The Liberty Tunnels
Gateway to the South Hills

Postcard from 1924 showing the new Liberty Tunnels.
A 1924 postcard showing the Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels along West Liberty Avenue.

History of the Liberty Tunnels

♦ Early Transportation Difficulties
♦ A Tunnel Is Proposed
♦ "High" Or "Low" Tunnel
♦ Groundbreaking - Liberty Tunnels
♦ The Tunnel Bore
♦ Shaking Things Up
♦ Friendly Competition
♦ Streetcars Not Welcome
♦ The Two Ends Meet
♦ The Best Rock Tunnel
♦ Public Inspection
♦ Unheeded Warnings
♦ Grand Opening Of The Twin Tubes
♦ Carbon Monoxide Crisis
♦ The Ventilation System
♦ Tunnel Walkers

Constant Monitoring ♦
Dangerous Intersection ♦
War Rationing Challenges ♦
A Toll Tunnel? ♦
The Tunnel Jail ♦
Tunnel Improvements - 1938/1965 ♦
Ever-Evolving North Portal View ♦
The Third Tube ♦
Tunnel Overhaul - 1976 ♦
Removing Nearby Blight ♦
PAT South Busway - 1977 ♦
South Interchange - 1996/1999 ♦
Tunnel Reconstruction - 2008/2014 ♦
Tunnel Improvements - 2017/2018 ♦
Additional Photos and Related Links ♦
History of the Liberty Bridge ♦

Liberty Tunnels North Portal - 1955.
1950s era postcard showing the northern portals of the Liberty Tunnels.

Early South Hills Transportation Difficulties

In the latter part of the 19th century, the city of Pittsburgh was growing rapidly to the east, the north, and on the South Side. However, the five-mile long, 400-foot geological obstacle known as Mount Washington presented a major barrier to development in the South Hills area.

With transportation mostly limited to horse-drawn wagons and walking, residents of the South Hills had to rely on a series of inclines to traverse the hill, or they took the long way to the city, either up Warrington Avenue and down Arlington Avenue, or along the Saw Mill Run Valley to the West End.

These difficulties slowed the process of South Hills suburbanization, and the area retained a sparsely populated rural flavor, consisting of mostly rolling hills and tracts of farmland.

In 1904, the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel was built to extend streetcar service to the South Hills Junction and onwards to the southern boroughs. The new tunnel, the electric railway and the advent of motorized transportation accelerated development in West Liberty Borough (Brookline/Beechview) and other southern communities like Dormont and Mount Lebanon.

As the population grew, so did the amount of vehicular traffic. Soon it became necessary to find a quicker and easier way to get traffic to and from downtown Pittsburgh.

South Hills Junction - 1906  The Bell House Hotel and Tavern on Warrington
Avenue near West Liberty Avenue - Circa 1910.
The South Hills Junction in 1906 (left) with a billboard advertising home sales in Brookline, the 15-minute suburb,
and the
Bell House Tavern in 1910, located on Warrington Avenue near the intersection with West Liberty.

A Tunnel Is Proposed

In 1909 the South Hills Board of Trade persuaded the Allegheny County Commissioners that a tunnel would be a boon to the region. The added cost of shipping goods and building supplies over or around Mount Washington was becoming a severe detriment to commercial prosperity and land development.

Proponents estimated that the tunnel would dramatically increase property valuation and act as a catalyst to real estate development in the region. It was agreed that a new Mount Washington tunnel, and a connecting bridge over the Monongahela River, were essential to the growth of the city, but no plans were in place and no promises were made by the commissioners as to when such a project would begin.

1888 map showing the north face of Mount Washington.
An 1888 picture showing the north face of Mount Washington. After years of debate, the location for the northern
portals of the South Hills Tunnel would emerge in the center of the image, behind the roof of the tall building.

While the overwhelming consensus throughout the South Hills was that a tunnel was necessary, the location of the proposed tunnel became a source of heated debate. Several different plans were introduced, each with the southern and northern tunnel portals emerging in different locations.

Acceptance of the individual proposals had much to do with where one lived and the benefits to that particular community, with the overall benefit to the city overlooked.

The first proposal to receive widespread support was the Shingiss-Haberman plan, or the "high" tunnel. The southern portal would have been at Haberman Avenue and Warrington Avenue, up the hill from the South Hills Junction. The northern portal would have been on Mount Washington, above Arlington Avenue and East Carson Street.

A double deck bridge over the Monongahela River would carry motorists to Shingiss Street, atop the Bluff near Duquesne University. This proposal placed the northern portals eighty feet higher and the southern portals 184 feet higher than the present-day tubes. It offered the greatest benefit to the communities of Mount Washington, Allentown, Knoxville and Beltzhoover.

Map showing various proposals for the Liberty Tunnels location.
1919 map showing the various proposals for the location of the Liberty Tunnels. #1 is the Haberman, or "high"
tunnel. #2 is a proposed extension. #3 is the Morse plan, running parallel to the abandoned Neeld Tunnel,
#4 is a cut proposed by City Engineers, #5 and #6 were the Shalerville proposals. The seventh
alternative, the Bell Tavern or "low" tunnel, was adopted by the County Commissioners.

As time progressed, other proposals were put forth. One confederation of residents pushed for the tunnel to be built closer to the line of the present-day Fort Pitt Tunnels. This was called the Shalerville proposal, and was economically favorable to residents of Carnegie, Banksville, Bridgeville, Robinson and Crafton.

Another alternative was submitted in 1914 by City Engineer W. M. Donley, who proposed a deep cut through Mount Washington, eliminating the need for a tunnel altogether.

The "High" Tunnel Or The "Low" Tunnel

The South Hills Tunnel Association, comprised of residents from Brookline, Beechview, Fairhaven, Dormont, Baldwin and Mount Lebanon, wanted a tunnel that followed a low line and exited at Saw Mill Run near West Liberty Avenue. This was called the Bell Tavern plan, or the "low" tunnel. It was so named because of the proximity of the Bell House Tavern to the southern portal location.

The low tunnel proposal would allow access to the Saw Mill Run valley and the valley that extended southwestward to Dormont and Mount Lebanon, and had the support of the State Highway Commissioner, Edward M. Bigelow.

Mensinger's Stone Quarry - 1913.    West Liberty Avenue, looking north towards the
proposed location of the Liberty Tunnels - 1915.
Mensinger's Stone Quarry was located along the hillside near the junction of West Liberty Avenue and Warrington.
Shown to the left in 1913, this spot would be, in 1919, chosen as the location of the southern portals of the
South Hills tunnel. To the right is a 1915 view looking north along West Liberty towards the hillside.

The low tunnel proposal had the southern portals in there present-day location, and the northern portals positioned at East Carson Street and South First Street, and had no accomodations for a direct link to a Monongahela River bridge.

While South Hills residents and city planners debated on which tunnel proposal was best, the county itself began construction of a tunnel in the fall of 1915. Called the Neeld Tunnel, the plan was to run from East Carson and South Third streets to a southern portal sixty-seven feet below Warrington Avenue near Boggs Avenue.

County Highway Tunnel #1 - 1915
Work began on the Neeld Tunnel in July of 1915. Located just below Warrington Avenue, it was the first
attempt at building a vehicular tunnel connecting the South Hills area and downtown Pittsburgh.

Shortly after construction began, opponents filed a lawsuit which challenged the county's authority to build tunnels. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against the county and work was halted.

"The Saga Of Pittsburgh's Liberty Tubes"
Geographical Partisanship On The Urban Fringe
An Article on the Tunnel Debates - by Steven Hoffman

"Liberty Tunnels Site Chosen After Exhaustive Research"
The Gazette Times - May 24, 1919

Liberty Highway Tunnel and Bridge - 1919.

