Built in the early 1930s, Allegheny River Boulevard reflected an early stage of America's romance with the automobile -- a time when the journey was as important as the destination. As with other roads built in that spirit (Bigelow Boulevard being another local example), road planners sought to create a road that you wouldn't want to speed along. And so they graced the roadsides with ribbons of greenspace ... and on Allegheny River Boulevard, they built scenic little turnoffs for drivers to stop and admire the view.
Scenic views were in short supply in early 20th-century Pittsburgh. But the banks of the Allegheny, with their views of wooded riverbanks and even the occasional island, offered an unrivaled opportunity for local motorists to appreciate their natural surroundings. The only downside: Nature kept getting in the way of our attempts to enjoy it.
As the Pittsburgh Press noted in 1929, "[t]he task of cutting a modern boulevard through country where nature made no provision for it" wasn't easy. "[H]alf of the boulevard will be constructed where in some places even a footpath would have been dangerous before," the story read. In fact, a handful of workers had been injured just trying to survey the route. Hillsides had to be blasted, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth had to be moved.
When all this construction was finished, county officials decided, people should have the chance to appreciate the environment they'd just blasted the hell out of. A Sun-Telegraph article written in 1931 sums up the spirit, if not the grammar, of the time: "In few places in this district is finer scenery than the river views along the new Allegheny River boulevard. ... Picturesque stone stop-over platforms are situated at intervals along the bolevard [sic] where motorists may park and contemplate the river scenery."
The road's 4.5 miles included eight such platforms, often called "observational turnoffs" (a phrase which puts me in mind of drunken couples making out atop Mount Washington). As a statewide preservation group, Preservation Pennsylvania, has put it, the idea was to provide drivers with a route "leisurely paralleling the river [and with] opportunities to park and view the river and its islands." The turnouts included "stone walls, a continuous alley of London Plane trees, picnic areas, and pylons along the road's course."
But although it was paved with good intentions, for years the boulevard presented a hellish problem. In their rush to enjoy the scenery, it seems, the county officials who built the road forgot one little detail: They didn't buy the land needed for a crucial link near the intersection with Nadine Road. The Pennsylvania Water Company, which operated a pumping station nearby, hadn't formally agreed to sign over the land.
County Commissioner C.C. McGovern called the situation a "bungle," and the word cropped up in newspaper accounts for the next several years. Headlines referred to the story as "Bungle Boulevard," and it took a state law to give the county the power to condemn the land for public use. Reporters, purveyors of human misery that they are, seemed sorry to see the story go: "Now that the Nadine bottleneck ... has been opened, an old reliable item will be missed by newspaper readers," wrote one melancholy account. But by the time the road finally opened, in June 1934, officials just wanted to put the saga behind them. "Let's not celebrate the opening," McGovern urged. "Let's forget all about it."
Sadly, over the years, many people forgot all about the turnoffs too. Drivers seemed content with being able to get to Verona as quickly as possible -- really, who can blame them? -- and the turnoffs suffered from neglect. Eventually, they were closed entirely.
In the mid-1990s, the road was deemed one of the nation's "10 Most Endangered Scenic Byways," by a nonprofit environmental group. Preservation Pennsylvania also put the roadway on its list of "at risk" assets. Since that time, municipalities have talked about restoring the turnoffs -- and the whole byway -- to its former grandeur.
Anyone who's driven to Verona recently knows how far the boulevard still has to go. But maybe down the road, the future of the turnoffs will turn out for the best.