a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Threatened Mon River bridges admirered

A few people who attended the Historic Bridges Conference in Pittsburgh last weekend admire the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge, a closed span that is under threat of demolition. Meanwhile, major improvements to Locks and Dam No. Four continue in the distance.

By Scott Beveridge

DONORA, Pa. – The aging Donora-Webster Bridge appears to be in better shape than many spans its age in the United States, a group of bridge experts agrees.

“This bridge has a coat of paint on it,” said Luke Gordon, a construction inspector from Michigan who visited the historic span Saturday with other bridge enthusiasts. “It’s 10-times better than most I’ve seen.”

Organizers of the Historic Bridges Conference in Pittsburgh included weekend stops in southwestern Pennsylvania at the Donora-Webster Bridge and the similarly built, nearby 103-year-old Charleroi-Monessen Bridge because both of their futures are uncertain.

Outside of Allegheny County, the bridges are among just four Pennsylvania through-truss, pin connected spans still standing along the Monongahela River. The others are in Point Marion and Brownsville, and all are on the National Register of Historic Places because they were pinned together using technology borrowed from the Pennsylvania Railroad.

But, within a year the Charleroi-Monessen could be demolished. A new bridge would then be built on the same site if the plan clears the scrutiny of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The Point Marion Bridge will be gone, too, after a new replacement span opens in November.

“Bridge heritage is at risk,” said Eric DeLony of Santa Fe, a retired chief engineer for the National Park Service who also attended the bridge conference.

He was among a dozen such experts attending the conference who toured the 101-year-old Donora-Webster Bridge. Some took photographs, while others said they admired its graceful lines.

The span became the first toll free bridge to open on the Mon, allowing the older community of Webster to share in the new wealth of Donora after a sprawling steel mill opened within its borders. The bridge was originally painted black for the coal in Webster’s hills and gray for the smoke that billowed from the mills.

The bridge also stood alongside the infamous Donora zinc works, which contributed to a 1948 smog that killed at least 20 local residents and became the catalyst for America’s first clean air laws.

“Donora, probably more than any other town, has the history as to why people would want to come see this bridge,” said Todd Wilson, a civil engineering consultant from Pittsburgh who helped to organize the conference. “This bridge was here and it did play its part in that story.”

It appears the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has done a good job maintaining this bridge. It’s guard rails were not attached its main vertical beams to protect the superstructure from damage by vehicle accidents, Gordon said.

However, there is speculation PennDOT will begin scrutinizing this bridge after it completes the historical review process on the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge that has been closed to traffic since February. The closure of that span followed an inspection that discovered a badly deteriorated pin joint supporting a deck.

People in the struggling Mon Valley towns need to band together to save these historic spans if there is any hope for the area to become a historic tourism destination, said Nikki Sheppick, a historian in Charleroi.

“If we don’t keep these assets, we’re dead,” Sheppick said during the conference stop in Charleroi.

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