Eventually, after years of debate, in May 1919, the low tunnel proposal was adopted, with one change. The Allegheny County Commissioners ruled that the northern portal would be higher on the face of Mount Washington. It would link up with a proposed new bridge across the Monongahela River.

This solution would eliminate interference with existing traffic congestion on the busy East Carson Street. With the recent victory of World War I in mind, both the tunnels and the bridge would carry the same name, "Liberty."

The Liberty Tunnels future location - 1918.
The intersection of West Liberty Avenue and Warrington Avenue in 1918 before the Liberty Tunnels.

Ground-breaking For The Liberty Tunnels

Ground-breaking for the new tunnels was held on December 20, 1919. The celebration took place on the Southern end of the project, followed by victory dinner held at the Fort Pitt Hotel. Several dignitaries, including the Governor of Pennsylvania, were in attendance.

The Pittsburgh Press reported that "an immense crowd was present when County Commissioner Gumbert applied the electric spark that exploded a light charge of dynamite on the hillside through which the tunnel will be bored. A few minutes earlier the county commissioners, Gumbert, Harris and Myer and Controller Moore, had been presented with silver plated picks and shovels by George Flinn, of the firm that will build the tunnel."

Groundbreaking for the Liberty Tunnels.

"The entire ceremony was informal. The Almas Club of Dormont marched to the scene of the ground-breaking, the parade being augmented by delegations from Castle Shannon, Beechview, Brookline, Mount Lebanon, Fairhaven and Brookside," the Press reported. The estimated cost of the tunnels was $4,500,000. The contractor was Booth & Flinn, Ltd., the same firm that built the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel in 1904.

The Tunnel Bore

The second construction milestone in the life of the Liberty Tubes occured on April 9, 1920, when the boring process began. The operation was witnessed by a crowd of 100 persons, including county and city officials.

County Commissioner Addison C. Gumbert exploded the first charge. Fragments of rock were hurled in the direction of the crowd, which stood some 350 feet from the blast. Small chips of stone struck a couple of the onlookers, but no one was injured. Two succeeding charges were detonated by Gumbert and County Controller John P. Moore. The three explosions dislodged approximately ten tons or rock.

Beginning the Tunnel Bore - April 9, 1920.
The first official charge of dynamite in the actual boring of the tubes was detonated on April 9, 1920.

Construction work was halted in late-1920 due to an economic recession, then restarted in 1921. The revamped state of the economy actually saved the county a considerable sum on the original cost assessment. Work proceeded quickly, with the debris from the tunnel bores used in the creation of McKinley Park on Bausman Avenue.

Shaking Things Up

Throughout the daily, and nightly, tunnel boring process, there was considerable discomfort to local residents living near the construction zone, as reported in the Pittsburgh Daily Post on October 31, 1920 article entitled:

"Broken Dishes, Spoiled Cakes, Disturbed Sleep Only Few of Troubles of Housewives Living Near Mouth of New Tunnel; Blasting Cause".

Boring proceeds on the Liberty Tunnels in 1920.

"Their dishes are being broken suddenly and regularly; babies are awakened from their afternoon nap at the most inconvenient times; cakes in the process of baking are rendered soggy and unedible. Those are a few of the things that are said to be happening," the article stated.

"It's the blasting in the tunnel. Those mighty blasts, which are going off every hour or so, throughout the day, are shaking things up considerably in the neighborhood."

The housewives formally registered their complaints with the county commissioners, but since the tunnel could not be built without blasting, there was little that the commissioners or the contractor could do to remedy the situation.

Boring proceeds on the Liberty Tunnels in 1921.
The dirt from the dig was hauled to McKinley Park.
A working platform inside the tunnel for shoring up the sidewalls and ceiling. The rail cars were used to haul material.

Friendly Competition

Once work began in earnest, progress came quickly. Each tube is a separate bore (east and west), and they were drilled simultaneously from both the north and south ends, twenty-six feet apart. The crews for both the east and west bores worked in two 12-hour shifts, with each shift averaging ten feet per day. This was a stunning pace, no doubt encouraged by both pay incentives and friendly competition.

Pittsburgh Daily Post - April 25, 1921

Crewmen were payed eleven hours for nine linear feet in a day and twelve hours for ten, no matter how long it took. Crews worked hard to finish their day in good time. Also, above the entrance to each bore was a flag pole. There were two flags, one an American flag and one a black flag. Whichever shift finished the day first got to hang the American flag above their bore.

Streetcars Not Welcome

From the time the first stick of dynamite went off to build the Twin Tunnels, the Pittsburgh Railways Company began lobbying the County Commissioners for pass-through rights. Eager to relieve congestion at their South Hills Junction Complex, the transit firm wanted their streetcars to operate in the tunnels.

In January 1922 it looked like two of the three commissioners favored this option.

"They will have to show me that it will not be a good thing to run trolley cars through the Liberty Tunnel," said Chairman Gumbert. "It is a traffic tunnel, built for all kinds of traffic, and traffic of course includes street cars."

Engineer A. D. Neeld, on the other hand, citing future traffic projections declared that "the tunnel should be confined to foot and vehicular traffic and trolley cars should be barred."

The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported on February 24 that the people of Dormont, Mount Lebanon and Brookline, whose routes would be affected, had no interest in having streetcars in the tunnel. Burgess William Best presented the commissioners with a Dormont Council resolution opposing the proposal.

Politicians are much maligned and often for good reason. But sometimes they have great foresight. In what proved to be one of the smartest acts ever recorded on the public record, on March 6, 1922, the County Commissioners passed a resolution stating that "there shall be no street car franchises granted for use in the Liberty Tubes."

The Two Ends Meet

The boring of the 5889 foot tubes was completed on May 11, 1922 at 10:15am when County Commissioner James Houlahen closed the switch that exploded a charge of dynamite that blew away the final rock and earth that seperated the north and south bore of the western (outbound). tube.

Approximately 300 representatives of the county and city governments, civic organizations and others witnessed the ceremony. The party entered from the north end to a point about 500 feet from the portal opening, where a switch was mounted. When the switch was thrown a terrific explosion rent through the air, followed by a shower of rocks and debris. As the smoke cleared, streaks of daylight filtered through.

The tunnels on May 11, 1922.
Top - City and county officials at the northern entrance of the Liberty Tunnel awaiting the final blast
which opened the west tube. Bottom - Officials on arrival at the southern entrance of the tunnel.

The crowd climbed over rocks and construction materials to the center of the tube where platforms had been erected. Short addresses were made by Commissioner Houlahen, President Daniel Winters of city council, former County Commissioner Gilbert Myer and others.

A. D. Neeld, consulting engineer on the tunnel project, informed the crowd that the two ends of the eastern (inbound) tube were only 1,500 feet apart at that time, and it was expected to be opened within the next ninety days.

The tunnels on May 11, 1922.
Showing the hole made by the last blast seperating south and north openings of the west tube on March 11, 1922.
L to R: R.L. Lee, A.D. Neeld, James Houlahen, J.B. Snow, George H. Flinn and M.L. Quinn.

The Best Rock Tunnel

Tunnel engineers received a glowing review on their achievements to date when, on April 8, 1922, Clifford M. Holland, the chief engineer in charge of the New York-New Jersey tubes, and Robert Ridgeway, chief engineer of the traffic commission of New York, visited Pittsburgh to inspect the progress of the bore. They declared the design and construction to be the finest they had ever seen.

"Pittsburgh people have cause to congratulate themselves on this work," said Mr. Holland. "It is the best rock tunnel I have ever seen. I saw not a flaw in the work today, and the progress on construction is a world's record. I never before saw a tunnel driven where the excavation was in a complete section, as is this work. Usually a section is excavated at the top, then a second slice taken off, and sometimes the work progresses in three benches."

Ridgeway was also enthusiastic. "I look for flaws," he said, "but I confess I found none."

