We’ve heard a lot of chatter the past few days about the Wabash Bridge pier, which now wears a large green and white “For Sale” sign. It begs the question: Why would anyone want to buy this hulking structure, so stained by a century of industrial soot that it stands out like a discolored tooth in Pittsburgh’s otherwise gleaming grin?
A.J. Pantoni, the realtor who’s handling the sale, believes the pier has a lot of potential. Years ago someone proposed putting a restaurant at its top (the pier rises about 50 feet above the Monongahela River, close to Downtown), so maybe that idea could be resurrected. Perhaps the pier could become an art installation, Pantoni says. Don’t roll your eyes. For years, the old Manchester Bridge pier sat forlorn and ugly on the North Shore; now it’s a platform for the bronze Mister Rogers statue.
The Wabash pier is highly visible — it shows up in those televised views of the Pittsburgh skyline on NFL gamedays, for example. Maybe there’s money to be made by plastering ads on the structure. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
These whimsical discussions of the pier’s future are fun, but we wondered about its history, which some folks call “haunted.” So we looked into it. And after combing through newspaper articles, coroner’s records, census reports and other documents that date back more than 120 years, we discovered a past that, while not haunted, is certainly filled with pain. At its core is a singular day of horrific sacrifice in the name of an idea doomed to failure.
The pier’s story begins in 1902, with workers in a giant caisson digging deep into the watery muck near the Downtown shore of the Monongahela River. Eighty feet down, they hit bedrock and began building upward with stone and cement until the pier rose into view. By summer of 1903, pier construction was complete.
It drew a lot of attention because of the bridge it would support. Builders declared that the Wabash Bridge, at 814 feet in length, would be the longest railroad span in the country. And it would be a key piece in a coast-to-coast railroad company that was the dream of George Gould. He’d inherited a railroad business from his father, Jay Gould, one of the most unscrupulous and exploitative robber barons of the late 1800s.
Before ironworkers began construction of the bridge superstructure, they spent two weeks assembling a massive steel crane on the bridge’s north approach. Newspapers declared the crane a marvel and sent photographers to take pictures. It reached 100 feet above the bridge deck and resembled the exposed framework of a oddly designed mid-sized skyscraper.
Workers called the crane a “traveler” because it moved along the bridge deck on rails, lifting and maneuvering steel beams so ironworkers could rivet them into place. Once a section of the bridge was complete, the traveler would then move out onto the just-finished portion to begin work on a new section.
By Oct. 19, 1903, the bridge was beginning to take shape. Workers had completed the approach over the Mon Wharf and the section of bridge resting directly on the north pier. The traveling crane had been moved out onto the most recently finished section, about 60 feet beyond the pier.
Around 8:30 a.m. that day, J.H. Stanford stood on the upper deck of the working steamboat Woodruff, moored near the Mon Wharf, and watched as bridge builders started their day’s work. Ropes nearly 2 inches thick descended from the traveling crane to a waiting barge loaded with steel I-beams. Earl Crider and a few of his co-workers stationed on the barge attached the ropes to several beams, then gave a signal to the crane operator. The hoist engine rumbled and hissed, and a moment later the ropes tightened. Crider and Stanford and the usual crowd of idlers standing along Water Street watched as the 80-ton load of steel swung out over the barge and slowly began to rise.
As it neared the bridge deck, the load of steel halted and jerked, and in this instance the day’s sense of routine vanished. Clearly something was wrong. Then came a loud report that some described as a ripping noise. From his perch on the Woodruff, Stanford watched in amazement as the top section of the traveling crane separated from the base, tipped forward and then collapsed.
The hoist engine operator, seeing parts of the crane come apart around him, reached for a throttle and blasted a warning from the engine’s whistle.
Crider, standing with his co-workers directly under the load, looked up and saw all those beams and girders coming down on him. “It seemed that the entire part of the bridge extending out over the water had begun to fall,” he said. “I had only an instant to see all this and then I jumped into the water.”
Six men stationed on a platform near the crane’s top had no time to react. The violent collapse of the structure flung them into the air, 170 feet above the river. Their plummeting bodies tumbled and cartwheeled. Ironworker John McTighe heard their screams. He watched the disaster unfold while walking along Water Street near the B&O train station at Smithfield Street. Some workers clung to falling pieces of steel. One man landed headfirst on a barge, then rolled into the river.
With a thunderous roar, the load of steel and pieces of the collapsing crane crashed down, smashing the barge. By now, Crider was submerged in the cold waters of the Mon. Beams and girders and men splashed heavily around him. A wood beam smashed into his head, but he escaped serious injury.
An ironworker on a lower portion of the collapsing crane tried to save himself by leaping to the bridge deck. He missed and instinctively reached out to grab a dangling rope to save himself. A nearby colleague followed his lead and leapt but landed awkwardly on a steel beam and knocked himself unconscious.
In seconds, the disaster was over. Stunned witnesses stared at the damage and carnage.
The worker left dangling from a rope lowered himself to a skiff floating on the river and joined in rescue and recovery operations, which quickly began. His unconscious co-worker on the bridge beam regained his senses and, no doubt confused and awed by what he saw before him, slid down to a more secure position.
Stanford and others aboard the Woodruff moved the vessel into position and began pulling bodies from the river. The towboat John O. Watson joined in. Together they recovered the mangled remains of six men. Workers on a skiff pulled two crushed bodies from the battered barge before it sank.
