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Here: Between Hyde Park and Leechburg

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Story by Bob Batz Jr. ~ Photo by Steve Mellon

Click photo for larger image.

Even in a region stitched with bridges, the one between Hyde Park and Leechburg is without peer. The three-span suspension bridge stretches 600 feet across the Kiskiminetas River but is only 4 1/2 feet wide -- wide enough for one person to pass another on foot. That's the only way to cross what locals know as "the walking bridge."

You won't find a footbridge like this over the region's rivers, but then, it didn't start for feet. It was built in 1886 as a railroad bridge, but after floodwaters twice devoured it, the railroad gave up. A ferry was the only way to cross from 1904 to 1920, when Armstrong and Westmoreland counties used the massive cut stone piers for a narrow foot bridge.

The two towns and the two counties aren't the only thing it still connects.

The bridge takes 82-year-old Leechburg hardware store owner Tony Quarato back to his childhood, in the 1930s, growing up four miles up river in Vandergrift. The deck then was made of wood planks that kids would get to pop up and down by making the bridge swing.

He and his friends would walk all the way to Hyde Park and over the walking bridge to Leechburg to go roller-skating and to eat three-for-a-quarter "hamburgs."

Sometimes, on the way home, they'd linger on the bridge, he says. "Especially if they had a girl."

The nearest car crossing was two or more miles downriver on the only road into Hyde Park, and few people owned cars. That's why Hyde Park pushed for the pedestrian bridge, which became a crucial artery. Residents depended on it to get to shops and trains in bigger Leechburg. People in Leechburg and beyond once depended on it to get to Hyde Park, with its namesake brewery, when it was one of the few local towns that was "wet."

In 1904 coal cars were loaded onto the wooden railroad bridge connecting Hyde Park with Leechburg during a spring flood, which filled the Kiski River with huge chunks of ice. The cars were intended to weigh down the bridge and keep it from being swept away. The attempt failed.
Click photo for larger image.

Folks on both sides crossed to work in the mills and factories.

The current version, with its steel grate deck, was opened in 1955. It takes 62-year-old Sam Zanotti back to the late '50s, when he and other Hyde Park kids walked to Leechburg High School on it.

Now head of the Hyde Park Museum, he figures everyone calls it the Hyde Park bridge because of the lead his town took in getting it built. The retired art teacher drew the bridge for the cover of the town's 1998 centennial program. The design was popular on mugs and T-shirts. It's even on the arm patch of the town's police force of one full-timer and two part-timers.

In a place that used to bustle with glove and glass factories, hotels and its own school, the bridge is one of the few landmarks left.

But it's no museum piece: Some people still walk it to jobs, to shops, to friends and family. The span gets a workout from growing numbers of fit folks like Zanotti, who incorporate it into morning and evening constitutionals. One regular says it's a great place to see the sun set. Friday nights the couples come.

The bridge -- owned by both counties but officially Armstrong County Bridge No. 13 -- may get more traffic soon, thanks to the Wilder Business Park that is being built on the Hyde Park side. It includes a walking trail to the bridge. Kiski Valley Enterprises' President Tony Ferrante says, "We've sorta developed it as a selling tool."

He's one of several movers and shakers on both sides of the river who are working to get the structurally sound but faded yellow bridge painted and even decorated with strings of lights.

That means a future a lot brighter than its present, since most of the lights are broken. The crumbling tops of the roughly three-story-tall piers hold trash as well as miniature ecosystems of poison ivy, goldenrod and blueberry.

The steel, at least some of it made at the Hyde Park Foundry, is filigreed with graffiti. But some of that is practical: 30-year-old Brett Shaffer, from the Hyde Park side, carved on the rail the exact spot where he likes to fish for carp, catfish, bass and trout. The cleaned-up Kiski can be so clear, you can see the fish from up here, but it's a long way to reel them. They send a young guy climbing down the stone piers to land the big ones.

Two things about the bridge haven't changed: Some people still like to make it sway and other people are terrified at this. As Shaffer puts it, "When someone walks on it at that end, you'll feel 'em at this end."

The bridge quivers as Hyde Park's Donna Wyant takes her regular evening walk with her Scotty dog, J.R., who isn't the least bothered by the see-through deck beneath his paws. Even on a recent rainy evening, when the clouds drift in with the darkness, Wyant loves the view.

"I don't know what it is," she says, looking out. "It's very calming."

Her every step reverberates as she and her dog continue across and then pause, between Hyde Park and Leechburg, between the roiling river and the drifting mists, between the past and the future -- suspended.

An index to other stories in this package.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930. Reach Steve Mellon at

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