Boring proceeds on the Liberty Tunnels in 1921.
The dirt from the dig was hauled to McKinley Park.
Boring proceeds on the Liberty Tunnels in 1921, as seen from the South Portal entrance along West Liberty Avenue.
Note the flag poles above each tunnel entrance. The American Flag flutters over the east bore, indicating
that the men working the prior shift had finished their daily quota before those in the west bore.

"Structural Design And Ventilation Of Liberty Tunnels"
Engineering News-Record - Volume 85 - July 8, 1920

"Boring Liberty Tunnels At Pittsburgh"
Earth Mover - Volume 8 - March 1921

"Liberty Tunnels Construction, Pittsburgh"
Public Works - Volume 51 - July 23, 1921

Now the work of finishing the walls and installing the tunnel infrastructure began. It would take another year of back-breaking work before, in August of 1923, the paving of the concrete road surface was underway and the project nearing completion.

The tunnels in August 1923 during the
paving of the road surface.
The Southern Portals in August 1923 during the paving of the road surface.

Public Inspection

On September 8, the new tunnels were thrown open for public inspection. More than 100 persons took advantage of the opening to marvel at the twin tubes. County Commissioner Gumbert announced to the crowd that the tunnels would not be officially opened to traffic until March or April, pending the installation of the ventilating, lighting and cement facing, those items not yet finished.

At the time of the inspection, the tunnels were already well lighted and most of the cement work was dry. Those who made the tour went in the east tunnel and came back the west tube. A little dog that dashed into the east tunnel was the first to go through. Several boys followed the dog, running through the tunnel and back again.

The tunnels in August 1923 during the
paving of the road surface.
Dignitaries and local residents gathered on September 8, 1923 to inspect the Liberty Tunnels.

Unheeded Warnings

By New Years Day 1924, preparations for the grand opening of Pittsburgh's newest marvel were nearing completion. The only item not in service was the ventilation system, a component that had been held up due to unforeseen circumstances. The Pittsburgh Press reported on January 13 that preliminary air quality trials were performed with up to 200 cars sent through the tunnel without ventilation.

A. C. Fieldner, head of the United States Bureau of mines declared the result of the tests would determine whether the tunnel would be safe to open without the forced air ventilation operational. After the procession of vehicles had driven in one tube and out the other three times, the entrances were sealed and samples of air taken.

Bureau of Mines officials inspecting air quality inside the tunnel.
A.C. Fieldner of the Bureau of Mines (left), holding one of the canaries used in the testing,
while W .P. Yost and Dr. W. J. McConnell does a blood test on G. W. Jones.

Both tunnels were murky with the stagnant vehicle exhaust. Mr. Fieldner asserted a rough test that showed a strong presence of poison gas. He expressed the opinion that it would not be safe to linger in such a charged atmosphere for two hours and that it might not be safe to drive as few as 200 cars through before allowing the atmosphere to clear.

Cages containing canaries were distributed through the tunnels, and although the birds were not overcome, Mr. Fieldner said carbon monoxide might be discharged in such quantities that it would not be worth the expenditure in time and money to open the tubes until the ventilating system was functional.

The Grand Opening Of The Twin Tubes

In December 1923, the tunnels themselves had been completed for well over a month, but the opening delayed while work progressed on the air flow issues. Public sentiment favored opening the tube to traffic immediately. Even engineer Clifford Holland chimed in, expressing shock at the delay in opening the tunnels.

With months remaining before the ventilation system would be operational, the County gave in to the increasing pressure and, despite all warnings, opened the Liberty Tunnels for the first time to all-day traffic on January 30, 1924.

The decision was greeted with enthusiastic fanfare by the public. Strictly enforced speed restrictions were placed on motorists in an effort to keep the toxic fumes to a minimum and air quality tests were done hourly.

Freehold Real Estate Advertisement touting
the Bungalow Life in Brookline - 1924.
A Freehold Real Estate advertisement from 1924.

Considered an engineering marvel, in 1924 the twin tubes were the longest automobile tunnels in the world, holding that distinction until the opening of New York's Holland Tunnel in 1927. In addition to motorized transportation, horse-drawn wagons were permitted to use the tunnels (a practice that continued until 1933), and a well-trodden pedestrian walkway was present in each tube.

The total cost of the project was $5,994,642.83 to be exact, which was approximately $1.5 million over the original estimate. Despite the added cost, the economic benefit to the city, county and the entire South Hills would more than make up for the expense.

Because of the Twin Tubes, real estate sales and housing development in the southern communities entered a another boom phase. The population of Brookline, Dormont and Beechview more than doubled as a result. Mount Lebanon saw a 500% population increase! Three farms in Brookline that were appraised at $68,000 in 1920 saw their property valuation increase to $1.3 million.

Carbon Monoxide Crisis

For nearly four months the tunnels functioned, with a measure of good luck, according to plan while officials waited eagerly for the stalled installation of the ventilation system.

Unfortunately, while jurisdictional strikes and other issues delayed implementation of the vital forced air flow, that luck ran out. On a sunny morning in May, the proper combination of events led to the crisis that Dr. Fieldner from the Bureau of Mines had warned of.

Carbon Monoxide Crisis - May 1924
The north tunnel entrance after all motorists had been rescued. The large picture on the left is C. H. Hooker of
the police force who bravery was outstanding. Patrolman Thomas Morrison, the large picture on the right,
also distinguished himself. A view of the streetcar tunnel, which was opened to the public for
pedestrian traffic, including the gentleman on the far left. The picture at right
center is Motorcycle Patrolman Louis Keebler, after being resusitated.

On May 10, 1924, there was a mass-transit strike that idled the Pittsburgh Railways streetcar service. Thousands of commuters who normally took the trolley to work turned to their automobiles to make the commute, resulting in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams all around the city.

During the morning rush hour, cars backed up inside the tubes from one end to the other, and soon traffic came to a halt. While vehicles idled inside the tunnels, many motorists helplessly began to succumb to the dangerous buildup of carbon monoxide gas and literally passed out at the wheel of their cars.

Carbon Monoxide Crisis - May 1924

The quick reaction of the city police and firemen prevented any fatalities, but several people were overcome with fumes, treated and taken to the hospital. The crisis was real and the results caused an immediate and overwhelming urgency in ventilating the tubes by the quickest means available. Differences were put aside and contractors got to work right away on a solution.

"Courage, Cool Courage, Looms Large As Day's
Crisis Reveals Unsung Heroes"

Pittsburgh Press - May 10, 1924

Carbon Monoxide Crisis - May 1924

The Ventilation System

Until a solution could be found, the city began counting vehicles and tunnel use was restricted. The lack of a proper ventilation system was an unheeded concern, one that should have been averted except for labor difficulties and the unexpected presence of abandoned mine workings deep underground that required special considerations.

Liberty Tunnels ventilation shaft work - April 1923.
On April 23, 1923, work was progressing nicely with the ventilation system. The picture on the left shows the
eastern shaft which was nearing completion. The other shows two workmen entering the shaft vias a bucket.

Work had begun in early 1923 on drilling the ventilation shafts from points atop Mount Washington directly above each tube. Work was progressing nicely in April 1923, but was soon halted when the undocumented mines were encountered 150 feet below the surface.

Engineers worked with the U.S Bureau of Mines to overcome those difficulties, but the solution took time to create and implement. When completed the ventilation system consisted of two pairs of specially designed concrete and steel reinforced 192-foot vertical shafts.

The intake vent in the center of the tubes.    The exhaust vent in the center of the tubes.
Ventilation intake and exhaust shafts were installed near the center of each tube.

The dual shafts continuously pumped fresh air into the center of the tunnels while simultaneously pumping air out from a mechanical plant located on Mount Washington, creating a directional air flow in each tube. Each of the massive fan units consists of a multi-blade wheel 115 inches in diameter by 54 inches long. Electric power was provided by two 11,000 volt supply lines.

