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BusinessFreightWaves ClassicsInfrastructureInsightsNewsRailTrucking

FreightWaves Classics: George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge turns 89 today!

On this date in 1932, the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge officially opened in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A newspaper account at the time characterized the bridge as “the most recent link in Pennsylvania’s maze of beautiful highways.”

Part of the understructure of the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge. (Photo: structurae.net)
Part of the understructure of the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge.
(Photo: structurae.net)

Construction of the bridge began in 1929. The bridge was named for engineer and electrical industry pioneer George Westinghouse. His Westinghouse Electric Corporation manufacturing facility was located in East Pittsburgh when the bridge was opened; there is an industrial park at that site now. The bridge was built as a bypass to divert traffic from time-consuming and sometimes dangerous routes through Turtle Creek Valley. The bridge also carries traffic over multiple railroad tracks, the Tri Boro Expressway and Braddock Avenue.

The story of Westinghouse Electric

George Westinghouse Jr. (October 6, 1846 – March 12, 1914) was an American inventor, entrepreneur and engineer. He invented the railway air brake and was a pioneer of the electrical industry, receiving his first patent at the age of 19. In the early 1880s, Westinghouse developed the idea of using alternating current (AC) to distribute electricity and poured his resources into developing and marketing the idea. 

On January 8, 1886 Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh. The company developed electric infrastructure throughout the nation. The company’s factories manufactured turbines, generators, motors and switch gear for the generation, transmission and use of electricity.

George Westinghouse (Photo: Westinghouse Nuclear)
George Westinghouse (Photo: Westinghouse Nuclear)

At the same time, Thomas Edison was marketing electricity by using direct current (DC). The two businesses were in direct competition for years. Ironically, Westinghouse received the American Institute of Electrical Engineers’ (AIEE) Edison Medal in 1911 “For meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system.” Westinghouse was later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1989).

In 1892, Edison merged his company with Westinghouse’s chief AC rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company. This created General Electric, a much larger and more formidable competitor. 

The Westinghouse Electric logo at the time the bridge was opened. (Image: Logopedia)
The Westinghouse Electric logo at the time the bridge was opened. (Image: Logopedia)

Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company changed its name to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1945. For the next 45 years it was one of the largest corporations in the U.S. Then in 1990, a financial catastrophe hit Westinghouse. The company lost more than $1 billion due to “high-risk, high-fee, high-interest loans” that had been made by its Westinghouse Credit Corporation subsidiary.

Five years later, Westinghouse bought CBS Inc. for $5.4 billion (adding to the company’s television station holdings). A string of media-related acquisitions cost the company $15 billion. That led Westinghouse Electric Corporation to change its name to CBS Corporation. That same year the Power Generation Business Unit was sold to Germany’s Siemens AG. The next year, CBS sold all of the former Westinghouse’s commercial nuclear power businesses. In a short span of time, most of what had been other Westinghouse subsidiaries or divisions were sold to various buyers. Westinghouse (now known as CBS), which had been a manufacturing company for over 100 years, became primarily a media company. 

A view of the bridge from one of its sides shows why such a bridge was needed. 
(Photo: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania)
A view of the bridge from one of its sides shows why such a bridge was needed.
(Photo: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania)

The bridge

September 10, 1932 was a Saturday. About 30,000 people were at the bridge’s opening festivities. A band of Westinghouse employees played music for the crowd. The dedication’s primary speaker was John S. Fisher, who had been Pennsylvania’s governor in 1929 when construction on the bridge started. 

Other speakers included the current governor, Gifford Pinchot and James Lysle Stuart, who had been secretary of the Pennsylvania Highway Department under Fisher. George Westinghouse’s brother Herman cut the ribbon to formally open the bridge just before 4:00 p.m. The air was filled with the sounds of automobile horns and factory whistles from across the valley.

Cars and trucks using the bridge in the late 1930s. (Photo: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania)
Cars and trucks using the bridge in the late 1930s. (Photo: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania)

Bridge facts

U.S. Route 30 (also known as the Lincoln Highway) crosses the Turtle Creek Valley via the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge. Turtle Creek Valley joins the Monongahela River Valley nearby. The bridge is a “reinforced concrete open-spandrel deck arch” bridge; its total length is 1,598 feet. The bridge consists of five spans; the longest is the central span, which is 460 feet long, with a deck height 240 feet above the valley floor. It was the world’s longest concrete arch span structure at the time. It cost $1.75 million (more than $33 million in 2021 dollars) to build. 

The bridge also includes enormous decorative pylons that “depict area history through a series of sculptures.” There are also sculptures that feature the Allegheny County coat of arms.

Two of the decorative elements of the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge. (Photo: pittsburghartplaces.org)
Two of the decorative elements of the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge. (Photo: pittsburghartplaces.org)

The plaque dedicating the bridge in Westinghouse’s honor states:

IN BOLDNESS OF CONCEPTION, IN GREATNESS AND IN USEFULNESS TO MANKIND THIS BRIDGE TYPIFIES THE CHARACTER AND CAREER OF GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE 1846-1914 IN WHOSE HONOR IT WAS DEDICATED ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1932

In 1977 the bridge was named to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Attractions visible while driving across the bridge include the Edgar Thomson Steel Works (formerly the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works) and Kennywood Park.

A more recent photo of the bridge. (Photo: pittsburghartplaces.org)
A more recent photo of the bridge. (Photo: pittsburghartplaces.org)

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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