Search WWW

picture of bridge

Lincoln Av (left) crosses above Washington Blvd and through Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct (right)

picture of bridge

Panoramic montage of eastern side of viaduct

More detail photos


Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct over Silver Lake
Brilliant Branch, Pennsylvania Railroad
Silver Lake Bridge


USGS 7.5" Topo Quad - UTM Coordinates:
Pittsburgh East - Zone 17; 0592 4479
-- Brilliant Cutoff (Brilliant Branch), Pennsylvania Railroad
(Allegheny Valley RR - AVRR, inactive?)


-- site of Silver Lake (filled in)
-- Silver Lake Dr

stone arch [6 arch spans], plus one steel plate girder span

[north to south]
48 ft plate girder span over Lincoln Av;
80 ft stone arch;
100 ft stone arch;
80 ft stone arch over Silver Lake Dr;
three additional 80 ft stone arches

TOTAL LENGTH (including longest elevated ramp):
468.0 ft

75 ft est
clearance above Lincoln Av posted at 14 ft 4 in

1902-1904, Pennsylvania Railroad
William H. Brown, chief engineer
Mounted on the eastern side of the center pier, a stone tablet reads:

Wm. H. Brown   Chief Engineer PRR Co.
Wm. A. Pratt   Asst to Chief Engineer
C. S. Winvilliers   Engineer of Construction
E. B. Temple   Assistant Engineer   "   "
N. F. Brown   "   "   "   "
Columbia Contracting Company, Contractors
H. S. Kerbaugh   President
A. C. Read   Manager

William Henry Brown (1830-1910) was appointed Engineer for U.S. Military Railroad in northern Virginia in October of 1861. He served in the Second Bull Run and Front Royal campaigns of the Civil War. In 1871, Brown wrote He became Engineer of Maintenance of Way for the Pennsylvania Railroad in July 1874. He was promoted to the new office of Chief Engineer in June 1881 and began a twenty-year-long program to replace all major bridges over non-navigable streams with stone arches which are resistant to floods, require less maintenance and able to handle increasing weight of newer steam engines.

Part of the PRR stone arch bridge program was the construction of the world's longest stone arch bridge (3,820 ft long; 48 arch spans of 70 ft each) over the Susquehanna River at Rockville, PA. Completed in 1902, the bridge stills stands despite other truss bridges having been damaged or destroyed by flooding during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Completed as the Brilliant Cutoff construction was beginning, there are similarities in construction of the Rockville Bridge -- the latter described by William D. Middleton as: "The arch rings were built with 42-inch thick limestone blocks, while the piers and spandrel walls were built with stones that varied from 18 to 24 inches. Piers, the spandrel walls above the piers, and the tops of the arches were filled in with Portland cement concrete. The concrete tops of the arches were covered with asphalt to provide a watertight surface, and the structure was then filled with cinders to the level of the track ballast."

A priority of Brown's construction campaign was the rebuilding and expansion of the Pennsy's mainline to four tracks from New York to Pittsburgh. Converging on Pittsburgh, traffic on the various divisions of the Pennsylvania Railroad became more and more congested. Three major projects were constructed to allow through trains to bypass downtown: the 1877 Port Perry bridge and tunnel joined the Pittsburgh and Monongahela Divisions near Duquesne on the Monongahela River; the Ohio Connecting Railroad bridge first crossed the Ohio River at Brunot's Island in 1890; and the Brilliant Branch in 1904, with its Allegheny River crossing near Highland Park, linked the Pittsburgh Division mainline at East Liberty to the Conemaugh Divison. Proving their value, both the Port Perry (1903) and Brunot's Island (1915) crossings would be replaced with stronger structures.

Most of these projects, including the 1904 Fort Wayne Bridge over the Allegheny River, were upgrades of structures on existing lines. The Brilliant Cutoff was an entirely new route. It is terraced into the eastern wall of the Negley's Run ravine above Washington Blvd. Heading northward from CM tower in East Liberty, the line descends about 120 ft in elevation before reaching the bridge over the Allegheny River.


The piers measure approximately 53 ft in width. The base of the pier between the southern-most arches measures 13 ft in length, while the other piers are 16 ft in length. Silver Lake Drive passes below the fourth arch from the south. All of the piers have a projecting string course at the spring line of the arch, but the pier adjacent to the north side of Silver Lake Drive has an additional string course about halfway toward the base; this indicates the arch on the opposite side is the larger 100 ft span. The keystone of the 100 ft arch includes the date 1903.