Liberty Tunnels ventilation shaft work - Dec 1923.
Progress as of December 11, 1923 on the building that would house the ventilation system and control center.

The air flowed with the direction of traffic. At the exit of each tube, a pergola-like windbreak above the portal prevents cross-currents of outside air from obstructing the air flow leaving the tunnel. The ventilation shafts were operational by August, and after a month's trial period, on September 1, 1924, traffic restrictions were eliminated.

The Tunnel Ventilation Power Plant
located atop Mount Washington.
Ventilation for the LibertyTunnels is provided by this power plant, located atop Mount Washington along Secane
Avenue. The plant, opened in 1924, can push 1,100,000 cubic feet of air per minute through the tunnels.

"Exhaust-And-Supply Ventilation Of A Long Street Tunnel"
Engineering News-Record - Volume 94 - 1925

Tunnel Walkers

Pittsburgh's revolutionary tunnel ventilation system worked fine for automobile traffic and the occupant's of those vehicles who, for the most part, were not confined inside the tunnels for long periods of time. It did not, however, have the same positive effect for pedestrians walking the entire length of the dark, dank tunnel.

On October 17, 1926, Miss Aileen McLaughlin, aged 17, of 2815 Kenilworth Avenue in Brookline, was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while walking through the southbound Liberty tube and collapsed on the walkway.

Passing motorist W.C. Burkin, of 6618 Bethel Place, saw her fall and stopped his vehicle. Burkin helped Miss McLaughlin into his vehicle and transported her to Mercy Hospital, where she recovered after a short stay in the emergency room.

Policemen on duty at the tunnel, when asked about tunnel-walkers, said that approximately fifty people walk through the tunnels on a daily basis. For these people, the risk of carbon monoxide exposure was a real concern, but luckily there were only a few incidents like Miss McLaughlin over the years.

The Liberty Tunnels, North Portal - 1925
The northern end of the tubes in 1925. Bridge work was beginning and soon McArdle Roadway construction would start.
When the intersection was completed in 1928, a traffic circle was installed to facilitate the four-way flow of traffic.
Imagine the effort Miss Aileen McLaughlin made along Carson Street and Brownsville Road just to get to this point.
Now she must walk the 1.12 miles through the tunnel to West Liberty Avenue, through the heat and fumes.
This might have been a daily thing for the young lady, trudging home through the dungeon.

Constant Monitoring

High atop Mount Washington, in the ventilation building, was a finely tuned instrument that kept a constant check on the amount of carbon monoxide in the Liberty Tunnels. The device was a carbon monoxide recorder that calibrated minutely the amount of the deadly, odorless, colorless and tasteless gas in the tubes.

It was wired to an alarm system which flashed on a yellow light and sounded a buzzer when the fumes became even the slightest bit heavy. A red light signalled when the amount of gas reached a critical level. The ultra-sensitive equipment was kept in an air-tight glass cage.

Most of the time, the reading was around one unit in 10,000 units of air. At 3:15pm on November 23, 1935, the gas had reached 1.63 units. Two hours later, when the evening peak traffic was on, it had jumped to six units and the buzzer was sounding. This lasted less than five minutes, as the equipment monitor also controlled the amount of airflow being pumped from the ventilation building down into the tubes.

Air quality monitoring in the Liberty Tubes - 1935.
Thomas W. Moran monitors the carbon monoxide detection equipment, the mainspring of the ventilation system in the
Liberty Tunnels. The graph to the right shows the varying amount of the deadly gas present in the each tube.

Six units of monoxide can make a person nauseous. Ten parts can make a person sick to the stomach. Twenty will make someone very sick. A couple breaths of 200 units in 10,000 is all it takes to kill.

The July 24, 1953, Pittsburgh Press ran an article reporting that during rush hour the readings were a bit over five parts per 10,000, which were hazardous and causing concern. Also discussed was the cumulative effect of the carbon monoxide fumes on the traffic cops that stood at the exit and entrance for hours at a time. It was agreed that the officers were in harms way, not only from the onrushing traffic, but from the air they breathed.

Smoke Emergencies

As if vehicle exhaust did not create enough smoke, on June 15, 1967, the Pittsburgh Press reported on a fire outside the ventilation building that burned through the double doors and sent a long stream of murky smoke through the fresh air vents down into the southbound tube. The situation was brought under control within a short time, but it took some time to clear the tunnel of the thick, dark smoke.

Then, ten days later, memories of the May 1924 carbon monoxide crisis were revisited when a three-car accident stalled 500 cars, trucks and buses in the southbound tube. During the 45-minute delay, a number of motorists became sick from exhaust fumes.

Two county policemen attending the accident were also overwhelmed. The officers, Andrew Hungerman and Daniel Brady, and others who had taken ill were sent to Mercy Hospital. A detector malfunction was blamed for the failure of the ventilation system to disperse the smoke. Partial blame was also placed on motorists who left their vehicles running during the lengthy delay.

Despite ongoing efforts over the years to remedy the problem with the toxic fumes, the problem has never really solved. As the amount of thru-traffic continues to increase, new calls go out every few years to address the issue. This pattern has persisted to this day.

Ambulance Escorts

If an ambulance was headed towards the tunnels from either north or south, a call would go into the police office in the tunnel and the officers would spring into action. One would barricade the left lane in either the east or west tunnel and a motorcycle officer would stand ready to provide an escort through the tunnel and on to the destination hospital.

Police stand at the ready for ambulatory emergencies - 1952.
Officer R.L. Carr waits for an incoming ambulance while Officer Joe Sarachman mans a barricade on August 16, 1952.

A Dangerous Intersection

Another problem that became evident just a short time after the original opening of the Liberty Tunnels was the increasing traffic congestion at the intersection of Saw Mill Run and West Liberty Avenues. The resulting number of accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians was alarming.

The Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1932.    The Northern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels
and the traffic circle in November 1932.
Vehicles pass at the South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels (left) in 1932, before the installation of traffic signals.
The sign on the tunnel reads "R - U - A Safe Driver?" To the right is a view of the North Portals,
in November 1932, with a similar sign posted that reads "We're Here For Safety."
The traffic circle outside the North Portals was condensed in 1933
and then it was finally removed altogether in the 1940s.

In 1930, the busy crossroads was identified in a Pittsburgh Press feature documentary as one of the city's ten deadliest traffic locations. By 1932 there were 25,000 vehicles using the tunnels each day, already exceeding the designed capacity. By the end of the 20th century that number had more than tripled, to nearly 80,000.

Traffic management was also a big issue that needed to be addressed. At the time, there were no traffic signals at either end of the tunnels. Furthermore, the traffic pattern inside the tunnels themselves was a nightmare, exacerbating the conditions outside. In the dimly lit tubes, vehicles could change lanes at will, large trucks could drive in the center, and horse-drawn wagons were still allowed to pass through.

The Liberty Bridge in 1940.
The traffic circle at the tunnel entrance was condensed in 1933 and removed altogether in the 1940s.

Compounding the issue on the northern end of the tunnels was the traffic circle at the intersection of the tunnel portals and Mount Washington (McArdle) Roadway. By 1930 the circle had become a serious impediment to the traffic flow and a serious safety issue.

Finally, in 1933, the circle was condensed to a point that tunnel traffic had a straight approach onto the bridge and county policeman were positioned at the crossroads to direct traffic. In time, traffic lights were installed outside the portals. The circle and "Liberty" monument were removed altogether in the 1940s.

Installing traffic light at southern
 interchange - September 1937.    The traffic light at southern interchange - December 1941.
This traffic signal (left) was installed at the southern end of the tunnels as an experiment on September 1, 1937.
The light was made permanent shortly after, and later a small shed was built to house a traffic officer.
This is the shed on December 2, 1941, after it was knocked over by an errant motorist.

