Hot Metal Bridge

allegheny | Pittsburgh, PA Mile 146

The Nuts & Bolts: Hot Metal Bridge

  • 1,140 feet long (including ramps), 341 feet at longest span
  • Original Construction: completed in 1887
  •  Refurbished for GAP Use: 2007
  • Total Cost: $11,663,000.00 
  • Engineer: Parsons Brinkerhoff
  • Contractor: Brayman Construction
  • Project Manager: John “Jack” Paulik

In the late 1800s, Pittsburgh’s steel industry was in its heyday. Dozens of steel mills and forge furnaces lined the smoggy Steel Valley as the Monongahela River weaved its way to meet the Allegheny. To ferry steel back and forth between mills or as finished freight, many steel and coke-related companies built bridges for easy transport. While seeing a bridge in Pittsburgh is nothing new, there are some, like the Hot Metal Bridge, that still carry the history of the city’s industrial past.

Around the mid-1800s, steel mills along the Monongahela River were starting to take shape. The American Iron Works on the south bank were established in 1850, and the Eliza blast furnaces were built on the north shore in 1860.[1] Both sides of the river were owned by the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (J&L Steel), who formed the East End Bridge Company in 1882 to connect the two properties.[2] Five years later a railroad bridge was constructed to link both sides of the Mon by rail, providing access to the upstream tracks of the Monongahela Connecting Railroad and the downstream single track used to transport hot metal to the rolling mills. For a time, the Monongahela Connecting Railroad would provide transport for the various industrial mills along the Mon and become a subsidiary of the J&L.[3] In 1900, J&L shifted their primary focus to steel production and built an additional bridge adjacent to the one built in 1887 (which was also reconstructed). This new addition was the Hot Metal Bridge.[4] The Hot Metal Bridge was constructed in a truss style similar to its sister bridge on the Monongahela Connecting Railroad (referred to as the “Main Railroad Bridge”); the Hot Metal Bridge extended 1,174 feet, with the longest span height peaking at 321 feet.[5] By the early 1900s, nearly 63 steel mills (including the J&L) populated Pittsburgh, producing 40% of America’s crude steel.[6] Steel production reached its peak during WWII, as Pittsburgh’s mills operated continuously to fuel the war effort. The decades afterward, however, were not kind to the city’s once-thriving steel empire. In the early 1970s J&L Steel was taken over by a Texas steel company known as Ling-Temco-Vought, Inc., later known plainly as LTV Steel.[7] Within a decade, however, the once-bustling J&L mill would close down, unable to recover from the industry’s decline.[8] In 2000, almost 20 years after the mill’s closure, the “Main Railroad Bridge” was converted into a road for 2nd Avenue/South 29th Street connection, utilized once again to ferry vehicular traffic rather than molten steel from the South Side into downtown Pittsburgh.[9]

Sharing the bridge with trail users was part of former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy’s vision of developing a trail system in the city as part of the revival of Pittsburgh’s riverfront. In 1991, Murphy, Martin O’Malley, Todd Erkel, and John Stevens founded the Friends of the Riverfront, a nonprofit that, as part of its mission to reclaim almost 35 miles of Pittsburgh’s riverbanks into recreational areas, would oversee the fundraising and development of this trail system.[10] Friends of the Riverfront, along with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA), would help to repurpose the Hot Metal Bridge into a recreational resource.

To shift the focus to Pittsburgh’s rivers and the opportunities that lay dormant, Tom Murphy and his development team did something drastic for riverfront trail development:

[In] ’94 when I’m becoming mayor and I have this remarkable group of people. I don’t take credit–Tom Cox, who was my chief of staff and Steve Leeper. We decide, in a very conscious way, that we needed to become a different city…And, we needed to do something with all this vacant land, which has now been sitting there for years. And so, we do something very controversial, we, in a flat-broke city, we take $6 million out of our operating budget. We have junk bond status, we had a 12% pension fund, funded pension, and there’s a lot of things to do with money. We take reducing the workforce of the city and eliminating about 150 positions. We divert $6 million out of the city’s operating budget and use it to finance a $16 million bond issue, put it in the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which is going to become our economic driver. In the first year I’m mayor, we buy over 1,000 acres of land, so we go and buy the steel mills. We buy South Side, and we buy the slag dump in Somerset, and we buy the old Sears building in East Liberty where Home Depot is, that’s what started the whole [initiative]. So, we started buying property with the idea that we’re going to build a new Pittsburgh.[11]

Including plans for public recreation in this first economic development push made some waves in a traditionally steel-forged industrial economy, but it was not without hope of turning this abandoned section of Pittsburgh into something that its citizens could enjoy. This unorthodox move to siphon funds into the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) would, over time, prove beneficial to the city of Pittsburgh, and to the reconstruction of the Hot Metal Bridge for trail use.[12] The URA bought the property of J&L Steel, who built the Hot Metal Bridge, to create a South Side Trail that would link to the Eliza Furnace Trail. Murphy explains an interaction he had with some South Side developers when the J&L property was purchased by the city and how vital he felt it was to reserve this property for a trail:

So, we bought the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill site on the South Side. It’s about 120 acres. And, we make a decision to do the kind of development that you see, they do a mixed-use, urban [redevelopment]…And, I can remember taking Rebecca Flora and her chairman of her board at the time–Rebecca was head of the South Side Development Corporation. And, we started a run up by the Frick Art Museum and we ran down through Frick Park, and down through what is now Somerset, but was then a slag dump – but there was still a trail that ran down through that valley, and […] down along the Riverfront from Duck Hollow, down to the Glenwood Bridge, and across the Glenwood Bridge, and down along the South Side. And, I’m telling [them], ‘We need to do this trail.’ And, that’s why the trail for the South Side was going to be so important, that we could come down there. And so, for me, anytime we were going to do anything on the Waterfront, it was going to have public access, that [the City of Pittsburgh was] going to own the Waterfront.[13]

