In about 1815 a covered wooden bridge, popularly known as the Black Bridge (or Old Black Bridge), was constructed across the Shenango River in the small but growing settlement of New Castle, Pennsylvania. It stood near the confluence of the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek on the West Side. The all-wooden span, reportedly built with woven wooden planks and no nails, connected the downtown area with what became the Oakland area of Union Township and the ward of Mahoningtown. It was securely anchored with stone abutments on each bank of the river.
The bridge is not to be confused with another lesser known covered bridge also called the Black Bridge. This bridge spanned the Mahoning River near the intersection of modern Route 18 and 108 south of Mahoningtown from c1830 until it was replaced in 1925.
The bridge grew in importance in the 1880’s and 1890’s with the establishment of various steel, iron, and tin mill plants on both sides of the Shenango River near the site of the covered bridge. Poor mill workers residing out on the West Side used the bridge to cross over to work in the mills and other downtown locations. The route leading to both ends of the bridge – and the surrounding area – was popularly known as “the Narrows.”
The bridge allowed quick access to the city from the southwest, but with the coming of the railroads the situation around the bridge grew dangerous. In the 1870’s the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) laid tracks just along the west bank of the Shenango River and along a public access road leading to the Black Bridge. In the early 1880’s the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company (P&LE) ran tracks up along the east side of the Shenango River, which then crossed the river just north of the bridge. The various tracks basically sandwiched the bridge and created dangerous at-grade crossings at both ends of the span.
Over the years the low-lying bridge was subjected to periodic floodwaters along the Shenango River, but always displayed a remarkable resiliency. That would change in the spring of 1913 when the city was about to face the worst natural disaster in its history. On Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, devastating rain storms and tornados swept across the Midwest states. At the same time heavy rains started to inundate the states of Indiana and Ohio and the western portion of Pennsylvania. Those rains, preceded by intense storms in the previous two weeks, continued for several days and before too long a disaster was looming in New Castle.
By late Tuesday morning, as the Neshannock Creek flooded portions of the downtown area, reports started coming in about rapidly rising water along the Shenango River west of downtown. By noon a major disaster was apparent as the Shenango River angrily crested its banks. The water was six feet deep in some locations on the West Side and the tin and steel mills along the Shenango River had to stop production for a time. (For more details see page of NEW CASTLE – Great Flood of March 1913.)
The bridges on the Shenango River struggled under the immense surge of water. In the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 26, the Black Bridge broke free from its abutments and floated almost intact downriver to the amazement of onlookers. It smashed a water intake house of the Carnegie Steel Company, before continuing on and crashing against the Franklin Railroad Bridge near where the Madonna Catholic Church sits in Oakland.
The Franklin Railroad Bridge, purposely weighted down with about eight railroad cars filled with coal, held for the time being but collapsed the following afternoon at 3:00pm. The broken up remnants of the Black Bridge floated free and soon hit the Gardner Avenue Viaduct, an antiquated structure previously slated for replacement. That bridge wilted and collapsed at 6:00pm. The Black Bridge may have floated free again and came to rest against a railroad bridge near Mahoning Ave. From there it was anchored in place that site for the time being. Further upriver, the Grant Street Bridge broke up and fell into the water in two main sections on Wednesday afternoon. Its remnants drifted downriver and came to rest against the West Washington Street Bridge, but that reinforced bridge was fortunate to survive intact.
It was another few days before most of the water had receded to allow for sufficient cleanup and repair operations to begin in New Castle, which suffered $2 million in damage. Meanwhile, folks began clamoring onto the remains of the still-floating Black Bridge and stripping away its planks, presumably to burn or to save as souvenirs. Police soon put a stop to it but eventually city officials had the structure broken up and cleared away.
Negotiations were underway to replace the three main bridges that were lost. Replacing the Old Black Bridge was a source of much debate, as many people favored rebuilding at a more suitable location. The railroads in particular sought to absorb the property surrounding the former bridge and fought against the rebuilding effort. Union Township was essentially cut off from easy access to the city so officials from that township and the Carnegie Steel Company erected a temporary wooden footbridge at the site. The wooden footbridge collapsed during a heavy snow in December 1913 and was rebuilt in much studier fashion in July 1914. A similar footbridge was constructed at the site of the former Gardner Avenue Bridge.
The rebuilding debate continued in the 1920’s, but the Black Bridge and the Gardner Avenue Bridge were never rebuilt. The general area was finally reopened to regular traffic when the Mahoning Avenue Viaduct was built just to the south in 1923. The Old Black Bridge, which spanned the Shenango River for about ninety-eight years, is remembered as one of the most iconic landmarks in the history of New Castle.
To read an article from 1893 that explains the danger the railroad tracks caused to those crossing the bridge click on: WHY DELAY ARTICLE. To read an article about the collapse of the Black Bridge in March 1913 click on: BADE ADIEU ARTICLE. To read two short articles about people tearing apart the bridge after it finally came to rest click on: TEARING BLACK BRIDGE APART ARTICLE and BLACK BRIDGE FAST DWINDLING ARTICLE. To read about the ensuing debate to replace the bridge and keep “the Narrows” route open click on: NARROWS WILL NOT BE DESERTED ARTICLE. To read about the dismantling of the Gardner Avenue Bridge click on: TAKING OLD BRIDGE OUT OF RIVER ARTICLE. To read about officials surveying the site in June 1913 in preparation of replacing the Black Bridge click on: VIEWERS AT BLACK BRIDGE ARTICLE. To read an article from May 1914 about the P&LE grabbing the property that once led to the Black Bridge on the east bank click on: P&LE GRABS ROADWAY ARTICLE. The PRR and P&LE both agitated against the rebuilding of a new bridge and sought to acquire the roads/property leading to the site. To read two articles from 1919 and 1921 that mention this land grab click on: PENNSY ASKS ELIMINATION OF NARROWS ARTICLE and ASK THAT NARROWS ROAD BE VACATED ARTICLE.
Where weeds and bushes grew,
No house was seen below the ridge,
When this Old Bridge was new.”
(To read full composition by James B. Marsh click on: BRIDGE POEM)