Monday, May 23, 2016

A Day Trip to Some of Pittsburgh’s Less Heralded Landmarks

George Westinghouse Bridge Credit: Bill Rockwell

Growing up in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, where I lived between the ages of 4 and 12, I remember being awed by the George Westinghouse Bridge. It towered over the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh, where my father worked for nearly 40 years.
The massive, yet graceful, 1,598-foot long, concrete structure opened on Saturday, September 10, 1932 at a cost of $1.75 million, a mere pittance by today’s inflated standards. Of the bridge’s five spans, the largest central span is 460-feet high, its deck 240-feet above the valley floor, making it the equivalent height of an 18-story building. Billed as "the world’s largest concrete arch span structure in the world," the bridge was an engineering marvel of its day.
The monumental bridge, however, has had its share of tragic history. It claimed its first fatality on December 31, 1931, when construction worker, Joseph Urban, 28, of McKeesport, slipped off a beam and plunged to his death. On New Years Eve, no less.
The bridge’s gruesome history also includes infamy as a site for distraught individuals bent on the idea of committing suicide. As of early 1983, the tally had risen to 44 people who decided to take their lives by jumping off and ending it all.
Local folklore pegs the bridge as haunted. Some claim to have seen the ghost believed to be that of the first casualty strolling along come evening, causing drivers to brake suddenly to avoid the sprite. And then there are the reports of sightings of the spirits of the suicide victims.
As a youth, I remember driving over the structure several times by car, barely able to see over the sides and take in the wondrous views. Forever fascinated by the bridge, I decided I had to walk across both sides to catch what I hoped would be a pair of impressive vistas. One cloudy day in mid-May, I drove to East Pittsburgh, parked my car on the street near the Sunoco station near the entrance to the bridge and started off by foot. Despite my chronic vertigo, I was determined to make the lofty trek to see what I’d been missing all these years.
A part of busy Route 30, the bridge gets a lot of daily traffic, which whizzes by at a hefty clip. At the onset, I had to make my way along a 20-foot approach to the bridge where the traffic flew by about three feet from my unprotected path. Once I got to the first span, however, I discovered that the walkway is protected by a three-foot concrete barrier, which runs along both sides of the bridge for pedestrian protection.
A View from the Bridge - Edgar Thompson Works Credit: Bill Rockwell

Just as I got my first look at the Edgar Thompson steel mills from the bridge’s west side, a huge truck flew by, sending a powerful gust of wind my way. The height from my initial vantage point coupled with the burst of wind certainly got my adrenaline flowing.
Despite its vertigo-inducing height, my zeal to walk the bridge on both sides was stronger than my trepidation. Coincidentally, just as I approached the center of the bridge, a train chugged its way underneath, its strident whistle reverberating loudly like some stricken banshee and echoing through the valley. It brought back childhood memories of early Turtle Creek.
After getting to the far end of the bridge, I crossed Route 30 to the other side. Here, the going seemed easier. By now, I was attuned to the height and enjoyed looking at the sprawling former Westinghouse plant far below.
Another bucket list entry crossed off my list, I then headed through Braddock to Homestead’s Waterfront for a look at the remarkable labyrinth created by artist Lorraine Vullo along the Monongahela River. After treading other labyrinths near Greenville, Pa. and another one at the Lily Dale Assembly near Chautauqua, New York, I’d become a labyrinth fan of sorts.
Walking the Labyrinth Credit: Bill Rockwel

When I first read about the Homestead labyrinth soon after its completion in 2009, I decided I’d pay it a visit some day. That was seven years ago, but, remember, all good things come to those who wait.
After entering the Waterfront complex, I drove past the site the first time around. I hadn’t seen the Pump House near the parking lot that should have been a visual clue to my  arrival. After asking for directions, I found the parking lot, then headed down a rise to my left and spotted the impressive structure, its intricate, twisting  pathways lined with stones. Around the periphery, the artist laid close to 250 triangular stones, some of which are inscribed with the names of regional steel mills and blast furnaces.
Despite its proximity to the bustling Waterfront, the labyrinth is a tranquil spot in its park-like setting, where the Mon flows gently by underneath a photo-worthy railroad bridge. Across the river to the east, the famous Carrie Furnace’s towers silhouette the skyline.
Ironically, the labyrinth is sited near the infamous Battle of Homestead, where the steel workers fought the Pinkerton mercenaries during the strike of 1892. The violence that took place during the strike (the battle claimed the lives of 7 steelworks and 3 Pinkertons) is a stunning contrast to the peaceful contemporary setting which fosters meditation and spirituality.
It took me about 20 well-spent minutes to make my way around and around the convoluted pathway into the center of the structure and out again. My mind wandered as I coursed my way to the very center, where the artist placed a figure of a six-pointed compass star.
Along with some reverential feelings for the men who fought for their livelihood here, I also began to think of more practical matters - like where to have dinner that evening. One thing about the Waterfront, it has an abundant array of dining spots to consider.

Outside the Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery Credit: Bill Rockwell

I settled on the Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery. Normally a wine drinker, I also like to sample some of the local brews from time to time. The evening of my visit, Rock Bottom had nine drafts on tap, all hand-crafted in house plus a cider by the Arsenal Cidery in Lawrenceville and a mead from the Apis Meadery in Carnegie. I got to try all 11 in two flights I shared with a buddy. The flights cost $6 each for 6, four-ounce servings.
One interesting and helpful feature is the restaurant’s list of beer and food pairings - a simple chart that matches "crisp and refreshing" brews with items like pizza, fish, seafood, salads and pretzels and "dark and roasty" pours with steaks, grilled meats, pork, chocolate and desserts.
Other taste profiles include "hoppy," "wheaty, fruity and spicy" and "malty," which brewmaster, Meg Evans, turns out a variety of options - everything from seasonal, specialty and light beers to craft and dark beers.

Asiago, Crab and Artichoke Dip Credit: Bill Rockwell

According to my waitress, Rock Bottom offers a scratch menu, which she translated to mean 95% of the food items are made from scratch. She also said the kitchen has a way of using beer as an ingredient in its culinary offerings.
The lengthy menu includes appetizers, salads, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, entrees and desserts. We started with an asiago cheese, crab and artichoke dip, topped with pico de gallo and served with toasted crostinis ($10.59), then moved on to a healthy smoked tomato and kale Caesar salad, big enough to feed two. ($9.99)

Rib Eye and Mashers with Cajun Shrimp Credit: Bill Rockwell

For my entree, I selected a 12-oz. ribeye and Cajun-style shrimp combo with a side of cheddar cheese and green chile mashed potatoes ($22.49 - shrimp extra). My buddy went for two blackened fish tacos served with black beans and rice ($13.99). For dessert, a huge slice of home made carrot cake with cream cheese frosting was big enough for sharing ($6.79).

Rock Bottom also serves wine and cocktails. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, the adjacent Sing Sing Lounge features dueling pianos in an all-request show.

Rock Bottom is located at 171 Bridge Street in Homestead. Phone 412-462-2739.

Rock Bottom Carrot Cake Credit: Bill Rockwell

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