When the City of Bridges Had None


A city grew up between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and yet no one ever crossed over the rivers.

How could that be?

Well, it’s because people crossed atop the rivers, not over them.

That’s vastly different than what Pittsburghers have come to expect, living in the City of Bridges.

The official count is 446 bridges within city boundaries, three more than Venice, Italy.

Most don’t go over rivers. They go hilltop to hilltop, keeping people out of the gorges. Only 40 or so cross one of the three rivers. Still, that’s quite a few compared with cities where people travel well out of their way to get to a crossing.

So, Pittsburghers are familiar with bridges. We know next to nothing about ferries — anymore.

Let’s explore.

To begin with, ferry riders had to go down to the ever-changing river bank. You could walk. You could ride your horse, keeping an eye out for its skittishness. The horse likely had done this before. It knew it wasn’t all that safe.

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Ferry operations in Pittsburgh often had a tavern on one side of the river. Patrons didn’t “have one for the road.” They had one for the river.

John E. Parke, a local judge, included ferry experiences in his memoirs written in the 1860s.

He died in 1885 at the age of 81. Parke nearly died at age 11 trying to cross the Allegheny River.


Dangers of an Icy River

“The perils encountered during storms, floods, floating ice, and driftwood by this early mode of transit were of a very serious character; and many who had the temerity to brave the dangers had abundant reasons to regret it ere they reached the desired haven,” Parke recalled. He wrote in the formal tone of a Victorian jurist.

“Early in the month of December of (1817). . . the river was frozen over with a coating of ice about two-and-a-half inches thick. . .  in company with my elder sister. . . we took passage on the ferryboat crowded with passengers and horses, it being the intention of the ferryman to open a passage through the ice to the other shore.

“When about midway over, the ice parted from the shores, and commenced breaking up, making a clear breach over the low sides of the boat, creating a fearful panic among the passengers and horses.

“The massing of the ice in and around the boat rendered our situation perilous, and efforts to reach either shore unavailing; and all attempts on the part of our friends to aid us proved a failure.”

Modern view of semi-frozen Allegheny River. Not too bad until all the ice breaks free at once — and you are in the way.

They were swept downriver with the ice. Presumably the force of the ice broke or disengaged the rope securing the ferry to the banks.

“Passing the ‘Point,’ the rapid current of the Allegheny carried us to within a short distance of the southern shore of the Ohio, which enabled us to make a landing just above the mouth of Saw Mill Run.

He credited the ferryman’s calm and experience with saving them all. 

Death in the Ohio

A motorized ferry might have helped, but, of course, they didn’t exist in 1817.

They did exist in May 1908, but it didn’t help. An overloaded ferry slogged into the Ohio River with 28 young men aboard. They were immigrant workers at a plant in McKees Rocks. Twenty-two drowned.

“We had got about one-third of the distance across the river when I suddenly felt as if I were sinking,” reported Harry Gotheridge.

 “In another minute I felt the cold water about my knees and my companions were squirming and yelling in the other end of the boat where the engine was, and that made it all the worse. Albert Graham, who was running the boat, shut down the power, but it was too late.

“I looked at Graham and noticed he was very pale, but he did not say a word. My brother and I, who are both good swimmers, started to get loose from the boat, and I yelled to him to dive. We went overboard and came up together. He made a grab for me, but I was suddenly dragged under water by a fellow who grasped me by the waist and I went down the second time.

“I was pulled under the water and had just time enough to take a breath as we went down. Under the surface the man let me go and I came up to the top and began to swim for shore, when a skiff came up and I was pulled on board. All this happened in about three minutes and I have not seen my brother or heard anything about him since.”

Most ferries were not much more than rafts tethered to a rope, chain or cable.


Ferries Very Varied

In slow currents and low water, a man with a long pole could simply push the craft along, or a man on the opposite bank could pull it over. Horses and oxen also were used for that.

Pittsburgh rivers are much deeper nowDredging and dams made them so.

