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Moravia Bridge Collapse of 1904 - West Pittsburg, PA

In mid-January 1904 the whole of western Pennsylvania experienced severe flooding along its various rivers and creeks. On Thursday, January 21, 1904, the 325-foot Moravia Bridge, connecting Moravia with the newly developed town of West Pittsburg, was severely damaged by the high waters of the Beaver River. The center portion of the bridge was washed away by the flooding. Within the New Castle area many other bridges, particularly several used by the various railroad companies, were also severely damaged or collapsed outright. A handful of people even drowned as a result. The operations of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Company were greatly hampered by the flooding in and around New Castle.

Soon after the collapse of the Moravia Bridge a much larger and more modern replacement structure was proposed to be built at the same general location connecting Moravia and West Pittsburg. What remained of the older bridge was dismantled in the meantime. In October 1904, construction got underway on the new steel and concrete structure that would cost almost $63,000. When the new 850-foot-long bridge, supported by five stone piers, was formally opened on Saturday, October 21, 1905, it was truly one of the nicest bridges in all of Lawrence County.

However, before that happened, a terrible accident occurred at the site of the bridge collapse. On the early morning of Monday, August 8, 1904, John W. Cunningham, a Spanish-American War veteran and the General Manager of the West Pittsburg Realty Company, drove his horse-drawn carriage up to Mahoningtown, crossed over the river, and headed south to examine some property across the Beaver River from West Pittsburg. Accompanying him was George A. Wallace of Park Avenue in West Pittsburg. At that time West Pittsburg had just recently been planned out by the West Pittsburg Realty Company and was a burgeoning town and manufacturing center.

In order to attend a pressing appointment Cunningham decided to return to West Pittsburg by way of the most direct route – by crossing the Beaver River at a ford about seventy feet south of the old dismantled bridge. He had made this crossing dozens of times since the bridge collapsed earlier in the year.

Just after 10:00am Cunningham guided his horse-drawn carriage across the river, but he was inadvertently off-course by about twenty feet to the north of the narrow ford. The horse soon waded into a twenty-foot-deep hole and instinctively began to swim, while the buggy was plunged into the hole. Cunningham apparently was drowned almost immediately, while Wallace was able to leap away from the buggy. A woman heard Wallace’s screams and was able to muster up a rescue party. Wallace was found lying in a semi-conscious and dazed state on a small island in the middle of the river. Cunningham’s body was recovered nearby. The horse somehow managed to shake free from the buggy and survived as well.

Cunningham’s remains were taken back to West Pittsburg and prepared for burial. On Wednesday afternoon his remains and the funeral party were transported to Pittsburgh by way of a train chartered by the West Pittsburg Realty Company. Cunningham was laid to rest with honors at the Homewood Cemetery in eastern Pittsburgh.

To read an obituary that appeared in the New Castle News for John Cunningham click here: OBITUARY. To learn more about the opening of the new Moravia Bridge in October 1905 click on: BIG BRIDGE OPENS ARTICLE.

I believe the bridge that collapsed in 1904 sat in this general location north of the present bridge. My uncle Charles DeMarc owns the waterfront property past the bridge on the left bank. My grandfather George DeMarc carved his initials in the mostly submerged stone piling visible in the middle of the photo and laying below the bridge. Apr 2009.

Rusted remnants of an old bridge foundation jut out from the shoreline. Was this the bridge that collapsed in 1904? I surprised – or more accurately I was surprised by – two large geese nesting on the bank here. They flew off but quickly circled back and buzzed me! Apr 2009.

Standing on the present bridge (its side railing visible at bottom) and looking south down the Beaver River. The rocky shoreline jutting out above, which my Uncle Charles calls Evelyn’s Beach, may have been where George Wallace pulled himself ashore back in 1904. (Jul 2009)

A similiar view from the bridge looking south again. If Wallace did not pull himself ashore right here it was probably downriver to the right – where a small island is just off photo. (Jul 2009)


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