The Missing Link: Making the Connection via the Mon Wharf Switchback

Mon Wharf walkway in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking east towards the Smithfield Street Bridge, downtown

One glorious day–and a Sunday at that! Deep blue skies, whispy cirrus clouds, bright sunshine, and seasonally optimistic temperatures requiring only a long-sleeve shirt. Those who failed to leave the indoors on this 24-hour reprieve between Thanksgiving’s elongated drizzly gloom and the following Monday’s snow-filled temperature plunge should feel all the guilt and remorse they deserve.

Just jaggin’–no judgment, here. This blogger, however, wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. The Orbitmobile was sprung from its hutch, tires inflated, and chain oiled. We were off to town on a mission to check out the brand new Mon Wharf Switchback.

Mon Wharf Switchback bicycle/pedestrian ramp in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The new Mon Wharf Switchback Ramp, downtown

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is the only city with a front door. Indeed, the approach from the morass of Parkway West suburbia/airport/I-79 to the awestruck oohs and aahs emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel into a seeming city from nowhere is truly spectacular, unparalleled, and–I can attest, twenty-some years on–never gets old.

That said, one can only reach that front door with a motor vehicle. For those arriving in our fair city by bicycle–and yes, thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, plenty of newcomers get here on two wheels–it’s a less dramatic entrance. That changed, at least a little bit, with the completion of this last connection point allowing car-free passage into town from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

bicycle/pedestrian ramp to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

ramp to Point State Park

As of now, the incoming cyclist may exit the Smithfield Bridge to be gently guided down to the previously-existing, but hard-to-get-to Mon Wharf Landing parklet hugging the riverbank. The method is a long, graceful switchback ramp connecting 40 or 50 vertical feet from bridge deck to walkway below.

The park a lovely open space with a wide walkway, stone resting spots–they’re not quite benches–and a thin strip of green grass. Native maple trees–presumably planted back at the park’s opening in 2009–have managed to cling to their deep red fall leaves long after wimpier peers dropped all outerwear weeks ago.

bicycle/pedestrian entrance to Point State Park via the Mon Wharf trail in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

gateway to Point State Park

The new ramp doesn’t just connect downtown with the South Side. One can now, in theory, ride continuously from Point State Park all the way to our nation’s capital without having to contest with any car traffic. Three hundred and thirty-five miles, in fact, as the crow dodges and weaves, crosses the Alleghenies, ducks through tunnels, and follows the curling banks of various old rivers.

That is one hell of an accomplishment for long-distance, intrastate bicycle recreation[1], but the new ramp that allows connection from the upriver side of the Smithfield Street Bridge through to Point State Park–is likely going to be much more useful to the city’s cyclists for their around-town commutes and pleasure cruises.

We’ll spare the particulars, but if you’re a city cyclist, you know getting from, say, Penn Avenue to the South Side was a pain in the ass. Thanks to this new infrastructure, one can make that ride safely and with a spectacular 360° tour of all three rivers.

traffic sign reading "Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians" on Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian route: “Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians”

Though the ramp has been publicly accessible for a week or two, the opening will be made official with an event this Tuesday. As of last weekend, there are still some final touches to the overall route we hope they’ll eventually get to.

Most notable is the lack of signage directing the connection-curious to and from Point State Park. From the latter, one must–on blind faith–go under the bridge ramp overpass, pass a maintenance vehicle parking lot, along the thin connection beside a highway ramp, and then down the fairly steep ramp to the Mon Wharf. This only-possible route takes the walker/bicycle rider directly under a (roadway) sign with the confusing message MOTOR VEHICLES ONLY: NO PEDESTRIANS (see photo, above). [This is a minor quibble that we assume city crews will get to–and may already have.]

Mon Wharf path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking west towards the Fort Pitt Bridge

The Mon Wharf Landing and switchback ramp are projects from Riverlife and the City of Pittsburgh. The commitment both have shown toward making the city bike- and pedestrian-safe, friendly, and accessible should absolutely be recognized and praised. From the (mostly) bicycle-based Orbit staff, a very big thank you–we’ll be putting the new route to use as often as we can.


