My niece Casey Beveridge near the Donora-Webster Bridge during the summer of 2008 when traffic started to come to a crawl on the old span.
By Scott Beveridge
WEBSTER, Pa. – Tonight I walk to the middle of the closed steel truss bridge near my home, stand completely still and feel the old span move under my feet.
The historic Donora-Webster Bridge, absent of traffic, has a steady bounce almost like a beating heart suspended over the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania.
For a moment, the creepy pulse seems to be a metaphor for the livelihoods the span has supported over the past 101 years by offering people mindless shortcuts to work or visit friends and relatives.
The beat, though, began to slow a year ago.
Looking out the windows of my house in Webster, I noticed a stark decline in the amount of traffic coming off the bridge immediately after gasoline prices spiked out of control in the summer of 2008. The smaller number of cars remained steady after gas prices began to drop a few months later. The parade of vehicles seemed to decline even further after the stock market crashed last fall, retail sales tanked and unemployment rates began to soar.
When the economy suffers in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, it often becomes more difficult for the folks to make ends meet in a struggling, former steel town such as Donora south of Pittsburgh. The downtown storefronts there just continue to rot under the depressed weight of leaking roofs, awaiting investors who never come along.
Now, the bridge is dying, too. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation closed it last week one month after a routine inspection revealed badly rusted support beams under two decks. So we await a determination on whether the span can be repaired, while preservationists line up to fight for a restoration plan because this bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bridge earned the designation because it was fastened together with pins in an engineering style borrowed from the Pennsylvania Railroad to ensure it could support the weight of locomotives.
And while PennDOT engineers determine the bridge’s fate, traffic has come to a near-dead stop on the adjoining roads in the now-isolated village of Webster.
The quiet is almost as eerie as the bridge that sways while no one else is feeling its vibration.