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Sharon viaduct's history is in pieces



Published: Sun, June 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The detonation was delayed by nearly five hours because of inclement weather.

By MARALINE KUBIK

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

SHARON, Pa. -- The wait was long; the blast, loud and wet.

But of all the things she's done so far, detonating the explosives that imploded the Oakland Avenue Viaduct is at the top of 13-year-old Nicole Montgomery's list.

Nicole waited nearly five hours in a cold, steady rain Saturday morning to push the button that turned the 65-year-old bridge into a jagged heap of concrete and dust.

She got the opportunity to push the button after her mother won a raffle conducted by the city. Proceeds from the raffle, which netted more than $5,000 from the sale of the $1 tickets will benefit the Mercer County unit of the American Cancer Society.

Initially, the viaduct was to be imploded at 7:30 a.m. Nicole, the mayor, a battalion of local reporters and photographers, and a handful of curious spectators began arriving at the blockade on the Shenango Valley freeway less than 1,000 feet west of the bridge an hour earlier.

Delay: The implosion was pushed back until 8:30 a.m., then 10 a.m., then noon because of unfavorable weather conditions. Low, dense cloud cover and low atmospheric pressure help contain explosions, making tremors and damage to nearby homes more likely, explains Police Chief Ray Greene. Shortly after noon, weather conditions improved slightly. Nicole, who will be in the eighth grade at Hermitage Middle School this fall, was given the go-ahead. She pushed the button and the bridge was down in the blink of an eye, a cloud of gray dust rising against the gloomy sky.

"I didn't think it was going to be so loud," she said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders. Getting to push the button was worth the long wait, even though bringing the bridge down "was really fast," she said.

With no specific plan for the afternoon, and nothing more exciting to do, Nicole said she would "probably go home and go to sleep. We usually sleep in late in the summer."

Old-timers who played under, on and in the bridge as children, and neighbors who live nearby, had other plans.

Returning home: Marian Gulla, 64, whose house sits less than 300 feet from where the bridge was, will rehang the pictures she took off her walls and put her crystal away. Before leaving her house -- residents of houses in close proximity to the bridge were evacuated from their neighborhood and the windows of houses nearest the bridge boarded up -- she placed fragile items from the cupboards on her carpeting.

"I didn't empty the china cupboard -- I'm getting too old for that," she said. "I can't worry about everything."

Gulla and her husband, George, 66, a city councilman, have lived in their house near the bridge for 38 years, and both grew up in the area.

"A lot of my life was spent going over that bridge," Gulla recalled. "When I was in high school my girlfriends lived on the other side and we'd go back and forth. I'm sorry to see it go, but I understand why it has to be replaced. Safety first. I just hope they replace it with something similar, not something too modern."

"I think a lot of people are sorry to see it go," agreed Tom Hopkins, 65, of Masury. Hopkins grew up in Sharon and spent much of his youth playing in the area under the bridge once known as Pine Hollow.

"We used to light model planes on fire and throw them off of the bridge," he recalled. He and his friends also spent many days daring each other to complete certain feats on the bridge. One boy he remembers walked across the bridge railing on his hands.

Daredevils: John Theil, 63, of Hermitage, remembers the same feat. Another boy agreed to follow but he walked upright, not on his hands, Theil said. "The rest of us chickened out."

Another "daring escapade," as Theil called them, involved climbing under the bridge from girder to girder. "The game was to see how far you could go," he said. "Pine Hollow was a great playground. A little bit of the community is disappearing with the bridge."

"I think everybody in the valley wrote their names on that bridge," Hopkins added. "I think that and the old casino in Buhl Park are the most recognizable landmarks."

Of course, the freeway didn't run under the bridge when the men played there as boys. There was just a single-lane road then.

"They put the four-lane in the year we got married -- 1956," interjected Hopkins' wife, Caroline.

Bridge's builders: Many of the area residents who turned out to watch the landmark crumble onto the highway below recall their fathers building the bridge as part of the Work Projects Administration during the Great Depression.

Others, obviously younger, remember walking over the bridge in the dark and tossing snowballs onto the highway below. "It was a great place to steal pumpkins off porches, carry them to the bridge and throw them over," chuckles one man who looks to be forty-something. "Of course we always tried to miss the cars." With a broad smile, he identified himself as John Smith.

The Shenango Valley Freeway will reopen Monday. The new bridge is expected to be completed and open in November.




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