[1] Between the GAP and C&O, the two trails run through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors

purple protractor with number "500" written on it attached to garbage can, Pittsburgh, PA

The final protractor? #500, river trail, North Side

They’re all over the damn place. Protractors–those same cheap plastic devices we had to pony up for to complete ninth grade geometry–are glued to guard rails, bridge supports, waste bins, mailboxes, lamp posts, and the backs of street signs all over the city.

If you haven’t seen them, you either don’t live around here or you haven’t been looking. There are–or werehundreds of them[1]. In the hands of our pranksters/artists/mysterions (take your pick) each of the protractors has been painted a solid color, sequentially numbered by hand in big block numerals, and grafted to every manner of publicly-accessible metal surface.

green protractor glued to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

#100, North Oakland

Until now, The Orbit has resisted writing about the so-called “Pittsburgh protractors”. They’ve been around for a number of years and have achieved a certain level of obscure fame. The phenomenon is well documented in one dogged blogger’s map and database[2]. Even the local TV news got involved. The protractors don’t need us…or do they?

We started to realize that a lot of the old familiar golden, purple, green, and pink arches we’re used to seeing around town are disappearing. Gone are standout creatures of the Fort Duquesne, Smithfield Street, and Hot Metal bridges. Lamppost bases are scraped clean; big relay mailboxes and waste bin containers have simply been painted-over in not-quite-matching colors, sparing the maintenance workers the trouble of decoupling the protractors underneath. When oddity turns into nostalgic despair, that’s when The Orbit steps in.

protractor glued to mailbox, both painted hunter green, Pittsburgh, PA

#273[3], mailbox, Oakland/Shadyside (painted-over)

protractor glued to public waste bin container, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown), river trail, North Side (painted-over)

What do the protractors mean?

The Orbit has always been content with a state of bemused wonder, so trying to suss meaning out of someone’s goofy art prank doesn’t concern us that much. As the protractor perpetrator(s) have remained mum this long, it’s unlikely we’ll get any definitive answer any time soon–if ever.

That said, it’s been commonly theorized that the shape of a protractor echoes the gentle arc and twin supports of a standard truss bridge–think the Fort Pitt, Fort Duquesne, or 16th Street bridges. It’s an appealing and believable theory. Pittsburgh is, after all, the “city of bridges,” and the protractors have been applied liberally to many of them.

Fort Pitt Bridge over the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh, PA

Fort Pitt Bridge, possible protractor prompt?

Who put these up?

It sure seems like no one knows–or, at least, no one’s talking/blogging. According on one old axe, “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” By this logic, we’re dealing with one lone wolf–but who knows? What does seem obvious is that the person or persons behind this are intimately familiar with the walkable/ridable core of central Pittsburgh.

The aforementioned map contains points almost solely within the East End, Central North Side, and a very small representation of South Side (really just the river trail). We see nothing up in or over the hills, in the suburbs, or, frankly, in the black neighborhoods. There are also no reports from downtown, Squirrel Hill, or Greenfield–but some of this may be the bias of who’s reporting the finds, rather than actual placement.

All this certainly points to a bicycle-rider. There are a ton of protractors along the river trails and probably more along the bridge pedestrian walkways (although many of these have been removed). But beyond that….we got nuthin’.

purple protractor glued to metal blocker on bicycle trail, Pittsburgh, PA

#408, river trail, Millvale/North Side

Frankly, we’ve always had some issues with the protractors. It’s such an interesting and dedicated act of…mystery, but the slapped-on, haphazard approach and application often feels like it falls just short. Why not even them up, add an element, make them sing?

But as we muddled over this story, we realized what a minor gripe this really is. This blogger has great respect for any covert operation that exists for this long without anyone spilling the beans. We also love that the targets are all the city’s forgotten infrastructure–no private property has been harmed in the addition of the protractors[4].

