Peculiar Pittsburgh

Peculiar Pittsburgh answers your questions about beltways, bridges and basketball

Keep asking about the region.

One reader asked about the thistle railing along Fort Pitt Boulevard, as seen in this 1968 photo

One reader asked about the thistle railing along Fort Pitt Boulevard, as seen in this 1968 photo

David Wilson / wikimedia commons

From urban legends to sports, your questions about the Pittsburgh region have rolled in since we turned the tables on Peculiar Pittsburgh.

The series examines things that define Pittsburgh and launched thanks to a staff debate about slowing down while driving in tunnels. Earlier this month, we asked you to join the conversation by submitting your queries.

Our staff continues to sift through your questions, and so far, we’ve launched voting so readers — like you! — can decide which of three Downtown oddities we should investigate and started researching and reporting a few of your story ideas. (Stay tuned for upcoming answers. Here’s a hint.)

We also solved several of your mysteries after researching previous articles from fellow media outlets, which we’ve rounded up here.

Q: Who was responsible for the design of the thistle railing that lines many of Pittsburgh’s older roadways, especially noticeable along Fort Pitt Boulevard?

The railings were designed by Allegheny County and used for infrastructure projects in the 1930s and 1940s, explained Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, a nonprofit advocacy group, in a May 2017 Post-Gazette article.

“…They’re kind of a beautiful expression of public investment,” he told the PG, adding that the railings were installed before World War II demanded the skilled workers and metal for the war effort.

In addition to Fort Pitt Boulevard, patterns of ironwork can be found on Panther Hollow Bridge, the Three Sisters bridges, Ohio River Boulevard and the McKees Rocks Bridge, according to the article.

Learn more about the railings here.

Q: Why does basketball get short shrift in Pittsburgh?

It’s a topic that comes up every so often, but a March 2014 article for WESA laid out four reasons:

  1. Pittsburgh is not big enough to have all four major league sports.
  2. The NBA rarely expands. From 1994 to 2014, the league only expanded three times.
  3. Getting a team to move to Pittsburgh would be expensive. Plus, a team moving cities is also rare.
  4. Pittsburgh tried — and failed. Both the Pittsburgh Ironmen and the Pittsburgh Pipers, later the Condors, folded after short lives that ended with the worst season in the league.

Learn more about basketball in Pittsburgh here.

Q: My father used to say that workers who died while building the George Westinghouse Bridge are entombed in the bridge. Is that true?

The short answer is no.

It’s an urban legend that seems to haunt massive concrete structures, and the George Westinghouse Bridge, built from 1929 to 1932 is no exception, wrote Professor Buzzkill for Steel This magazine. (The professor also goes by Joseph Coohill and runs a blog and podcast focused on historical myths.)

He added that there is no evidence that workers were entombed in poured concrete, and thanks to science, we’d know if there were. The professor explained:

Any object falling into wet concrete would create air pockets, and air pockets of any size would create weaknesses in the integrity of the compound. The structural stability of the concrete would have been compromised by having human remains encased in it. A massive structure like the Westinghouse Bridge would have crumbled and collapsed if there had been a body in any part of the poured concrete, after that concrete hardened.

Learn more about the urban legend here.

Q: With the advent of GPS, why do we still have Blue Belt signs? Did people ever follow them to get around?

The blue belt is one of several paths in the Allegheny County Belt System developed in the 1940s to help drivers avoid Downtown before the highway system existed, WESA reported in May 2017.

The belts include — red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple (like the rainbow).

Unlike most beltway systems, the paths don’t divert traffic from Downtown. In fact, the only belt that goes Downtown is the purple belt, which is part of the city’s Wayfinder System and not the county belt system.

Even though the the beltway system wasn’t as popular after highways were built, the county didn’t give up on them. Dave Wright of Allegheny County Public Works told WESA that after he was hired in 1970, one of his main tasks was to figure out how to improve the system and to replace the signs, which still exist.

So while GPS may help with nearly everything now, there was a time when people actually used them.

Learn more about the belt system here.

Now that you’ve been inspired by other answer-seekers, submit your own questions here: