The Fern Hollow Bridge represents what’s at stake in the infrastructure fight—and how far we have to go
By Ed Simon
Despite having crossed the Fern Hollow Bridge tens of thousands of times in my life—on foot, in cars, riding the bus—I never knew its official name until last Friday, when it collapsed into a Frick Park ravine some hundred and fifty feet below. Bridges are so ubiquitous in Pittsburgh that when I first heard news of the disaster I was confused as to which structure people were reporting on. The city is estimated to have four hundred and fifty bridges, necessitated not just by three rivers, but also by the valleys and hills across the region. The Victorian elegance of the Smithfield Street Bridge or the golden sublimity of the Three Sisters Bridges might be more instantly recognizable, but it’s the nameless preponderance of structures that define the routine of so many citizens. Now, in a twisting of steel and a crushing of concrete, I finally know the name of this one.
When I finally saw the footage—the ribbon of Forbes Avenue depressed into the wooded valley below, a truck and a few cars lying at the bottom, an articulated Port Authority bus hanging off a crinkled side—I was reduced to the most clichéd of language: it looked surreal. Another cliché thankfully soon announced itself: miraculous. Only ten people were hospitalized with minor injuries, and first responders were able to rescue those trapped on the bus. A snow delay had cut down on traffic at 6 a.m., when the girders snapped, but had the bridge collapsed only a bit later, we’d be writing very different think pieces right now.
That sense of miraculous surrealism was compounded by the presence, a few hours later, of President Joe Biden, who’d already been scheduled to speak about infrastructure at a CMU robotics laboratory in Hazelwood that day. Biden stared into the wooded abyss with our new Mayor Ed Gainey and the hulking Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (who came dressed for the occasion in gym shorts and a black hoodie, white ear buds framing his grey-goateed face), while the snow accumulated on the detritus of the bridge, visible behind them—as singular and weird a Pittsburgh image as I’ve ever seen across four decades.
Nothing is as totemistic to Pittsburgh as bridges. With regional understatement, architectural historian Martin Aurand writes in The Spectator and the Topographical City that Pittsburgh “lies unevenly on unruly ground.” Absent its bridges, Pittsburgh would be more archipelago of disconnected neighborhoods than continuous city. That network of four hundred and fifty (actually four hundred forty-six….forty-five) makes it possible not just to get from Downtown to the Northside or Oakland to the Southside, but from Bigelow Boulevard to Bloomfield, or the back end of Squirrel Hill to Greenfield. Omnipresent as a regional symbol—appearing on t-shirts advertising the Pittsburgh Bicentennial of six years ago or a new bougie apartment complex in Oakland called the Bridge on Forbes—is often some variation of a stylized, black-and-gold arch from the Sister Bridges, an instantly identifiable shorthand for the city.
“As children, we were told all these wonderful stories about the bridges,” said the PEN/Voelker Award winning poet Ed Roberson in an interview with Callaloo. Like Roberson, every person who goes through the Pittsburgh Public Schools hears the factoid that no city in the world—not even Venice—has as many bridges as we do. And it’s true, actually. That mysterious Italian city of canals and gondolas is short some four dozen bridges when compared to us, and none of them are steel girder, golden suspension bridges. Nevertheless, we’ve copied one of its more infamous crossings in the form of the “Bridge of Sighs,” which transported the condemned from tcourtroom trial to execution across a canal. Pittsburgh’s gothic granite version is over Grant Street—nobody about to be executed walks on it anymore—because if we can’t build a bridge over a river or a ravine, we’ll put one over a road.
Our three rivers host the Smithfield Street Bridge, a lenticular truss structure whose curved girders, shaped like an infinity symbol, are painted a celestial blue, connecting Downtown to the flats of Station Square before Mount Washington makes its abrupt and hurried ascent. The second oldest steel bridge in the country, it was built to replace a previous structure that had been designed by John Roebling, the engineer who would go on to construct the Brooklyn Bridge. Further east down the Monongahela is the Hot Metal Bridge, a stereotypical industrial truss bridge that used to transport molten iron crucibles between blast and hearth furnaces at the Jones and Loughlin steel mill—fully fifteen percent of American steel passed over that bridge during the Second World War; now it connects CMU computer science buildings to a shopping center on the south bank of the river. The triumphant Ft. Pitt Bridge bursts forth from the tunnel on the mountainside overlooking the skyline, a double decked bowstring arch bridge where cars, trucks, and buses suddenly have a view of the confluence of the three rivers and the Golden Triangle. On the Allegheny, there is the David McCullough Bridge, named after the local historian famous for his biographies John Adams and Truman, as well as for being the narrator of Ken Burns’ Civil War—though everybody still calls it the 16th Street Bridge, instantly recognizable with its massive astrolabe-like orbs announcing its entrance. Then there are the golden Three Sisters, self-anchored suspension bridges once known as the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Street Bridges, though respectively renamed after baseball player Roberto Clemente, artist Andy Warhol, and environmentalist Rachel Carson, three parallel, identical siblings glowing in incandescent beauty. And then the Fern Hollow Bridge, except that it isn’t there anymore. Like all of them, it was yours and mine and now it’s gone.
What it lacked in aesthetic glory, the Fern Hollow Bridge made up for in sheer utility. At Bloomberg CityLab, Brentin Mock explains that Fern Hollow was “one of the city’s most important, though its presence is subtle.” Its narrow stretch of Forbes is what connected the residential neighborhood of Regent Square into the shimmering, mysterious beauty of Frick Park and then onto Squirrel Hill’s dense commercial district, before continuing an additional ten miles into downtown. “For many people who live near it, the bridge is a connector of worlds,” writes Mock, “…the starting point of a route that is home to probably more jobs than any other route in the city,” a portal between the mostly Black and working-class city of Wilkinsburg into Pittsburgh. He describes it as “one of Pittsburgh’s many magical gateways,” and I agree.
Walking the paths in Frick Park, the bridge itself could be a looming, intimidating, somewhat frightening presence, the cacophony of traffic above interrupting the haven of woods beneath. Instrumental though it may have been, there was measure of grandeur about it—though I don’t ever remember thinking, “Here is a well-maintained bridge.” Predictably, Fern Hollow had been in “poor condition” for years, and photographs taken by pedestrians showed rusted-through girders and buckling concrete. Meanwhile, more than 4.2 billion dollars in federal spending earmarked for Pennsylvania infrastructure was instead diverted to the state police, a succinct a demonstration of misguided priorities.
Such shocking disrepair in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and Pennsylvania infrastructure speaks poorly for a region that once prided itself on massive projects. Plenty of blame can go around—local politicians more interested in real estate deals than roads, Harrisburg unconcerned with conditions in the state’s two major cities, D.C. content to play culture war rather than invest in the country’s well-being. Our Republican Senator Pat Toomey tweeted his thoughts and prayers, but neglected to mention why he voted against President Biden’s landmark Build Back Better bill. Biden, for his part, addressed the poor condition of Pittsburgh’s bridges, promising in his remarks that day, “we’re going to fix all of them.” In a city synonymous with not just bridges, but building things, one would certainly hope so. But sometimes I can no longer imagine how we get there from here. ■
Ed Simon is a contributing writer to Belt Magazine and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh.
Cover image of the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.