The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

prodigious time

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator will offer once again that he is no railroad historian. The business tricks and trades associated in the modern day with venture capitalist firms, patent portfolios, and technology companies are the only analogue one can point at to analogize the complicated world and finances of the 19th century railroad business in the United States. It was a great way to get rich, or go bankrupt, and sometimes both. Capital intensive industries like rail always attracted the big players with fat wallets who could afford to gamble. There’s a reason you associate names like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Morgan with rail in this era. In the case of the 1875 founded Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, whose surviving Pittsburgh campus along the Monongahela River has been converted over to a shopping center and entertainment complex called “Station Square,” I’m just going to refer you to a Wikipedia page which can describe their entire complicated story to you better than I can.

Besides, I’m a lot more interested in the second oldest steel bridge in the United States, pictured above and below, which is dubbed “Smithfield Street Bridge.” It’s the third bridge to offer a crossing of the Monongahela River at this location, with the first wooden one dating back to 1818. That bridge (dubbed the Monongahela Bridge) stood until the Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845, which destroyed a third of the City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The second bridge here was a wire rope suspension bridge built by a certain fellow named John A. Roebling. It wasn’t designed for heavy traffic, and used eight spans to cross the Monongahela, so Roebling’s version was replaced with this 1883 vintage lenticular truss type bridge seen above. It’s 42 and a half feet above the water, uses two spans of 360 feet each to cross the river, and is (on ramp to off ramp) 1,184 feet long.

The Smithfield Street Bridge was designed by Gustav Lindenthal, whose masterpieces are the Hell Gate Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge back in Queens’ Astoria and Long Island City sections respectively. How’s them apples, for a fella seeking to escape NYC and see something different for a few days, after a long pandemic?

So – the bridge this version replaced was designed by the guy who built the Brooklyn Bridge, and the 138 years old replacement is by the guy who built the Hell Gate (with Pittsburgh’s American Bridge Company) and Queensboro (with Henri Hornbostel, of course).


– photo by Mitch Waxman

The lenticular truss deal involves the large curved structures visible above, which act as tension springs bound to the masonry piers. As a point of trivia, the masonry is original to the Roebling version of Smithfield Street Bridge. It’s a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a National Historic Landmark, and is listed by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Streetcar service operated on this span until 1985, which has since been moved to the Panhandle Bridge. Apparently, this bridge also boasts the highest count for pedestrian crossings in all of Pittsburgh, as the Station Square development offers commercial parking lots that are patronized by downtown commuters.

Smithfield Street Bridge has had its roadways widened twice to accommodate traffic volume and changing usage since it opened in 1883. Its somewhat modern day pop culture claim to fame is an appearance in the opening scene of the 1983 Jennifer Beals movie “Flashdance.”

Who knew?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

From the deck of the Gateway Clipper, the camera had a great platform from which to capture the scenery. There’s the Golden Triangle side of the Monongahela River, with the mate of the masonry railroad bridge pier I showed you yesterday. Behind that, on the landward side, are preserved historic district buildings from the old days of industry as well as newer construction. I think – as in I’m sort of not sure if I’m right or not – that these masonry towers were part of what was called the Wabash Rail Bridge, when there was still a span here.

The Monongahela River is considered to be the 17th most polluted river in the United States. The Ohio River is #1, which Monongahela feeds into. The Monongahela River is 130 miles long, and flows northeasterly out of West Virginia into Pennsylvania, where it turns northwards, and then joins with the Allegheny River here in Pittsburgh to form the headwaters of the Ohio River. Its entirety is managed for navigability by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who maintain a minimum depth of 9 feet using locks and dams. Legend has it that the name “Monongahela” is an English language portmanteau of Native American words meaning “falling banks” or “where banks cave in.”

Again, that weird topology of Pittsburgh asserts itself, even in aboriginal place names. The polluted status of the river is chalked up to the presence of steel mills and mining operations found outside of the city, and historic pollution from the era of steel production here in Western Pennsylvania.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Gateway Clipper narration was very good. I say that as someone who often fulfills a similar function in NY Harbor, speaking onboard Circle Line and other excursion boats about the hidden wonders of the East River and its tributaries like Newtown Creek or the Gowanus, the somewhat boring Hudson River, or Staten Island’s Kill Van Kull and Bayonne’s Port Elizabeth Newark. I made it a point of tipping the guide with a ten dollar bill to show some professional “esprit de corps.” He seemed a bit surprised by the tip, actually. If you’re in Pittsburgh, I can recommend this boat tour.

Pictured above are the on ramps of the Fort Pitt Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Where those onramps lead is the Fort Pitt tunnel. It’s a bit different than the sort of river bottom tunnels we have in NYC, where traffic going in different directions move in parallel courses. The Fort Pitt tunnel uses two stacked bores through Mt. Washington, with Golden Triangle/Downtown Pittsburgh bound traffic moving through the upstairs, while South Side/West End bound traffic uses the downstairs. It seems that there actually four tunnels that are struck through Mt. Washington, but this is the only one I’ve got a picture of.

The tunnel opened in 1960, is 3,614 feet in length, 28 feet wide, and offers a vertical clearance of 13.5 feet. According to official statistics, and pre Covid traffic counts, some 107,000 vehicle trips a day move through the Fort Pitt Tunnel on average.

Whew. More tomorrow.

Also, if I can ask you to hit “like” or subscribe to Newtown Pentacle using the button at the upper right hand side of the site, it would help me out a great deal. Also, if you liked this or any of these posts, would it be rude of me to ask you to share it out on your social media feeds?

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Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

November 9, 2021 at 11:00 am

3 Responses

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  1. Thank you for all the bridge background! I’ve walked every major river bridge in NYC and the Queensboro is my favorite, I love its complexity. Pittsburgh’s bridges are fascinating miniatures.


    November 13, 2021 at 8:04 pm

  2. […] Form, Without Dissolution, Calculations Would, Grave Doubt, Luckily Obtainable, Abnormal Toughness, Prodigious Time, Unexampled Flight, Earthward Dreams, and finally Bacterial […]

  3. […] Form, Without Dissolution, Calculations Would, Grave Doubt, Luckily Obtainable, Abnormal Toughness, Prodigious Time, Unexampled Flight, Earthward Dreams, and finally Bacterial […]

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