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Field Notes:
The Squirrel Hill Tunnel and the path of the Parkway East

In response to an e-mail inquiry: > > I am trying to find some history on the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Why was it built? It seems that there is no real mountain it cuts through. Any information on this? When was it built? Who owned the land? Who owns it now? Thanks for any help you can send my way. < <

If you drive the course of the Penn Lincoln Parkway through the area and examine the topography in relation to the endpoints connected by the highway it makes a bit more sense. Intended as a highway link to the eastern suburbs -- in a sense a replacement for the Lincoln and William Penn Highways which followed Penn Av and Blvd of the Allies into Pittsburgh -- the Parkway had to find a path through previously developed neighborhoods. By stringing together a series of narrowed wooded ravines, a minimal amount of homes were disturbed.

Near Pittsburgh the road was able to roughly follow Second Av using a collection of ramps and terraces into the cliffside. The workers housing crowded in the shadow of the now gone Jones and Laughlin Steel factory near the present Bates St interchange was substantially erased by the highway. As it left the river level and climbed the terrace heading east and rising about halfway up the hillside, it crosses the Four Mile Run neighborhood which only survives because the bridge rises over it and now shelters it. In that valley, Saline St followed a tributary of Four Mile Run up a narrow ravine toward Squirrel Hill. Saline St once continued to the top of the ravine and there are sections of the street to the south of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel portal, off of Beechwood Blvd.

Beechwood Blvd begins at the southern edge of Squirrel Hill, near the top of Browns Hill. At the bottom of Brown's Hill, the Homestead High Level Bridge crosses the Monongahela River. An alternate route for the Parkway could have been to follow the Mon River to Nine Mile Run across from Homestead -- and that alternate route seems much more obvious now that the once endless complex of steel and coke plants have been levelled. In fact, that river level route is one of the possible courses for the Mon-Fayette Expressway which is in the planning stages. But in the late 1940s, those factories were seen as permanent.

Similarly, Beechwood Blvd, a collection of streets widened into a fashionable, upscale carriageway in the early days of the automobile, traces the ridge line of Squirrel Hill -- above the tunnel. This Pittsburgh neighborhood was well developed and established when the Parkway was being planned. And considering the lure of another wooded ravine immediately opposite the Saline St ravine, it was an enticing choice. It would have been impratical to cut through the ridge of Squirrel Hill. To get the road at a practical elevation to match its rise from Saline St to meet the highway as it continued east toward Edgewood, a rather large excavation would have been required. Cuts that large were less common then, as compared to the virtual canyons created for I-79 near Heidelberg, PA. And a cut deep enough would have also had to have been widened and terraced to prevent rock falls -- thus claiming even more, if not most, of the neighborhood above.

A rockfall, cited in Stefan Lorant's "Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City," claimed the lives of workers Evert J. Hungerford and John E. Morse and Valentine's Day 1948 while working on the tunnel. The labor continued until the official opening June 5, 1953. At a cost of $18 million, it was the most costly single project built by the State Highways Department and completed the last link in the first eight mile section of the Parkway.

But jumping back to the route planning, the elevation of the eastern portal of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel places the road surface midway up the eastern side of the ridge above Nine Mile Run and a never-developed section of Frick Park. Although lavishly detailed drawings were made for the valley floor, similar to Schenley Park or the more grand parts of Highland Park, the plans never materialized. Now the Parkway emerges from the tunnel and immediately crosses the high deck arch viaduct -- a bridge which is only noted for its engineering by those who take the "secret" traffic bypass of Forward Av to Commerical St into Swissvale.

The Parkway leaves the bridge and passes through a cut to arrive at the border of Edgewood and Swissvale. A ravine holding a branch of Nine Mile Run snakes along to the north of this cut-through hilltop and the ravine and roadway meet again at the interchange. This ravine was also partially filled by an underused section of Frick Park. Possibly the most noticable displacement of homes occurred in this interchange area. Homes on one side of the original street still stand, while the across-the-street neighbors have been replaced by concrete ramps. Following the ravine, the highway was able to avoid the Union Switch and Signal factory and then pass under the Pennsylvania Railroad (Conrail/Norfolk Southern) mainline from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. As was the model along the Monongahela River, industry was not to be disturbed or displaced.

Part of the "charm" of the Parkway is its meandering through the narrow, wooded ravines. And as the road rises toward Forest Hills and the Wilkinsburg interchange, it runs through some of its most tortured curves. This is a common location for inbound traffic backups, and the limited sight distance created by the curves contributes to the slow downs and ultimately to the accidents.

After the highway passes below the concrete arch bridge of Brinton Av, it meets the old route of the Lincoln Highway, US 30. From this point, the suburban development had been limited and the course of the road extends in a nearly straight line toward Churchill where the original path of the William Penn Highway and it many historical precendents combine. This was the eastern terminus of the Penn Lincoln Parkway when it was first opened and traffic continued eastward on US22 until the 1962 bypass was built to the north of Monroeville and extending to the Turnpike which had arrived in 1952.

So the combination of a network of narrow, undeveloped ravines and the long-established presence of industrial complexes along the Monongahela River -- industry that has since largely vanished -- led to the snaky path and wooded, parklike setting of the Penn Lincoln Parkway East.

Page created: 18-Oct-1999
Last modified: 18-Oct-1999