Hulton Bridge to be focus of Oakmont historian’s talk
Western Pennsylvania has dozens of bridges that are creaking, rusting and inching toward the status of structurally unsafe, including the Jonathon Hulton Bridge.
The only bridge in and out of Oakmont, the Hulton Bridge has spanned the Allegheny River for more than 106 years. It was constructed in 1908 for $306,000; a new bridge is under construction just upriver of the original, with a budget of $64.8 million. The original is slated for implosion in 2015, upon completion of the new one.
The original two-lane truss bridge connects Oakmont and Harmarville. Named after one of Oakmont’s first landowners, the new bridge will retain the name.
“We are going to lose a piece of Oakmont’s history when the bridge is torn down,” says Gary Rogers, local Oakmont historian and president of the Oakmont Historical Society. Rogers will give a free lecture, “The Hulton Bridge,” on Oct. 27.
“The bridge was built back when horse and buggies were the mode of transportation. It was wooden originally and lit by gas lamps,” he says.
“Mr. Hulton owned the property where the bridge was built and operated the Hulton Ferry taking people back and forth from Oakmont and Harmarville,” Rogers says. “It is bittersweet that the old bridge has to go. It is a gateway to Oakmont.”
Summer Tissue, Oakmont Chamber of Commerce director, often attends the lectures by Rogers and says attendance is “usually standing-room only.”
“The borough is divided with this bridge business,” Tissue says. “About half the residents want the bridge to stay and the other half realize it has to go.”
Tissue says many people can remember that “purple” bridge, referencing the 1991 refurbishment paint job of the bridge by PennDOT. “They used a lavender-hued paint”; hence, the nickname “the lavender link.”
Tissue says Penn Dot painted a lot of bridges that color, which was supposed to highlight cracks.
“I think it would be great to see it preserved,” says Julie Petz of Brackenridge. She remembers her mother and grandmother taking her to see the purple bridge.
Carnegie Mellon University engineering students did promote saving the current bridge for nonmotorized use.
“They started a campaign, to use the bridge as a pedestrian bridge, but it’s not cost-effective, and it didn’t advance,” Tissue says.
The bridge has had its share of doom, dignitaries and drama.
“Well, there have been suicides in the past,” Rogers says. “And President (Howard) Taft rode over the bridge in his motorcade in 1910. That was a big deal.”
Then, there was that name-change business.
“In 1989, the Pennsylvania legislature quietly approved the renaming of the Hulton Bridge in honor of Rep. Joseph F. Bonetto, who was deceased and had been an advocate of new bridge construction while in office,” Rogers says. “This came as a surprise to Oakmont residents, as small plaques renaming the span were attached to the bridge. The borough was up in arms over it.”
The plaques began to disappear, and within three days, they were gone, never to return.
“Since then, large plaques confirming the bridge being named for early resident Jonathon Hulton have been mounted,” Rogers says. “A compromise was reached, and a local highway in Plum is now the Joseph F. Bonetto Memorial Highway.”
Rogers encourages anyone interested in the Hulton Bridge to attend the lecture.
“It is bittersweet. I realize the bridge has to be replaced,” he says. “We can’t preserve the actual bridge, but we can keep the memory of the bridge alive. We will have a bigger, better Hulton Bridge.”
The lecture series is hosted by the Oakmont Historical Society, which offers monthly topics pertaining to Oakmont, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and history around Western Pennsylvania.
“Our mission is to research, preserve and share the history of Oakmont.” Rogers says.
On average, more than 21,000 cars cross the Hulton Bridge daily.
Overall work on the new bridge will conclude in late 2015. The new bridge will carry four lanes of traffic, span 1,600 feet and include intersection improvements to help reduce congestion along Freeport Road.
Debra Feroce, who works at Today’s Market in Oakmont, has heard feedback from customers on the bridge topic.
“The new bridge will be awesome, but everyone must be patient, because the construction is taking a long time,” she says. “Change can be hard, but with a bridge that unsafe, it is necessary. I don’t think most people realize just how old the bridge is.”
Dr. Duane Thimons of Natrona Heights looks forward to a new, modern bridge. “Anyone who has been in their car when a semi-truck passes on that narrow bridge, well, they would say, ‘Blow it up.’ ”
Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.