Another improvement was adding two additional lanes, for the left turn onto Saw Mill Run Boulevard, at the south plaza. Change came slowly, and it was until the late-1930s that most of these problems properly addressed, and even then, driving conditions both inside the dark, hazy tunnels and outside at the often congested southern and northern intersections remained a problem for years to come.

View south from the south portals in 1954.
A view to the south from atop the South Portals on May 16, 1954. The "No Left Turn" notation was a
reminder that left turns into the tunnels from Saw Mill Run Boulevard were now prohibited.

Despite two-plus decades worth of efforts at correcting the status of the southern intersection, the March 19, 1956, Pittsburgh Press identified the Saw Mill Run/West Liberty intersection as the #1 most dangerous intersection (out of a field of forty-seven), with a total of ninety-nine accidents in 1955.

War Rationing Brings Other Challenges

Flat tires were also a concern inside the tunnels, especially during World War II when rubber was a military necessity and new tires were not available. The stalled vehicles caused traffic to back up and the vehicles themselves were difficult to remove. Motorists often had to drive out of the tube on the flattened tire, with the metal rim tearing the tire to shreds.

Testing new 'jack on wheels' - August 1943.
Property and Supplies Director Harry Aufderheide and Police Sergeant Ernest Andrew
are shown testing one of the new "jack on wheels" on August 26, 1943.

In 1943, an average of three vehicles a day were getting flat tires while driving through the tubes. To assist with that problem, the county purchased three "jacks on wheels," metal cradles with wheels. A flat tire was lowered into the cradle and the owner could then drive out of the tunnel without doing further damage to the tire.

Liberty Tubes - A Toll Tunnel?

On July 7, 1934 an article ran in the Pittsburgh Press discussing the pros and cons of Allegheny County charging a toll (five cents) for South Hills motorists to use the Liberty Tunnels. The purpose of this toll was to pay for the many road projects scheduled to occur in the Pittsburgh and the South Hills. Saw Mill Run Boulevard had recently been completed and there were projects proposed to build the West End Bypass and the Fort Duquesne Tunnel and Bridge, connecting the Banksville Traffic Circle with downtown Pittsburgh.

The debate lasted for two years, and caused quite a political divide among city and county officials, not to mention concerned residents of the South Hills. Many feared that this toll would isolate the area, and force motorists to bypass the tunnel altogether for alternate paths over Mount Washington, further increasing traffic congestion.

Another objection was that this would set a precedent, allowing the imposing tolls on other bridges in and out of downtown to raise funds. This in turn would isolate downtown itself and cause an economic decline in the heart of Pittsburgh.

Meetings called by the Brookline Board of Trade in late-1933 and early-1934, held at Brookline School, brought concerned citizens from the South Hills together to protest the plan. Similar meetings were held in Dormont, Overbrook, Beechview and Mount Lebanon. South Hills residents drafted several resolutions to city and county officials condemning the proposal.

Meeting to protest assessing tolls in tunnel - June 1934.
Concerned citizens gather at Hillsdale School in Dormont to protest the county's toll proposal. The residents formed
an organization to fight the tolls at "any cost." The group even drafted correspondence to President Roosevelt.

Although the County Commissioners were in favor of the project and ready to begin putting the plan into effect, and City Council voted to support the measure, Mayor John S. Herron vetoed their bill. The council did not have enough votes to override. This development left the County Commissioners in a bind.

When the county indicated that they were prepared to install toll booths in the southern approach to the tunnels, the city threatened to station police officers on site to allow motorists to pass without paying the charge.

In July 1935, some interesting statistics were presented regarding the effect of the Liberty Tunnels on the South Hills and the associated increase in tax revenue collected by the county. In 1915, before the tubes were built, the assessed valuation of property in Dormont was $4,269,610 compared to $17,241,820 in 1935. Valuations in Mount Lebanon went from $3,65,610 to $28,456,400. Other communities had similar increases, meaning that the county has already benefited substantially from the tunnels.

Finally, in November 1935, after further political wrangling and intervention from the federal government opposing the plan, the toll proposal was dropped, and funding for the continuing expansion of the road network in the South Hills came from other sources, some of which would consist of federal grants. It would be twenty-some years before motorists saw the completion of the West End Bypass and the building of the new tunnel and bridge to downtown, by then renamed the Fort Pitt Tunnel and the Fort Pitt Bridge.

Here We Go Again

The toll debate was briefly revisited in 1978 when Councilwoman Michelle Madoff proposed a ten cent toll for all commuters from the southern suburbs (non-city residents) using the Liberty Tunnels and Bridge to enter downtown Pittsburgh. City residents would be issued a free pass. The proceeds would be used for bridge and tunnel maintenance. The measure was soundly defeated.

The Tunnel Jail

On March 23, 1975, the Pittsburgh Press reported that back in March 1938, the County, which owned and operated the tubes, installed a jail cell in the county police office at the northern end. It was to "house any violators caught in the tubes, or escaping over the Liberty Bridge, until a patrol wagon could be sent to cart them off to jail."

Jail cell in the Liberty Tunnels - 1938.

Before that, county police had to leave their post and take a prisoner to a police station or guard him in a closed office. It is not known exactly how long the jail cell was in use, but it was reportedly removed when the state took over the tubes in 1962.

Liberty Tunnels Improvements - 1938/1965

The tunnels received their first maintenance improvements beginning on July 25, 1938. Repair work included paving, sewer overhaul, fixing numerous cracks in the walls and ceiling, water-proofing and painting. New sodium lights would be installed along with reflective porcelain tile along the walls to increase illumination inside the dark tunnel.

Liberty Tunnels detours in 1939.
Detours were posted for South Hills motorists during the 1938 southbound tunnel closure.

The sodium lights were so bright that for the first time since the opening of the tubes in 1924, the "Lights On" requirement was removed. The thirteen month project was completed on August 28, 1939.

In another first for Pittsburgh and the Liberty Tunnels, temporary antennas were installed in 1939 to provide AM radio reception. Three aerials, all originating from the ventilator building on Mount Washington and strung down the air shafts, were installed in each tube. One was located along the ceiling and one along the top of each tile wall.

Liberty Tunnels lighting in 1940.
The inbound tube on January 4, 1940, brightly lit with sodium lighting and white porcelain tile walls.

Radio reception inside the tunnel was something radio engineers considered impossible due to the grounding of so many tons of steel. However, with the cooperation of KDKA radio engineers, the experiment was a success. County electrical engineers ironed out the kinks in the system and gradually improved the quality of the reception.

Finally, in April 1941, intensifier amplifiers were installed at the base of the aerials, where they emerged from the air shafts. This increased and clarified reception to a degree where even radio signals from a considerable distance away from Pittsburgh were picked up. This was a relief for motorists caught inching along slowly during the long rush hour traffic jams who relied on KDKA radio, or other station, for the latest news.

The Liberty Tunnels in 1965.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels on June 6, 1965. The inbound tube was closed due a four-month
tunnel rehabilitation project. It would be a decade before the tunnel got a proper facelift.

Another round of upgrades were performed in 1965, three years after the state assumed responsibility for the tunnels. Twenty-five years had passed since the last renovation, and much had changed. The roadway was now rutted in from end-to-end, the lighting system was failing and the overall condition of the tunnels was poor. It had become so dark inside the tunnels that the "headlights on" requirement was back in force.

The Liberty Tunnels in 1963 - Headlights On.

Former Pittsburgher Louis Primavera, in town visiting from Brooklyn NY, had a gripe for the state. "During my stay I had occasion to drive almost every day along Route 51 to the University of Pittsburgh ... The gripe is about the Liberty Tunnels."

Primavera continued, "The State of Pennsylvania should be ashamed to keep those vital tunnels in such miserable conditions! Don't you people believe in light, air and a safe pavement? The first day I drove through them I really thought there was something wrong with the steering wheel of my car."