Perhaps the most clever ferry design caused the river itself to shove the boat to the opposite bank.

That entailed connecting a line to the front of the boat and one to the back. Both lines ran upriver to loops around a long line strung across the river. Reel in the front line a bit and the ferry would be diagonal to the water flow. That pushed the ferry forward. Make the front line longer than the back, and the boat reversed.

That was all well and good until a river boat needed to get by. There were protocols to allow such boats to pass, but generally cable crossings hindered navigation.

Steam engines increased river traffic, but ferry operators began using the technology, too.  That got them out of the way.

Rowing worked, too, — if you had enough strong men and the current was weak.

That’s what happened for Pittsburgh’s most celebrated ferry crossing. The President ferried into town in 1817.

Pittsburgh’s Hero

We’re talking about James Monroe. You don’t hear much about him today, but he was a political hero in Pittsburgh.

That’s because it was a city of businesses dependent on the port of New Orleans, and built upon western expansion.

Monroe was involved in all that.

President Monroe depicted discussing the Monroe Doctrine with his cabinet. That doctrine told Europe the Western Hemisphere was no longer part of their sphere of influence. It belonged to the U.S.

President Monroe discusses the Monroe Doctrine with his cabinet. That doctrine told Europe the Western Hemisphere was no longer part of their sphere of influence. It belonged to the U.S.

Fourteen years before arriving in Pittsburgh, he was among those Thomas Jefferson sent to Paris to offer Napoleon $10 million for New Orleans.

“Take it. Take it all,” Napoleon replied.

Then, the emperor offered to sell all  French territory west of the Mississippi River. He only wanted $15 million.

“Ah, sure,” Monroe answered.

It was called Louisiana Territory after King Louis XIV. It was a great deal bigger than the current state of Louisiana. The sale is known as the Louisiana Purchase.

It doubled the size of the United States. It fed the growth of Pittsburgh’s population, its businesses and wallets.

Those wallets opened as Monroe, now President, came to town.

“. . . no exertion was spared and no mark of attention omitted to render the reception to the distinguished guest cordial and respectful,” the Gazette reported.

“He was met a few miles outside the city by (get this) The Committee of Arrangements and conducted to the ferry where an elegant barge, rowed by four sea captains awaited his approach.”

Once on the other side of the river (presumably the Monongahela), he entered the city amid the firing of a salute, the sounds of music, and the loud acclamations of Pittsburghers. Perhaps, they were so happy he made it across without drowning.

A year later, the city’s first bridge was completed. The wooden covered bridge spanned the Monongahela where the Smithfield Street Bridge stands today.

The Monongahela Bridge in 1832 after being damaged by a runaway boat. Thirteen years later it burned during the Great Fire of 1845 and was replaced with something that wouldn't burn.

The Monongahela Bridge in 1832 after being damaged by a runaway boat. That put ferry boats back in use for a while. Thirteen years later the bridge burned during the Great Fire of 1845.

A covered bridge was built over the Allegheny River, too.

Ferries and bridges required state approval, and both charged fares or tolls.

Bridges, of course, often put ferries out of business, but don’t cry for the ferrymen. They often joined with others to finance the bridges and operate them. They became bridge keepers.

True or False?




Or This:


We are familiar with the portrait of Gen. George Washington courageously standing in the bow of a rowboat as he and his troops crossed the ice-littered Delaware River to slaughter German mercenaries while they slept on Christmas Eve of 1776.

It was a badly needed win for the morale of the rebels, and to bolster support from the Continental Congress and the landowners it represented.

The painting, done in Germany 75 years later,  was more about patriotic propaganda than fact, though.

It seems they didn’t take row boats across, and the general certainly was not crazy enough to stand in one.

He had already taken a spill into the semi-frozen Allegheny River near where the 40th Street Bridge is today and nearly froze to death.  That was when he was 25 years younger.

Researchers believe Washington and his men crossed the Delaware in flatboat ferries. One of the researchers commissioned the updated painting above. Get the story here.




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