And then, of course, there’s the egg hunt. If this whole thing has gotten even just a small number of dedicated weirdos to take to the streets, bridges, and bicycle trails with an eye out for the curve, well, The Orbit says hats off for the protractor perpetrators getting people off their keisters, into the outdoors, and observing their surroundings.

blue protractor glued to metal plate on 40th Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

#303, 40th Street Bridge


[1]  At least 500. But, you know, it ain’t official.
[2]  Just in comparing notes for this story, it was obvious how difficult keeping the map accurate and current would be. Many of the inclusions on the map are no longer there, and likewise many of the (newer?) protractors we located aren’t listed.
[3]  Identification from Eric Lidji’s Pittsburgh Protractor Map, which also includes a photo before the paint-over.
[4]  We wish the War on Google and Facebook is Boring taggers would be this respectful.

Christmas Under the Bridge

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

We are, if the clever Orbit reader has not already divined, kerchief deep into Christmas season. It’s the all-consuming megalopolis of a holiday whose red and green, pine cone-encrusted, jingle-bell-adorned, egg nog-slurping tentacles reach so deeply that even Casey Kasem is banished from the airwaves until after the new year rolls around. Sigh. What to do when a blogger can’t even get any Hot Chocolate with his hot chocolate?

We expect this–and certainly know it’s coming–but had no idea that Ol’ St. Nick’s lords-a-leaping, geese-a-laying influence would extend all the way down under the bridges of the North Side, and yet it does. But we’re here to say that, just like Scrooge, even this bah-humbugging blogger can turn around to The Christmas SpiritTM when and where he never expected he would.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Yet another lovely sun-drenched December weekend day and another healthy afternoon two-wheeled constitutional. [Weather gods: why hath thou forsaken this blogger? How long must he wait for 45 degrees and drizzling?] This time the ride took us across the 40th Street Bridge and down to the Allegheny River trail.

It was a most curious surprise to come across. Against the tremendous concrete support for the railroad bridge that spans the Allegheny near Millvale Riverfront Park, rests a spindly, homemade Christmas tree-like sculpture, made of thick wound black wire, a discarded metal stake, and plastic holly. The tree is sparsely decorated with a handful of traditional ornaments, something that looks like a space invader, and one full set of refrigerator poetry. The current offering reads cadaver angels put wealth in the river. We poked around, snapped a few pics, went right down to the water’s edge. It was a fun little surprise, but then we were back on our way.

Refrigerator poetry from trail Christmas tree #1 reading "Cadaver angels put wealth in the river."

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Refrigerator poetry, Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1

So yet another trailside Christmas tree popping out at us just another minute or two further down the trail was starting to feel like a legitimate yuletide miracle. Here, under the 31st Street Bridge, is a medium-size Douglas fir, decked out in red, green, and silver garland, with giant candy cane ornaments, and one drug store Santa hat for a topper. A simple unfurled piece of cardboard includes the cursive Sharpie message Merry Christmas, Thank you.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2, detail

Here I met M.J., one of a number of people who camp under the on-ramp to the 31st Street Bridge. We talked for a while and I got some of the story on the tree and the group that lives here. The tree was brought in, along with a full Thanksgiving dinner spread, the week prior.

I saw a bag of apples and was heading to The Strip anyway, so I asked if I could pick up some food for the group. Surprisingly, M.J. explained that they were actually doing O.K. with food thanks to regular deliveries from the same organization that provided the tree and turkey dinner. [M.J. didn’t have a name.] I asked what the group’s other greatest needs are and he told me that he wished he could get battery-operated lanterns for everyone. He also mentioned bedding and tarps. So far, this blogger has struck out locating the kind of lanterns M.J. described, [and believe you me, he has tried] but it isn’t Christmas yet!

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1, detail


Related: Bridgette Wright’s blog post for Bike Pittsburgh details a couple of coordinated efforts to bring “care packs” to Pittsburgh’s homeless communities over the Christmas holiday. They’ll be using bicycles to deliver the packages to locations like this one under the 31st Street Bridge that are inaccessible by automobile.