Press editorial cartoon - September 28, 1964.    Press editorial cartoon - June 29, 1967.

Originally slated to be a comprehensive $8.5 million renovation, the project was scaled back considerably. An emergency $1.6 million upgrade included road resurfacing, overhaul of the drainage, electrical, lighting and ventilation systems, and limited structural repairs inside the aging tubes.

In the fifty years following their dedication, these were the only real maintenance projects and upgrades performed on the Liberty Tunnels. By the early-1970s the tubes were basically the same as originally designed, and in real need of comprehensive structural and cosmetic rehabilitation.

The Ever-Evolving View of Pittsburgh

Much ado is made of the spectacular visual display of Pittsburgh when a motorist exits the Fort Pitt Tunnels and the majestic skyline of Pittsburgh and the beauty of the three rivers instantly come into view.

The same can be said, just not on such a monumental scale, for the view one gets when exiting the Liberty Tunnels. Over the years, the optics have changed as the skyline has evolved, but the feeling of wonder is always the same. Downtown Pittsburgh is a beautiful sight no matter what entranceway one chooses.

Motorist view exiting the North Portal with
City of Pittsburgh in background - 1960    Motorist view exiting the North Portal with
City of Pittsburgh in background - 1974
A motorist's view in 1960 (left) and in 1974 (right) as they exited the inbound North Portal heading into Pittsburgh.

The Third Tube

In 1962, the South Hills Committee for Improved Highways was formed. There was much talk of building a $104 million South Hills Expressway, a six lane highway from the Liberty Tunnels to the Washington County line. The expressway would roughly follow the present Route 51 to Route 88, then cut through Whitehall and South Park.

The South Hills Expressway - 1966.

A part of the proposal was the widening of the Liberty Bridge to six lanes and the boring of a third tunnel next to the existing Liberty Tunnels, thus creating triplets as far as the tubes were concerned. The chairman of the South Hills group declared that the expansion of the bridge and tunnel were essential to the project.

Like so many other ideas that reached the planning stages and gathered momentum along the way, the ambitious South Hills Expressway project was cancelled, along with the corresponding expansion of the bridge and tunnel. Lack of funding and strong opposition from Whitehall residents doomed the initiative.

A Complete Tunnel Overhaul - 1974/1977

In December 1974, Trumbull Corporation launched a long overdue $7.2 million renovation of the rapidly deteriorating Twin Tubes. State Transportation Secretary Jacob G. Kassab labeled the 49-year old tunnel a "dungeon" and personally led the effort to bring this project from the planning stages to implementation.

Renovations included a new road bed, installation of 3000 flourescent light fixtures, 44,000 feet of conduit, 454,000 feet of electrical wiring and new antenna cables for better AM Radio reception. The long abandoned walkways were removed to enlarge the traffic lanes.

Work began in January 1975. The outbound tube was closed first, with bi-directional traffic routed through the inbound side. On December 19, 1975, the outbound side was opened to traffic. After the holiday season ended, the inbound side was closed, with the bi-directional traffic flow on the outbound side.

Inside the Liberty Tunnels - 1973.    Inside the Liberty Tunnels - 1973.
A large hole in the crumbling tile walls (left) and broken sections of the railing along the walkway in October 1973.
Dirt and grime along the walkway had built up to a depth of over four inches on long stretches of the walkway.
Another structural problem was falling chunks of the ceiling, which had damaged a number of vehicles.

On the inside, the old tile walls were taken down and years of dirt and grime were removed from the inside. The condition of the concrete walls under the tile was bad, necessitating a near complete resurfacing. They were then covered in an epoxy to increase brightness. Also installed were 17,000 feet of specially fabricated ceiling drains.

The outside facades of both portals were also completely remodeled. The deteriorating concrete surface was covered in both brown brick and COR-TEN steel siding, giving the tunnels what designers considered a distinctive "Rust Belt" look.

The Northern Portal in December 1975.
Leaving town, bi-directional traffic at the inbound tube in December 1975. The outbound portal is blocked off.

Working near the south portals in the Liberty Tunnels - 1975.    Construction inside the Liberty Tunnels - 1975.
Concrete work near the southern portal in December 1975.

Concrete work inside Liberty Tunnels - 1975.    Concrete work inside Liberty Tunnels - 1975.
Concrete work inside the Liberty Tunnels in 1975.

In anticipation of the increased vehicle flow and traffic congestion during rush hours in the restricted tubes, engineers installed a large fan near the portal entrance to facilitate additional air flow through the operational tube.

The ventilation system caused a lower height restriction for vehicles entering the tunnel. Despite posted signs warning of the new restrictions, truckers often wedged their rigs in the tunnel under the steel I-beams supporting the auxiliary vent ducts. PennDot crews had to deflate the tires and push the trucks out, blocking traffic for hours on occasions.

Working near the north portals in the Liberty Tunnels - 1975.    Installing additional ventilation system - 1975.
Working near the north portals (left) and installing the additional ventilation system in 1975.

Installing drain pipes in Liberty Tunnels - 1975.    Construction inside the Liberty Tunnels - 1976.
Workers installing drain pipes (left) in March 1975 and concrete work at the northern portal in September 1976.

Outbound Tube opens on December 19, 1975.
The outbound tube was completed and opened to traffic on December 19, 1975.

Another issue occurred on January 17, 1975, when memories of the May 1924 Carbon Monoxide Crisis were again revisited. On this day police were forced to close the tunnels for a short time when the auxiliary fan malfunctioned and carbon monoxide levels reached dangerous levels.

After two years of traffic restrictions, work was completed in February 1977. By that time the cost had risen to $10 million due to the unexpected degree of damage to the interior walls. These were the last major repairs done for the next three decades.

Southbound portals with COR-TEN finish.
The COR-TEN siding and brown brick facade on the Southern Portals gave them a distinct Rust Belt look.

Project Included Removing Nearby Blight

Another improvement made during the tunnel rehabilitation project was the clearing of the area near the Southern Portals once occupied by "John's Lumber Company." The abandoned building and was destroyed on November 23, 1973 in a four-alarm fire and had been sitting in its charred state ever since.

The southern portals in 1974.    The southern portals in 1974.
John's Lumber Company goes up in flames (left) on November 23, 1973. The Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels
stand in the background of a March 1974 image showing the burnt remains of the lumber yard.

The city purchased the former lumber yard and the adjacent used car lot. The improvement of this parcel of land was added to the reconstruction effort. By the time the tunnel project was completed in 1977, the land had been cleared, but not landscaped, a temporary removal of the blight that had become an eyesore to South Hills residents.

Unfortunately, the effort ended there, and within a couple years the area once again had that all too familiar urban blight look. The city rented the land to an auto repairman, who began storing salvaged vehicles there. An abandoned flat-bed trailer and an old school bus found there way onto the property, along with a myriad selection of garbage.

Garbage near Liberty Tunnels - May 7, 1981.
An abandoned flat-bed trailer and other items of garbage sit on the land next to the Liberty Tunnels.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the condition of the area was properly addressed. The land was again cleared and, this time, landscaped with a donation from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

PAT South Busway - 1977

One effort at relieving traffic congestion at the southern end of the tunnels was the PAT South Busway proposal. In the late-1960s and early-1970s Allegheny County was experimenting with a new mass transit system called Skybus. It would replace most streetcar and bus routes with a revolutionary unmanned people mover.

Opponents of the Skybus system proposed retaining the Port Authority bus fleet and moving traffic off the main roads onto dedicated busways and creating a network of bus lanes downtown. One such busway would be constructed in the South Hills, between the South Hills Junction and Glenbury Street in Overbrook.

Map of proposed South Busway - 1971.
This graphic showing the path of the proposed South Busway appeared on October 15, 1971.

The Skybus system was eventually scrapped and the busway proposals accepted. The South Busway went into operation in 1977. It removed 95% of the bus traffic that traveled through the southern interchange and into the tunnel.