In 1998, Murphy pushed for trail development along the north and south sides of the Mon to kickstart his initiative to develop riverfront pedestrian trails, beginning with the establishment of the Eliza Furnace Trail.[14] In preparation for the 1999 International Trails and Greenway Symposium that was to be hosted in Pittsburgh, Darla Cravotta was tasked with leading the project to build 2.5 miles of trail from the Allegheny County Jail to the Hot Metal Bridge, which opened for use in June of 1998.[15] Cravotta mentions that there were considerations taken to include the Hot Metal Bridge in future construction plans as the Eliza Furnace Trail was built and the South Side developments were put into motion:

At one point, we built a trail from the end of the South Side Riverfront Park…kind of underneath the Birmingham Bridge and we continued to go to where South Side Works was but there was no South Side Works there, really. There was nothing there and we built this trail all the way into this land. Now, the Hot Metal Bridge wasn’t done, nothing was finished then, but we wanted this to be part of an alignment because we had parts of the South Side Trail and wanted to continue to build the South Side Trail.[16]

The Hot Metal Bridge would be the link from the South Side to the Eliza Furnace Trail, connecting not only separate districts of the city but creating a pedestrian network along Pittsburgh’s riverfronts.

Around 1999, the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA), the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the City of Pittsburgh joined forces to begin exploring avenues to adapt the Hot Metal Bridge into a trail asset.[17] Prior to this cooperation the URA had done pre-design and site work, moving forward to set more tangible plans to evaluate bridge condition and discuss deck type/width.[18] The Hot Metal Bridge up until the early 2000’s was slightly raised and not connected to either bank of the Monongahela River.[19] Instead, any pedestrian traffic looking to cross to or from the South Side had to do so on the highway span, causing annoyances for commuters and a dangerous situation for pedestrians.[20] To remedy this, the URA contracted with engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to demolish the bridge in October of 2000, which began with the selective demolition of the deck pan and Y-span on the south side of the bridge to allow for a bridge inspection.[21]

Throughout 2002 and 2003, the URA created a funding strategy and sent forth applications to grantors such as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Rivers of Steel grant, and the TEA-21 grant for preliminary design.[22] While the Rivers of Steel grant fell through, the design to redeck the bridge and add a connecting bridge over Second Avenue was funded by state, federal, and a $500,000 contribution from ATA.[23] Friends of the Riverfront also helped organize around 15% of the cost to inspect, design, and construct the bridge for around $10 million dollars.[24]

The Hot Metal Bridge, while integral to connecting the Great Allegheny Passage to Point State Park, was completely constructed by the URA; the Allegheny Trail Alliance assisted by providing the necessary funds for the bridge and consulted on the bridge’s design.[25] The ATA’s portion was 100% federally funded through TEA-21.  Former ATA President Linda M. Boxx elaborates on ATA’s role in the project:

Melissa Bilec and John Coyne, with the [Urban Redevelopment Authority], were the managers of that project. It was city-owned property – it was a city bridge. And, [ATA’s] role was as a funder. We had received money from the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation and put […] all of the Heinz money and some of the Mellon money into the Hot Metal Bridge. But, what was the most creative about that whole project was we used our global match to fund that project, but we didn’t have to put any money up. It was a Transportation Enhancement-funded [TEA-21] project and so it’s 80/20.” [26]

 An 80/20 split refers to how much an organization would have to spend for the federal government to make up the difference; 20% being the amount that an organization would have to muster to gain 80% from the federal government. Because the Hot Metal Bridge was officially part of the Great Allegheny Passage, it became an extension of the Big Savage Tunnel project in Somerset County. The tunnel’s contributions were all privately funded, hence no federal dollars (i.e. TEA-21 grants) were used in tunnel construction. The TEA-21 money that was allocated for the tunnel, however, was then used to fund the ATA’s portion of the bridge design or pre-construction — it became the bridge’s 20% match. No additional funds or payments had to be raised– the federal government footed 100% of the bill.  Boxx explains how the ATA was able to use all federal dollars without having to put up additional funds directly from another ATA project:

“There was limited [Land and Water Conservation Fund] money in the Big Savage Tunnel, but there was plenty of state money. […] So, we used the match on the tunnel to fund the non-federal match part of the Hot Metal Bridge so they could [be], basically, 100% federal-funded.”[27]

The groundbreaking event to begin construction on the bridge was held on October 26, 2006.[28] The Hot Metal Bridge was the first project completed on the final 9 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage between McKeesport and Point State Park since the Eliza Furnace Trail was finished in the late 1990s.[29] The re-decking, lighting, and addition of a connection ramp to the South Side Trail took a little over a year to complete, and the bridge was officially opened on November 28, 2007.[30] The repurposed Hot Metal Bridge grew in popularity as an iconic landmark and an example of what pedestrian trails could do to help communities who had lost economic drivers such as coal or steel find new avenues from which to grow local economies.

The Hot Metal Bridge, once burdened with the molten steel of the J&L furnaces, now provides a haven for pedestrians who wish to travel between the South Side and the Point. Its rehabilitation for trail use filled an essential gap in the GAP’s development within the Pittsburgh area, carrying trail users closer to the western terminus of the Passage.

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Author: Reed Hertzler ...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... VIDEO: WQED Pittsburgh produced this short feature on the Hot Metal Bridge, as part of its project, "The Great Ride" and is used with permission.