News of the disaster traveled quickly throughout the city, and soon a crowd of thousands gathered on the shore. Police kept them back while bodies of the dead were laid out on the wharf. The wails and sobs of those who recognized loved ones mixed with the chatter of bystanders, the barked orders of police officers and the din of recovery work.
Two men remained missing. Edward Morris and Charles Simmons both were stationed on the barge, which now rested on the river bottom. The towboat Little Fred grappled the vessel, dragged it up river and shoved it onto the wharf near the B&O station. Water drained from the barge, exposing Morris’ badly smashed body. A short time later, at around 6:30, recovery workers discovered Simmons’ body in water near the north pier.
As the sun set, one worker hoisted a black flag atop the pier as a sign of mourning for his 10 dead colleagues.
Ironworkers gathered at the Allegheny County Morgue as the bodies began to arrive. After a while, the growing throng grew anxious and forced their way into restricted areas of the building, rattling those preparing the bodies. Coroner Jesse McGreary ordered everyone out.
Once preparations were complete, the bodies were placed in glass-covered cases in the morgue’s viewing room. A steady stream of people — relatives, ironworkers and the morbidly curious — filed past to take a look.
That evening, members of the structural ironworkers union gathered for a memorial meeting at the organization’s headquarters on Wylie Avenue, not far from the Allegheny County Courthouse. They jammed into a small union hall and nearby hallways. Others, unable to squeeze in, waited outside. The union collected money to help stricken families defray funeral costs and decided to suspend work on the bridge until after burial of the dead.
Several victims lived outside Pittsburgh. The body of Frank Dalby, 28, who lodged at a local boarding house, was shipped to his family home in Middlesex the next morning. More than 200 ironworkers accompanied the remains. Dalby had been scheduled to wed his sweetheart in a few weeks.
James McLeod’s remains were sent his family home in Kane, Charle’s Kempton’s to Perth Amboy, N.J. Both were escorted by co-workers. McLeod was 32, Kempton 28.
A friend identified the body of Charles Simmons, 24, which was sent to his family in Summerville, Ohio. A coroner’s report indicates he drowned.
Tom Fleming identified his brother Clark Fleming, 37, at the morgue. Clark left behind a wife. After identifying the body of his brother Phillip Morris, ironworker Edward Morris returned to the accident site. A reporter noticed him the next morning and wrote, “He seemed unable to leave the spot and stood watching the part of the river where his brother’s body was brought out.” Edward Morris, who did not go to work the day of the collapse, worried the shock of the loss would destroy his brother’s wife, who already was in ill health.
A coroner’s report lists the injuries suffered by William Kightlinger, who fell from the bridge: Fractured skull, fractured left femur, double compound fracture of the left leg, fractured ribs. He was 27 and lived in Sheraden, but his body was shipped to his mother’s house in Erie, where his wife, Bessie, made a positive identification.
Police officers transported the remains of Fred Saalinger to the morgue, where they were identified by his brother George. The coroner’s penciled notation indicating his cause of death is brief: “crushed,” it reads.
Others who died were William Kempton, 28, who boarded on the South Side and lived in Jersey City, N.J.; John Campbell, 24, the youngest victim, who lived on Western Avenue in Allegheny City, now the North Side; and George Wells, 40, the oldest, who lived on Fifth Avenue, Uptown. Before the accident, Wells had climbed to the top of the bridge superstructure, directly over the north pier, and tied a small American flag to a spire.
A month after the funerals, a coroner’s jury ruled the collapse an accident. Experts testified the crane was safe and declared the foreman on the job was a competent and careful man. A manager at American Bridge Co. theorized that a broken rope caused the disaster.
The Wabash Bridge proved persistent in taking lives. On Nov. 25, a worker named Henry Guessett died at Allegheny General Hospital. He’d succumbed to injuries he’d sustained in a fall from the bridge four days earlier.
Ten months later, the bridge claimed Hugh McLean.
News reports identified McLean as a well-known ironworker employed as a foreman at the George A. Fuller Construction Co., which had been contracted to perform work on the Wabash Bridge. The collapse and death of so many workers apparently disturbed him deeply. Afterward, he became despondent and began drinking heavily.
He arrived drunk at his Boggs Avenue home in Mount Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 1904, and argued with his wife, Caroline. She became frightened and called police, who then arrested McLean. The next day, guards hauled him before a magistrate. After hearing the pleas of Caroline, the magistrate discharged McLean.
McLean returned home and brooded all day. At 8 o’clock that night, he drank enough carbolic acid to kill himself. A neighbor testified he’d been acting strange for weeks.
By then, trains were rumbling across the bridge, which was completed in February 1904. Four years later, the Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway collapsed into bankruptcy. Gould’s dream ended in failure.
Other rail companies used the bridge for a few decades, but by the late 1940s it was a useless hulk. In April 1948, 30 workers from American Bridge Co. returned to the span. Using torches, they cut pieces from the bridge’s center section and lowered them into a waiting barge.
Piece by piece, the bridge was taken apart, the steel melted down in an open-hearth furnace and molded into beams used in the construction of the Dravosburg Bridge.
As demolition neared its end on Aug. 20, 1948, the bridge claimed its final victim. Frank Kosar, described as a veteran construction worker, lost his balance, fell from the bridge and landed 50 feet below, on the roof of an auto wrecking firm. He was pronounced dead at Allegheny General Hospital.
“He was 58 years old,” said a spokesman for American Bridge Co. “Perhaps a younger man could have held on.”