This had a positive effect on lessening the amount of traffic using the tunnels. However, considering the overall amount of car and trucks still passing through the tubes this was only one piece in an overall restructuring of the intersection.

The South Interchange - 1996/1999

Beginning in the 1930s, a number of proposals were introduced to modernize the four-way intersection at the corner of West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run Boulevard to better facilitated the numerous traffic patterns at the crowded intersection

The streetcar tracks were diverted to the Palm Garden Tressel in 1939 and PAT bus traffic was diverted onto the South Busway in 1978. Although helpful, these improvements did little to address the ever-increasing flow of automobile traffic.

The Liberty Tunnels Interchange - 2004.
The Liberty Tunnels Interchange, shown in 2004, was a major transporation improvement for South Hills residents.

Not until 1996 was the problem addressed. At this time the intersection was used by 140,000 commuters daily. With the pending reconstruction of the Fort Pitt Tunnels scheduled to begin in 2000, and the expected increase of traffic through the Saw Mill Run Corridor due to detours, the state finally acted on the issue.

Michael Baker Corp. was awarded a $40 million contract to design and build a new interchange. The ambitious project was completed in just three years. The design involved several components, including seven intersecting streets, 3,500 feet of connector roads, two bridges, two box culverts, five retaining walls, drainage, lighting, signing and five signalized intersections. In addition, PennDot had the roadbed inside the tunnels replaced before the project began.

North Portal - 2010    South Portal - 2010
Photos from 2010 showing both the Southern Portals (left) and the Northern Portals.

"Gateway To Suburbia"
Michael Baker Jr. Inc. recounts its experience designing the multiple award-winning
Liberty Tunnels Interchange, and how software contributed to its success.

The Liberty Tunnels Interchange was officially dedicated on November 19, 1999. The results were stunning, and traffic flow through the intersection was dramatically improved.To the delight of South Hills residents who used the Tubes for their morning and afternoon commute, what was once a dreaded snarl of rush hour traffic became a simple one or two light delay.

In addition to the new southern interchange, engineers made improvements to the tunnels themselves, installing a cement roadbed with reflective barriers on the sides, and repainting the walls. The smooth roadway, and the ease of travel created by the modern interchange were huge upgrades in convenience for South Hills travelers.

Brookline Aerial View - December 2014
The Liberty Tunnels South Interchange in December 2014.

Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2008/2014

In 2008 work began on a comprehensive, $18.8 million overhaul of both the interior and exterior of the tunnels. The facades of the southern and northern portals underwent a complete facelift.

The rustic outer brick facing was torn down, exposing the original concrete exterior. Once the deteriorating concrete was removed and shored up, decorative panels were installed that resembled the tunnel's original appearance.

Liberty Tunnels New South Portal Design - 2014.
A 2008 artist's rendering of what the new portals will look like after the reconstruction was completed in 2014.

In addition to the exterior work, extensive repairs was done to the interior of the tubes. Cracks on the inner walls were repaired, cross-sections renovated and the walls thoroughly cleaned and repainted. Modern electrical lighting and safety systems were installed. The prime contractor was Swank Construction Company.

Construction work was completed in the early fall of 2014. For motorists in the South Hills and the City of Pittsburgh, it was a fine day indeed. A historic landmark had been completely refurbished and returned to it's original luster.

Liberty Tunnels South Portal - 2014.
The completed Southern Portal entrance in 2014.

Additional Tunnel Improvements - 2017/2018

In addition to the tunnel project, PennDot also contracted Gulisek Construction to perform a $4.32 million improvement project on the Liberty Tunnels South Interchange. The project ran from March to July 2017, and included concrete patching, an asphalt overlay, bridge preservation, drainage improvements, ADA curb cut ramp installation, signage and signal upgrades, ramp reconstruction, and other miscellaneous construction activities at the Route 51 (Saw Mill Run Boulevard) and Route 19 (West Liberty Avenue) interchange.

The final phase of the Liberty Tunnel rehabilitation project was put off until July 2017. The two year, $30.27 million project was completed in December 2018. It included paving inside the tunnel, upgrading the air monitoring and fire suppression system, and repairs to the roof and retaining wall. The ventilation system was also overhauled.

The Liberty Tunnels Interchange - December 2014.
An aerial view of the southern tunnel interchange taken in December 2014. Approaching 100 years of age,
the Liberty Tunnels remain one of the primary gateways to the South Hills.

The Liberty Tunnels brought growth and prosperity to the South Hills in the 1920s. Nearly a century later, the iconic twin tubes are still the primary "Gateway to Suburbia" for the residents of Brookline and the nearby South Hills communities, and in condition to continue that role for years to come.

Photos Of The Liberty Tunnels

Click on images for larger pictures

♦ Before The Liberty Tunnels
♦ Constructing the South Portals
♦ Constructing the North Portals
♦ Boring The Twin Tubes
♦ The Southern Portals
♦ The Northern Portals
♦ Carbon Monoxide Crisis

Liberty Tunnels Ventilation ♦ Portal Interchange Proposals ♦
Southern Portal Interchange ♦
Tunnel Reconstruction (2011) ♦
Vintage Tunnel Postcards ♦
Holiday Traffic Nightmares ♦
Traffic Officer Pete Janus ♦

♦ Additional Related Links ♦

South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in June 2019.
The Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels and downtown Pittsburgh beyond Mount Washington in June 2019.

Before the Liberty Tunnels - 1915

Workers laying a sewer line at the end
of West Liberty Avenue - May 1915.    West Liberty Avenue approaching
Warrington Avenue in July 1915.
Workers installing a new sewer line along West Liberty Avenue (left) in May 1915 near the base of Mount
Washington. A stone quarry stands along the hillside where the Liberty Tunnels southern portals
would soon be constructed. The photo on the right shows a view looking north along
West Liberty Avenue towards the Mount Washington hillside in July 1915.


West Liberty Avenue approaching
Warrington Avenue in October 1915.    West Liberty Avenue approaching
Warrington Avenue in December 1915.
West Liberty Avenue, looking north from Pioneer Avenue toward the intersection with
Warrington Avenue in October 1915 (left) and again in December 1915.

Constructing the South Portals

Clearing The Hillside - 1920

Constructing the South End


Constructing the South Portals    Constructing the South Portals

Boring The Tubes - 1921

Constructing the South Portals - July 23, 1921    Constructing the South Portals


Boring the Southern Portals


Brady Stewart Gallery Photo    Brady Stewart Gallery Photo

Dumping The Excavated Debris

Constructing the Southern Portals.
A narrow gauge locomotive, formerly of the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad, preparing to move a
rail cars loaded with debris from the tunnel excavation to the landfill area along Bausman Street.


Dumping debris in McKinley Park - 1921
A train of Western four-yard dump cars discharging a load of debris along Bausman Street from the tunnel dig.
It was this landfill that helped create the roadbed and the tiered plateaus that define lower McKinley Park.


Constructing the Southern Portals - 1923.
Rail cars loaded with debris from the inbound tube will be hauled to Bausman Street for dumping. At the time
this photo was taken, July 15, 1923, much of the construction work was completed and the county began
the process of tearing down five frame structures that stood in the way of the tunnel approaches.

Constructing the North Portals

Constructing the North End    Constructing the North End


Constructing the North Portals.


Constructing the North End
The north end on July 15, 1923, showing the retaining wall above the entrance nearly completed.


Constructing the North End
The Northern Portals stand ready for traffic on December 30, 1923. The tunnels were scheduled to open in a
couple weeks after air testing was completed. Note all traffic turns towards Arlington Avenue, then still
called Brownsville Road, due to the absence of the Liberty Bridge, whose construction had just begun.

Boring The Twin Tubes (1919-1922)

Some design specs for the Liberty Tunnels.


