Walking around town and seeing some of the buildings that are still standing today is what originally sparked my interest in doing a series of posts about Millvale’s architecture. However, after having just finished reading a book about the history of Millvale, there is a lot to cover about the architecture that isn’t there anymore. So in the interest of historical context the first few posts in this series are going to be about what once was. There are of course countless shops that have changed hands over the years and buildings that have been taken down, put up and taken down again. I’m going to focus on the large scale pieces of architecture, the really big stuff that changed the urban landscape. And since we are in Pittsburgh, after all, we have to start with the bridges.
The valley where Millvale is today has been used as a settlement since before 1800. It’s main distinguishing feature in the early days was a poor farm, established for the “less affluent” members of Allegheny City (now known as the North Shore). At this point, I’m not really sure what a poor farm is, but I’m guessing it’s where poor people went to farm things. Before it was formally incorporated Millvale was very isolated from the rest of the city. There was no way to cross the river, so the only way to downtown Pittsburgh was by boat, by foot over many hills, or the toll road to and from Allegheny City. Without much access to Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh proper or Allegheny City, Millvale developed as a completely self sufficient community by building the infrastructure to support people who rarely left the town. Growth in this way was slow until after Millvale was formally incorporated in 1868; perhaps it is telling that Millvale doesn’t show up on maps of the city until about the year 1870, when the borough got its first direct connection to the golden triangle: the 43rd St Bridge. [high resolution, click to enlarge]
You can still see the poor farm on this map from about 1870 but farming in the valley wouldn’t last much longer. Millvale’s specialized shops were poised to expand and they needed workers to do it. A bridge was the perfect way to bring those workers over from the more densely populated neighborhoods across the Allegheny River. The Ewalt Bridge Company was formed to finance a such a crossing, named for the street in Lawrenceville now called 43rd street after annexation and re-naming by the City of Pittsburgh. Shares of the company were sold for $50 each; for comparison, you could get a trolley ride for $0.10, electricity for $1 per month and a plot of land in downtown Millvale for $175.
The toll was originally one whole penny but quickly increased to two whole pennies, which is a pittance compared to the steep $5.00 penalty for driving faster than a walk. It’s fun to imagine what crossing that first bridge would have been like, enclosed in a long tunnel, the smell of horses and maybe the strange smell of the smoke from those newfangled “autos”, damp wood swaying, creaking and rattling around you. You can probably see the river below through the cracks and knot holes in the deck, maybe the occasional barge having just been emptied of supplies for the mill.
Many people must have made that journey, because the population tripled in the first 10 years after the bridge was built and continued to grow after that, plateauing at about 8,000 in the year 1920. Take a look at the 1890 map compared to the 1870 map [high resolution, click to enlarge]:
Most notably the poor farm was divided up into plots and sold off for private ownership at the aforementioned cost of about $175 each. Large plots on the north and west edge of town were subdivided as well, all owners having sold out except for Mrs. Van Buren. Millvale would continue to steadily grow for many years. Here’s a shot of the bridge from near the end of its life:
Eventually Millvale and Lawrenceville would outgrow their covered “can’t go faster than a walk” crossing. In 1924 the bridge was replaced with the Washington Crossing Bridge, commonly known as the 40th St Bridge, where I took a similarly framed photo [high resolution, click to enlarge]:
If the 43rd St Bridge still stood today, it would have landed just to the right of the boat house visible in front of the trees on the bank of the river, right in the middle of the picture. Looking at a map today you can still see how the streets extend to the water and imagine a ghost bridge between them:
The 40th St Bridge was very popular when it opened and it remains an impressive and handsome bridge to this day. It sits much higher above the water and the banks of the river. It was probably built this way for easier river traffic, but it also makes for some nice secondary benefits, like impressive views up and down the river from the deck and an equally impressive view of the actual bridge from underneath at Millvale’s riverfront park. It’s easy to overlook some of the nicer features of the 40th St Bridge while driving, so I recommend walking across it sometime so that you can appreciate the obelisks at the landings, the lookouts at the piers where you can look up or down the river, and the castings for each of the original 13 states [high resolution, click to enlarge]:
Even though the location is maybe not as convenient, it’s nice that Millvale got another bridge with just as much character to replace the old one. People at the time appreciated it too, coming out in droves on a cold December day for the opening ceremony.
Maps: http://peoplemaps.esri.com/pittsburgh/ (accessed June 02 2014)
Ewalt (43rd St) Bridge Info: http://pghbridges.com/pittsburghE/0587-4480/43rd.htm (accessed June 02 2014)
Washington Crossing / 40th St Bridge Info: http://pghbridges.com/pittsburghE/0587-4480/40thst.htm (accessed June 02 2014)
Stout, Bill and Dominico, Jean. Images of America: Millvale. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014