By Lori D’Angelo
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my hometown, the town I was born in, the town I lived in until I was 18 years old and then again for a while later, is the City of Bridges.
Pittsburgh has 446 bridges, more than Venice, Italy, which formerly held the record for the most bridges. Bob Regan, then a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, figured this out by counting them and writing a book about Pittsburgh’s bridges.
The bridges in the city of Pittsburgh are of varying varieties—including arch, beam, and suspension. Pittsburgh is a city that is built on rivers—the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio. These three rivers meet at a point logically called The Point in downtown Pittsburgh. Here, the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River converge to form the Ohio River. As we all know from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Ohio River flows west to meet the Mississippi River in Illinois.
I suffer from gephyrophobia, which is a fear of bridges. Many people who suffer from this avoid driving over bridges. But, in places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this is sometimes not possible.
People who fear bridges also often fear heights or closed in spaces. I am also claustrophobic and afraid of heights.
To justify my fear of bridges, I have sometimes looked up news stories about bridges that have collapsed. These include the I-35 westbound bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people and injured 145. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge likewise collapsed in 1940. One dog, a cocker spaniel, died in this collapse. Rescue was attempted, but the dog was too scared to leave the car. The car’s owner, Leonard Coatsworth, escaped. One of the deadliest bridge collapses that I know of wasn’t of an outdoor bridge but of a series of indoor pedestrian walkways. This occurred in 1981 when the walkway in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City collapsed. My husband and I first heard this story while visiting the city for a job that didn’t work out. During this collapse,114 people were killed and over 200 injured.
Some people say that hynotherapy can cure fear or bridges. I tried hynotherapy once, but not to cure my fear of bridges. I tried it to try to convince my older son, who was then in the womb, to turn into the correct position for birth. He didn’t turn. Though hypnotherapy was relaxing, I still ended up needing a c-section.
A psychologist once told me that I feared the unknown. At times, I have also feared other things including: tunnels, driving on the interstate, and driving after dark. But I am not afraid of other things that many people commonly fear. Usually, I am not afraid of walking alone at night—unless something happens to make me so—like that time those guys who whistled at me when I was walking home at midnight from the Denis Theater in the South Hills of Pittsburgh after I had gone to see a showing of Burnt by the Sun, a foreign film about living in Stalinist Russia. I am not afraid of strange dogs or cats. I often approach them to see if they are lost. If they growl, I back away. If they’re friendly, I continue approaching, to see if I can find a collar. I’ve reunited some lost neighborhood pets with their owners this way. One of my worst fears is not knowing if my five pets—three cats and two dogs— are safe.
One of the bridges that I crossed most often growing up was the Liberty Bridge. It connects the South Hills of Pittsburgh with downtown. I wasn’t afraid of it because I drove it so frequently. You could also take the Liberty Tunnel to get from the South Hills to the South Side, an area with shops and restaurants.
Just thinking about bridges right now is making my hands sweat.
When I was an MFA student at West Virginia University, my husband found a job in East Liverpool, Ohio, two hours away. Nearly every weekend for over two years, I made this drive. To get to East Liverpool from West Virginia, I had to cross into Pennsylvania then back into West Virginia. East Liverpool is on the Ohio River. The bridge that took me across the river was the Jennings Randolph Memorial Bridge. It is 745 feet long, the longest simple truss bridge in the United States. A truss bridge is a bridge that uses triangular sections of beams to bear the bridge’s load. For me, crossing that bridge was often the most terrifying part of the drive.
Coping strategies I have used to deal with crossing bridges—wearing racing gloves, using Kleenex or paper towels for my sweaty hands, driving hours out of my way to avoid them, loudly blasting a redneck country song like Toby Keith’s “Who’s Your Daddy.” Even though I’m a liberal Democrat, I, for some reason, find honky-tonk music to be comforting, especially when crossing bridges. Classical music is especially upsetting when driving over bridges. It often seems to be announcing impending doom like insanity, a catastrophic ending to a love affair, or a bridge disaster.
My dog, Maggie, who is afraid of car rides, has crossed many bridges with me. She has also moved with me across four states. Now, she is old and has cataracts. I try not to drag her on long car rides across bridges.
