A city grew up between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and yet no one ever crossed over the rivers.
How could that be?
Well, that’s because people crossed on top of 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 of those bridges carry people hilltop to hilltop, avoiding the descent and ascent of crossing gorges. Only 40 or so are over the three rivers. Still, that’s quite a few compared with other cities where residents are accustomed to traveling well out of their way to get to a crossing.
So, we are quite familiar with bridges. We know next to nothing about ferries — any more.
To begin with, you had to go down to the ever-changing river bank. You could walk. You could ride your horse, keeping an eye out for skittishness. The horse likely had done this before. It knew it was not all that safe.
Ferry operations in Pittsburgh often had a tavern on one side of the river or the other. 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 in the formal tone of a Victorian jurist.
“Some of the incidents connected with these occasions are so deeply impressed upon my memory, that the lapse of over sixty years has failed to obliterate them.
“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, on a visit (from Allegheny) to our friends in Pittsburg, 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.”
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. To the experience and presence of mind displayed by the ferryman, David Haney, and his comrade, may be attributed the happy termination of an adventure which might have, under other circumstances, proved fatal to all on board.”
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 workers at a plant in McKees Rocks, among the city’s poorest immigrants. Twenty-two of them 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 men 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 now than then. Dredging 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, and that got them out of the way.
Rowing worked, too, — if you had enough strong men and the current was weak.
That’s happened in 1817 for Pittsburgh’s most celebrated ferry crossing. You get fancy when the President comes to town.
A President Ferries Into Pittsburgh
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, the United States expanding west and ultimately controlling everything in the Western Hemisphere. Monroe was involved in all that.
Fourteen years before arriving in Pittsburgh, he was among those Thomas Jefferson sent to Paris to offer Napoleon $10 million for New Orleans. Napoleon replied, “Take it. Take it all.”
He offered to sell the U.S. all the French territory west of the Mississippi River for $15 million.
Monroe said, “Ah, sure.”
The territory, called Louisiana after King Louis XIV, is known as the Louisiana Purchase. It doubled the size of the United States. It fed the growth of Pittsburgh’s population, businesses and their wallets.
They opened them up when 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.
A covered bridge was built over the Allegheny River, too.
Both ferries and bridges required state approval, and they 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?
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.