Before the switchback: historic photos of the Mon Wharf

By December 19, 2018 March 26th, 2019 Blog, Uncategorized

Warm weather is around the corner, which means thousands of people will soon be flocking to Pittsburgh’s riverfront parks and trails. With Riverlife celebrating its 20th anniversary later this year, now is a good time to look back at some of the biggest transformations that have changed the way we access and enjoy Pittsburgh’s waterfronts.

Pittsburgh’s Mon Wharf rests on the northern bank of the Monongahela River along the southern edge of Downtown between Pittsburgh’s Point and the Smithfield Street Bridge upriver. For over a hundred years the wharf has been the gritty heart of the city’s working riverfronts.

In the early part of the 20th century, the wharf was a place where people walked freely for special events and daily commerce. It became more of a destination for automobiles than people as Pittsburgh built up road infrastructure, trolley and rail lines, and parking lots on the riverfront.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Mon Wharf hosted a busy mix of people, animals, boats and automobiles. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works


The wharf at Water Street was the hub of river transportation in the early years of the city. Due to all that river-based activity, Water Street was the first commercial district of Pittsburgh. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.

Flash forward to 2018 after decades of limited access to the Mon Wharf for pedestrians and cyclists. The Mon Wharf Switchback and Mon Wharf Landing, two Riverlife improvement projects in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, have restored easy access for people who wish to go to the wharf. But what happened at the wharf between then and now?

Tim Killmeyer is a local historian and member of the Montour Trail Council who has been fascinated by the transformation of the Mon Wharf over the past century and a half. In anticipation of his new short film and the completion of the switchback project, he reached out to Riverlife with several historic photos of the area that he gathered with help from the Allegheny County Department of Public Works.  Check out his short film on YouTube for many fascinating photos (and even movie footage) of the Mon Wharf and Water Street, now known as Fort Pitt Boulevard and I-376.

Thank you Tim for providing a compelling look at the evolving relationship between Pittsburgh and its riverfronts, and to the Allegheny County Department of Public Works for sharing your images with us.

Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.


Water Street, now known as Fort Pitt Boulevard, was a riverfront road that ran along one of Pittsburgh’s earliest commercial districts. Pedestrian access to the Mon River was easy. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.


As more Pittsburghers started to drive and own automobiles, the Mon Wharf turned into a riverfront parking area for cars. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.


Water Street was widened in the late 1930s, creating multiple lanes for cars and the trolley. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.


Water Street was widened and renamed Fort Pitt Boulevard in 1940. The expansion created what would become the infamous flood-prone “bathtub” area of what is now I-376. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.


The sloping riverbank of the wharf was eliminated and the area was paved in the 1950s for parking. The area hosted at least one bicycle race on the parking area. Image courtesy Tim Killmeyer via Allegheny County Department of Public Works.


As shown in this photo from 2006 prior to the construction of the Mon Wharf Landing, the wharf parking area has always been prone to flooding and the debris left behind after the waters recede. Photo by Riverlife.


Riverlife, the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority collaborated to turn the riverfront edge of the Mon Wharf back into public open space with a flood-tolerant trail and park with native plantings. Construction of the Mon Wharf Landing began in 2007. Image by Riverlife.

 

The Mon Wharf Landing opened to the public in 2009; however the trail and park remained somewhat isolated due to then-uncompleted bicycle and pedestrian connections on both ends. Image by Riverlife.

The December 2018 opening of the Mon Wharf Switchback, a project by Riverlife and the City of Pittsburgh, restored bike/ped access to the wharf at its eastern end. Images by Riverlife.


The Mon Wharf Switchback, built by the City of Pittsburgh and Riverlife, as viewed from the upriver pedestrian walkway of the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Learn more about the Mon Wharf Landing and its two connection projects, the Mon Wharf Switchback and the Point State Park Connector.

Do you love Pittsburgh’s riverfront parks, trails and public open spaces? Support Riverlife and be a part of Pittsburgh’s riverfront future.

Your donation directly supports our work to reclaim, restore and promote Pittsburgh’s riverfronts and makes projects like the Mon Wharf Switchback possible. Make your secure online donation today. Thank you!