Donora - Webster Bridge

The Donora-Webster bridge was like many bridges once found in Southwestern Pennsylvania - old, narrow, and full of character.  Built around the turn of the 20th century, this bridge did more than just connect two Monongahela Valley towns, it had a unique charm that depending on who you spoke to - was either soothing or downright scary!

The Donora-Webster Bridge near the end of its service to vehicular traffic.  10 days after this photo was taken the bridge was closed to traffic after a routine bridge inspection deemed the bridge extremely unsafe.
Growing up in Mon Valley, there are two things I recall about this bridge.  The steep incline onto the bridge from the Webster side (shown below) and the hum of the narrow open-grate bridge.  On a wet, snow or icy day, the thought of crossing the bridge would put a fright into many local drivers.  However to those that crossed the bridge daily, the unique sound of the bridge meant that they were home
Built in 1908, the five span truss bridge consisted of four shorter Parker through trusses and the main span - and also the longest at 518 feet - was a Pennsylvania through truss design.  The unique design of the bridge was one of the many features to this bridge.  For decades this bridge connected many from the Donora area to Route 51 and north to Pittsburgh.  For Donora residents, after crossing the bridge it was just a quick trip up the hill to 51.  That all began to change in 1972 when the Donora-Monessen Bridge opened to traffic. Known locally as "The New Bridge", the four-lane high level bridge was intended to connect both Monessen and Donora to Interstate 70.  However, it took 17 years for the roadway connecting the bridge to I-70 in Pricedale (PA 201) to be completed.  Once the connection was made, the safer and quicker new bridge was the way to go. 

In the mid-1980s, the bridge would be closed temporarily for a rehabilitation project and would re-open with a three ton weight limit.  The then nearly 80 year old bridge would no longer be a workhorse for traffic and would slowly transition like much of two small communities it served as an aging reminder of its once prosperous industrial past.  Declining traffic volumes and deteriorating conditions would lead PennDOT to close the bridge on July 14, 2009.  My photos on this feature are from ten days before the last car crossed it.  While visiting family over Independence Day, I decided to venture down to Webster to get some photos of the old bridge.  She had just turned 100 the year before. 

I must admit that while walking across the bridge I was rather uneasy with the Monongahela River some 20 or 30 odd feet below.  There was the unforgettable melodic hum  - the sound coming from the very few cars that did cross the bridge during my brief time on it. (By the time the bridge closed, an average of only 3,000 cars per day crossed it.)  If you don't cross open grate bridges often, you don't really think about that distinct hum - the sound of rubber tires on open metal - but once you hear it again you know it instantly.  When researching about this bridge, the sound, and other's recollections of it, was the one thing I couldn't get out of my mind. 

I did manage to take a photo of the Mon through the open grates and even that gave me an uneasy feeling.  I do not know how local residents would have walked across the bridge in later years.  The bridge was also deemed unsafe for pedestrians when it closed 10 days later.

In spite of being closed in July 2009, the saddest days for the bridge were still ahead.  For six years, the bridge stood proudly but quiet and empty.  As you traveled along PA 906 on the Webster side of the bridge, you could see the bridge up ahead, the traffic lights at Kline Street were still operating but standing tall at the steep ramp to the bridge were a set of road closed signs and a number of other barricades and some warnings about trespassing.  It wouldn't be until July 1st, 2015 that the old Donora-Webster bridge finally came down.  Demolition charges sent the 107 year old bridge crashing into the Monongahela below.  There wouldn't be a replacement bridge - the traffic counts were too low and the costs were two high - plus the "New Bridge" is only a few miles upstream.

So if your travels take you over one of those old rickety bridges that have an open grate to the water below.  Cross it and listen to that distinct sound - you may never know when you'll hear that sound again.

All photos taken by post author - July 4, 2009.


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