In crossing the valley which once held Silver Lake, the rail line makes a curve of 48 degrees.

The 1872 and 1904 Hopkins maps show the property around Silver Lake as belonging to George Finley. On the south shore of the lake, where the viaduct now crosses, stood "Lake Home." The valley to the west carried Spring Run which was joined by a mineral spring in feeding Silver Lake. Silver Lake was noted as a favored ice skating location; the site was a common postcard image, especially after the building of the stone arches.

An 1875 Hopkins map shows Fifth Av extending as far north as Lincoln Av in an apparent intersection. But at that time Butler St (the lower part of the current Washington Blvd) and Fifth Av did not connect in the Negley Run valley. Butler St followed the current Negley Run Blvd to East Liberty.

The 1904 Hopkins map shows the completed roadway, named Beechwood Avenue. Between Fifth Av and the Allegheny River, the roadway was renamed Washington Blvd and was part of an 11-1/2 mile drive which included Grant (now Bigelow), Beechwood and Washington Blvds in a promenade connecting downtown with Pittsburgh Director of Public Works Edward Manning Bigelow's two new parks (1889): Schenley and Highland.

It seems Lincoln Av once crossed the Negley Run valley on a lesser bridge. After the PRR constructed its landmark Roman viaduct, the city of Pittsburgh replaced the Lincoln Av bridge with its own stone viaduct of two spans. It seems it may have been part of the effort to encourage the parklike setting of the boulevard and surrounding valley. Sources note the Lincoln Av stone structure as 1905; the keystone reads 1906. The PRR accomodated the avenue by crossing above with a steel span.

In time, however, Silver Lake was filled in and converted to a drive-in movie theater. The theater was replaced by a set of industrial buildings. Any trace of a parklike ambiance is gone -- Washington Blvd is lined with a haphazard jumble of concrete block commericial buildings jammed in the narrow valley floor. Barely wide enough to be marked for four lanes, traffic blazes through at nearly double the speed limit.


view page - Lincoln Avenue stone arch viaduct over Washington Blvd

view page - Larimer Avenue Bridge over Washington Blvd


Starting 1853, the Allegheny Valley Railroad once extended from Pittsburgh's Strip District to Buffalo, NY. It became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1910. A succession of railroads have continued to use the tracks on the downstream right bank of the river: The Conemaugh Division. The tracks on the opposite bank, the Brilliant Branch, are part of a "T" shaped layout. The bottom of the "T" begins at Homewood on the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia mainline and extends northward above Washington Blvd, then crossing Allegheny River Blvd and over the Brilliant Branch Bridge to connect with the Conemaugh Division. This line, completed in 1904, carried a substantial portion of the freight traffic bypassing the congestion of downtown Pittsburgh and the passenger traffic at Union Station.

The crossbar of the "T" brought traffic from the PRR yards in the Strip District along the Allegheny River, through Verona, Oakmont and into New Kensington. This line was the PRR Allegheny Division. In the 1960s, Conway Yard replaced the facilities in Pitcairn as the PRR's main classification yard leading to diminished traffic on the Allegheny Division. Ultimately the lines were closed completely.

In the fall of 1995, Russell Peterson and Dennis Larson purchased the Brilliant Branch: 22 miles of track plus running rights on the seven miles from Homewood to the Island Av Yard. The AVRR also has running rights on the CSX line between the Strip and Glenwood. The purchase did not include the Brilliant Bridge which needs refurbishment to be usable. The owner-operated AVRR runs a pair of maroon locomotives seven days a week.


The name Brilliant comes from the "Brilliant Oil Refinery" built by Charles Lockhart and partners in 1861 at the outflow of Negley's Run into the Allegheny River. The early company was part of the beginning of Standard Oil.

view page - Charles Lockhart and the name "Brilliant"



field check; Middleton, "Landmarks on the Iron Road"; PRR Historical and Technical Society, "PRR Chronology"; Kobus and Consoli, "The Pennsy in The Steel City"; G. M. Hopkins maps; Patrick Rieger web article on AVRR; Kidney, "Pittsburgh's Bridges"; Historic American Engineering Record PA-555

Submit info or inquiry - share some facts or ask a question.

Introduction -- Nearby Structures

Page created:
Last modified: 20-Nov-2019; 02-Apr-2003

View Larger Map