Once, I drove across the Unites States and back by myself. It was a long, miserable, and often scary trip, but I enjoyed seeing the plains of Oklahoma and the desert of New Mexico. During this drive, I crossed many bridges.
When I lived in Dayton, Ohio, I often drove to see my friend, Emily, in Lexington, Kentucky. This involved crossing the Brent Spence Bridge, a double-decker, cantilever truss bridge, which The Cincinnati Enquirer called “one of the most hazardous bridges in the nation.” Because of the placement of the signs, it is often difficult to see which lane you need to be in until you are far, far away from that lane. When I drove that bridge, I memorized the lanes. The Brent Spence Bridge now carries more than twice the traffic it was designed to handle. It was designed for 85,000 vehicles a day. Now, more than 155,000 cross it. It recently underwent a much needed facelift.
What many people fear about bridges is not the bridge falling apart but getting stuck on the bridge. For me, one of the worst feelings in the world is having to sit in traffic on a bridge.
One summer, I interned in the Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the Liberty Bridge was shut down for road construction all summer long. (This type of road construction is not uncommon in the city of Pittsburgh.) Several days a week, I had to take the Fort Pitt Bridge—a steel bowstring arch, double-deck bridge—and managed to do this. However, since then, I’ve memorized nearly every alternative route around that bridge.
When my husband and I moved from Ohio to Virginia for his new job, I drove a route that was much much longer than it needed it be and pretty nonsensical because I wanted to avoid US 19 and The New River Gorge Bridge. I didn’t know it at the time, but while I was taking my time crossing state lines, my cat was dying.
The New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, the same year that I was born. When that bridge was built, it shortened travel time across that region from 40 minutes to less than a minute. The New River Gorge Bridge is a 3,030 feet long bridge with a 1,700 foot long arch. It is the third longest single span arch bridge in the world and is 876 feet above the New River below.
The good thing about the New River Gorge Bridge is that you’re on and off it quickly, and, if you don’t pay attention, you may not even notice that you’re on a bridge. I drove over this bridge for the first time last year in order to visit my family in Pittsburgh, and it was much less scary than I had imagined.
I have never driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is listed as one of the top ten construction achievements of the 20th century, but once I rode in a bus over it. I was anxious about the drive, but the view of the San Francisco Bay was so stunning that I didn’t feel afraid. Instead, I thought, “Well, if I die here, I’ll already be in heaven.” The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge that was referred to as “the bridge that couldn’t be built.” One of the challenges that bridge builders faced was constructing a structure that could stand the force of strong Pacific winds. In order to handle these winds, the bridge was designed to swing. Opened in 1937, today, the bridge is such a popular tourist attraction that it even features a gift shop and café.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a suspension bridge, collapsed on November 7, 1940, just months after it opened. Though experts disagree on the exact causes of the collapse, it is likely that the wind’s force contributed to bridge’s collapse. Engineers and designers at the time failed to consider how strong winds would affect this extremely flexible bridge. As a result of this collapse, wind tunnel testing has become commonplace.
Leon Moisseiff, designer of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, was an immigrant from Latvia. Moisseiff rose to the top of his profession after he helped design the 1909 Manhattan Bridge over New York’s East River and then published an article about his work on the bridge. Moisseiff believed in deflection theory, which favored lighter and narrower bridges. Unfortunately, these bridges were also more unstable. The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge ended Moisseiff’s career. He died three years later, at age 71.
Many bridges in the city of Pittsburgh are yellow, in fact, Aztec gold. An 1899 ordinance established the city’s colors as black and gold. These colors were drawn from the coat of arms of William Pitt, who the city was named after. One article describes Pittsburgh’s bridges as “load bearing Terrible Towels.”
As every native Pittsburgh son and daughter knows, the colors of Pittsburgh’s sports teams are also black and gold. The Steelers, my beloved hometown football team, plays at Heinz Field. My son, Benjamin, was born nine months after they won the AFC championships against the Ravens in 2009. Though we lived in Ohio at the time, I delivered Benjamin at Pittsburgh’s West Penn Hospital. To get from Ohio to Pittsburgh, we had to cross at least two bridges.
Lori D’Angelo earned her MFA from West Virginia University. She writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry and lives in Virginia with her family.