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Everybody Down!
Written July 14, 2015


Most of us prefer words to arbitrary numbers.  Within ten miles southeast of my apartment, I encounter state routes 56, 66, 286, 356, and 366.  That’s not fair.  Not having grown up in the area, I can’t keep them straight.  Road names would be more memorable.

For example, some names within a mile of my place have aroused my curiosity.

“Lock Street” is a main artery in the borough of Tarentum.  “Mile Lock Lane” runs past the new steel mill in the borough of Brackenridge.  And along the boundary between the boroughs, half a dozen blocks are labeled “Bridge Street.”

I know that Pennsylvania's Main Line Canal operated here from 1828 to 1863 (or at least from 1834 to 1857).  Its route is represented by the black line on this aerial view.  The canal had locks.  Was it the source of these names?

I found a publication called The History of Tarentum that confirms my speculation.  At Lock Street there was indeed a canal lock.  And, sure enough, there was another one mile away at Mile Lock Lane.  These were two of the 64 such facilities on the Main Line between Pittsburgh and Johnstown.

The horses and mules that pulled the canal boats had to be changed for fresh animals every eight miles or so.  There was a stable for them in Tarentum near the present-day corner of Fifth Avenue and Ross Street, where the boats could be docked overnight in a basin located between the stable and the lock.

In this picture we’re looking south, across the canal, from somewhere near the present-day train depot (now a restaurant).  In the background is the Allegheny River.

It’s shortly before noon, and a mule is headed east on the towpath, which runs between the stone-walled canal in the foreground and the wooden sidewalk in front of McAyeal’s general store.

I found this depiction of the general store in a booth at the local Applebee’s restaurant, provided by Henderson Graphic Design & Illustration.  Not included in the primitive-style painting are another mule in front of this one and the boat behind them, which has just passed through the lock.

Shopkeeper Robert McAyeal, born in county Antrim, Ireland, in 1783, “came to this country when young and spent the greater part of his life in the mercantile business,” according to an obituary.  He died when the canal did, in 1863, and he’s buried in a cemetery a few blocks from where I live.  His son James then ran the store until 1907. 

But what about Bridge Street?  Is it also related to the canal?

The name might refer to a bridge across the Allegheny River, but that’s unlikely.  As far as I know, that engineering feat wasn’t accomplished until 1952, when a 1,784-foot-long steel bridge was opened.  For a decade, motorists had to pay a 10-cent toll to use it.  The Tarentum end is near the site of the old stable. 

No, the name must come from a small narrow bridge over the canal itself.  And the History confirms that “There was a row bridge at Bridge Street.”

It isn’t there now.  After a railroad supplanted the canal more than a century and a half ago, all that has been required is a “level crossing,” a grade crossing over the tracks.  Often I hear a freight train passing through, blowing its horn.

And what is a “row bridge”?  The term seems to be uncommon nowadays, but did I find photos of a row bridge in the Lake Country of England at Wasdale Head.



The structure at our Bridge Street would have been less picturesque.  It would have been more like this old Erie Canal engraving.

The passengers atop the boat have been warned “Low bridge!  Everybody down!”



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