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Pittsburgh's Ohio River Boulevard

By the mid-1970s, Ohio River Boulevard had gone from a beautiful tree-lined thoroughfare connecting neighboring communities from the north and west with Pittsburgh into a wretched eyesore and a deathtrap.  As the decade closed, one of the deadliest eras of Pittsburgh roadways would begin.  Beginning November 7, 1979, and running through March of 1981, 15 individuals would lose their lives on the boulevard.  Eight of which occurred between Manchester and the McKees Rocks Bridge. (1)  The deadliest period was the first half of 1980 when seven people lost their lives; compare the number of dead to the three that lost their lives on the Parkway West (Interstate 279) and the two on the Parkway East (Interstate 376) during the same time period. (1)

Planning for Ohio River Boulevard began in the 1920s. (see scans below) Funded by the 1928 County Bond Issue, construction began on the route that would run from the city neighborhood of Manchester to the Borough of Emsworth. (2)  The four-and-a-half-mile brick-paved roadway would be 40 feet wide and have numerous bridges over local roads and various tributary streams of the Ohio River.  It would end at a grand traffic circle on the North Shore of the Ohio River at the McKees Rocks Bridge. The route that was built to relieve traffic and accidents on California Avenue was dedicated in August 1931 at a final cost of $12 million. (3)  Originally maintained by Allegheny County, the Commonwealth took control of the highway in 1941.

1926 proposed routing of Ohio River Blvd.  (Click to Enlarge) (4)

In addition to the brick highway and decorative bridges, Ohio River Boulevard featured two different sets of ornate pylons at both ends of the road.  The massive stone pylons included carved panels by sculptor Frank Vittor. (5)  The carved panels commemorated key milestones in early regional history.  In addition, the panels facing the highway would illuminate at night reading the name of the road and if heading inbound 'Pittsburgh'.  Outbound traffic read "Ohio River Boulevard - Beaver".


Looking inbound and what was once the beginning of Ohio River Boulevard towards Pittsburgh.  Sides of these markers read Ohio River Boulevard and 'Pittsburgh'.  (Eric Lasher)
There were a total of five pylons placed along Ohio River Boulevard.  Two were placed at the northern terminus of the highway in Emsworth.  There was also a set of three at the grade separation with California Avenue at the southern terminus of the highway.  These three were removed in the late 1960s as a result of the construction of the Beaver Avenue Expressway.
Close-up of the outbound facing pylon.  The metal bands were installed to hold the aging, cracking structure together. (Eric Lasher)
By the 21st century, the two pylons in Emsworth were starting to fall apart.  Steel banding was wrapped around the base of the structures to keep the aging, cracking pylons in place.  In 2010, a rehabilitation project for the nearby Lowries Run Bridge resulted in both structures being removed.  Fortunately, both pylons were completed repair and restored.  The two restored pylons sit at Ohio River Boulevard at Center Avenue and Western Avenue in Emsworth. (5)

Close-up of the same marker facing inbound.  By 2004, time had weathered many of the visual effects from both pylons. Fortunately, they were removed, repaired and reinstalled a decade later. (Eric Lasher)

As traffic levels on Ohio River Boulevard began to increase in the 1950s and 60s, various plans were introduced to improve the highway.  Ideas ranged from widening the highway to building a new expressway to current-day Interstate 79.  Many of these proposals would fall to the wayside because of a lack of funding, interest, or community protest.  During the 1960s, a southern extension of the boulevard and freeway to Pittsburgh's North Side was considered with construction beginning later in the decade.  By 1973, the highway had opened from the Fort Duquesne Bridge to Ridge Avenue and the McKees Rocks Bridge to Beaver Avenue and Chateau Street. (6)  However, a gap between Ridge Avenue and Chateau Street would sit for nearly two decades.  The short just over 1/2 mile missing link between Ridge and Chateau - which includes an interchange connection to the West End Bridge - did not open until January 1992. (7)

Safety became the number one issue for Ohio River Boulevard during the 1970s.  In July 1976, parts of four bridges were closed by the state.  Bridges over Jacks Run, Dillsworth Run, Spruce Run, and South Freemont St. either had sidewalks closed or both sidewalks and the curb lane shut down. (3) Many of the projects to rehabilitate, repair, or replace these bridges would not begin until the mid-1980s.  The traffic circle at the McKees Rocks Bridge had earlier been removed as the freeway to the North Shore began to take place.  Another rash of fatalities in 1987, including six over a three-week period in August of 1987 (8), prompted many local municipalities to heighten traffic patrols, lower speed limits, and implement drunk driving checkpoints.

Today, Ohio River Boulevard is an eclectic mix of grand homes in Ben Avon to a narrow and tight roadway lined with gas stations, restaurants, and repair shops in Bellevue.  Over the years, many steps have been taken to improve various intersections and facilities along Ohio River Boulevard.  In 1999, after years of debate and controversy, construction to widen Ohio River Boulevard in Bellevue from Kendall Avenue to the Dillsworth Run Bridge began. (9) In 2005, plans to continue the widening south of the Dillsworth Run Bridge to Prospect Street also become reality.

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Sources & Links:

  • (1) Wetzler, Todd M. "At Your Own Risk." Pittsburgh. September 1982: 68-82.
  • (2) Neeson, Vincent C. "Highway to Connect City with North Boroughs and Beaver Rd." Pittsburgh Press. September 6, 1929.
  • (3) Filip, Joseph. "Ohio River Blvd. Repairs Headed for Delays." Pittsburgh Press. January 23, 1981.
  • (4) "N. Boroughs Get County OK on Boulevard." Pittsburgh Gazette-Times. October 29, 1926.
  • (5) Cridlebaugh, Bruce. "Ohio River Directional Pylons." The Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County. (December 9, 2017)
  • (6) Kitsko, Jeff. "Pittsburgh Highways: Ohio River Boulevard." Pittsburgh Highways.  (March 2, 2003)
  • (7) Belko, Mark. "Long Wait to End as Road Link Opens." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. January 14, 1992.
  • (8) Hammonds, Donald I. "Speeders, Money soon Parted." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 23, 1988.
  • (9) Grata, Joe. "List of Road Projects During 1999." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 28, 1998.
  • Eric Lasher 
  • Ohio River Boulevard: Ghost of Grandeur ---Bruce Cridlebaugh
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