability

The Monongahela Bridge required a toll for crossing. A toll collector resided in a small apartment built above the barn-like portal on the Pittsburgh side. The toll rates varied based on the mode of transportation. For instance, foot passengers paid 2 cents, while vehicles with four wheels and six horses were charged 62 1/2 cents. The Bridge proved to be a huge success, not only serving as a vital transportation link but also being profitable for its stockholders, including the State of Pennsylvania.

Challenges and Rebuilding Efforts

Despite its success, the Bridge faced its fair share of challenges. In 1832, the bridge was damaged when a runaway riverboat collided with it, causing the collapse of two sections. However, these damages were repaired, and the bridge resumed its operations. Unfortunately, on April 10, 1845, disaster struck. The Great Fire of 1845 reduced the wooden span of the Monongahela Bridge to ashes within fifteen minutes. Only the stone piers remained as a testament to its existence.

The Replacement Bridge: John Roebling’s Suspension Bridge

A year after the fire, a new bridge was built in place of the Bridge. Designed by the renowned engineer John Roebling, the replacement bridge utilized the existing stone piers from the damaged bridge. This new span also bore the name Monongahela Bridge, but it eventually became known as the Smithfield Street Bridge in 1861 when the South Tenth Street Bridge became the second span across the Monongahela River. The Smithfield Street Bridge still stands today, serving as a historic landmark and an essential transportation link in Pittsburgh.

The Bridge played a crucial role in Pittsburgh’s development, serving as the first bridge across the Monongahela River and connecting the city to the growing municipalities in the south. Its construction paved the way for further bridge-building endeavors, cementing Pittsburgh’s reputation as a city of engineering marvels. Despite its eventual demise, the legacy of the Monongahela Bridge lives on through its replacement, the Smithfield Street Bridge, which continues to be an iconic symbol of Pittsburgh’s rich history.

Scroll to Top