Plan of drill holes for tunnel excavation.
A plan of the drilling holes that was used during the tunnel excavation.


Construction Workers inside the tunnel bore - April 1921.
Construction workers inside the tunnel bore in April 1921.


Construction Workers and a Crane inside the tunnel bore - 1921.
Construction workers and a crane inside the tunnel bore in April 1921.


Construction inside the Liberty Tunnels - 1921    Construction inside the Liberty Tunnels - 1921
Sidewalls, forms and traveling incline (left) for concrete rail cars; Erecting steel forms for arch concrete.


The Steel
 Ribbing lining the inside of the Liberty Tunnels
The structural steel ribbing placed inside the tunnels was spaced at different intervals to account for varying environmental conditions. The use of steel H-beams reduced the amount of timber used during construction.


Motorists travel through the Liberty Tunnels. The
ventilation shafts are visible mid-way through the tunnels.
Inbound motorists travel through the tunnel. Ventilation shafts are visible at the mid-way point.

The South Hills Twin Tubes

The Liberty Tunnels in 1924.
Traffic at the Southern Portals was sparse on this day in March 1924.


West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run Boulevard
at the intersection with the Liberty Tunnels.
The southern portals of the Liberty Tunnels, at the intersection of West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run
Boulevard, in 1930. This crossroads was deemed one of the
ten deadliest traffic locations in the City
of Pittsburgh by the Bureau of Traffic Planning. This was a time when increasing automobile,
street car and pedestrian traffic combined to create a lethal mix, and fatal accidents
were becoming a serious problem. In July 1930, the Pittsburgh Press deemed this
to be one of the worst in the city. A city-wide effort was initiated to help
make several heavily used roadways safer for all forms of traffic.


A safety sign outside the Liberty Tunnels in 1932.
A traffic safety sign at the entrance to the Tubes in 1932.


The South Portal of the Liberty Tunnels in 1932.
The southern portals, at the intersection of West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run Boulevard, in 1932.


The South Portal of the Liberty Tunnels in 1932.
The southern portals, at the intersection of West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run Boulevard, in 1932.


Looking south from above the Liberty
Tunnels South Portals in 1932.
Looking south towards Brookline from atop the south portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1932. Pioneer Avenue is
visible to the left, heading up the hill towards the homes in the Paul Place Plan and West Liberty School.


The Liberty Tunnels South Portal - 1936.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1936.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1939.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels on February 28, 1937.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1937.
The wider newspaper clipping of the same February 28, 1937 photo shown above.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1946.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels on January 29, 1946.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1950.
Soldiers of the Pennsylvania National Guard were in Pittsburgh to clear snow and restore order after
Thanksgiving Day Blizzard of 1950. This photo was taken on November 30, five days
after the storm, showing soldiers directing traffic outside the Liberty Tunnels.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1954.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1954.


View south from the south portals in 1954.
The south plaza roadway was completely refurbished and bridge repairs done in May 1954.


The south portals in March 1956.
The South Portals on March 20, 1956.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1968.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels as printed in the Pittsburgh Press on November 10, 1968.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1970.
Morning rush hour traffic approaches the south portals on August 9, 1970.


The Southern Portals in 1974.
The Southern Portals in August 1974.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1974.
Traffic congestion at the South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1974.


Norfolk and Western tracks alongside the
piers for the new Palm Garden Busway Bridge.
Norfolk and Western tracks alongside the piers for the new Palm Garden Busway Bridge on March 4, 1975.
The southern portals of the Liberty Tunnels stand below along Saw Mill Run.


Liberty Tunnels South Portal, early 1940s.    Liberty Tunnels South Portal in 2001.
The South Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1941 (left) and in 2001. The original facade of the tunnels
had been replaced with the brown brick and steel exterior during a 1975 renovation.


Approaching the Liberty Tunnels South Portal - 2011
Approaching the Liberty Tunnels traffic interchange and the South Portals in 2011.


Approaching the Liberty Tunnels South Portal - 2020
The South Portals on March 24, 2020.

The Northern Portals

The Pittsburgh end of the Liberty Tunnels
prior to construction of the bridge - 1924.
The City of Pittsburgh looking from north to south. Visible on the hillside across the river, above Carson Street
are the North Portals of the Liberty Tunnels. The year is 1924, shortly after tunnel construction ended.
Work on the
Liberty Bridge would begin in 1925. Until the bridge was completed in 1928, motorists
entering the city from the south turned right onto McArdle Roadway, then left onto Arlington
Avenue to Carson Street. The Smithfield Street Bridge was their gateway to downtown.


The northern portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1924.
Zooming in on the photo above to show the northern portals in 1924.


The Liberty Tunnels,
 North Portal - 1924
The North Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in December 1923. The tunnels opened to traffic one month later.
With no bridge in place, both inbound and outbound lanes turned towards Arlington Avenue.


The northern portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1926.
The outbound Northern Portal, shown here in 1926.


The Liberty Tunnels, North Portal - 1928
The North Portal and traffic circle in 1928. Only four years after opening, the white facade of
the tunnel entrance already shows the effects of the sooty atmosphere of the Smokey City.


Crews clean up after a mudslide at the
exit to the inbound North Portal - 1933.
The inbound North Portal (left) in 1933, as maintenance crews work to clear the busy roadway after a mudslide.
The Mount Washington hillside is unstable, and landslides became a persistent problem to this day.


Looking down at the North Portals - 04/20/1933.    Looking down at the North Portals - 04/20/1933.
Looking down from above the North Portals on April 20, 1933.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1938.
The North Portals of the Liberty Tunnels after the addition of traffic signals in 1938.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1939.
A view of the North Portals from Arlington Avenue in August 1939.


The Liberty Tunnels in 1939.
The Liberty Tunnels in 1939, after the installation of new lighting and a new road bed.


The Liberty Tunnels, North Portal - 1940
By 1940 the traffic circle had been removed and replaced by Traffic Division officers. Traffic patterns also changed
slightly. Coming inbound out of the tunnels there was no more left turns onto McCardle Roadway.
Approaching the tunnels, left turns to McCardle were also eliminated.


Exiting the Liberty Tunnels North Portal - 1947
Exiting the Liberty Tunnels inbound North Portal around noontime in 1947. This was what motorists saw as they
entered the dark, murky atmosphere of the "Smokey City" before environmental controls were established.


The Northern Portals in 1950.
County Police divert all traffic from entering the Liberty Bridge and downtown Pittsburgh after the Thanksgiving
Day Blizzard of 1950. Downtown was off limits while city workers and National Guardsmen cleared snow.


The Liberty Tunnels, North Portal - 1950's
Approaching the North Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in the 1950s.


The Northern Portals in 1953.    The Northern Portals in 1970.
Cars exiting the inbound Northern Portal (left) in 1953 and entering the outbound portal in 1970.


The Northern Portals in 1974.
The Northern Portals in February 1974.


The Northern Portals in 1974.
The Northern Portals on June 7, 1974.


The Liberty Tunnels, North Portal - 2011
The Northern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 2011.


The Liberty Tunnels, North Portal - 2012
The Northern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels during initial reconstruction work in 2012.

Thousands Overcome By Automobile Exhaust
May 10, 1924

Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924
A crowd gathers outside the Liberty Tunnels North Portals during the carbon monoxide crisis in the tubes.

Courage, Cool Courage, Looms Large As Day's
Crisis Reveals Unsung Heroes

By William G. Lytle, Jr.

Panic, heroism, cool courage - the raw elements of disaster - rode the confusion that jammed the exits of the Liberty Tunnels today when poison death swept its vapors through the packed tunnels, smothering more than a score of persons into insensibility.

Into a half-hour of frightful chaos, scenes of bravery, fear and disorder that passed beyond description crushed their speeding pictures when a traffic jam at the north end of the tunnel caused the line to slow up for a period so long that deadly fumes had time to do their work.

Minutes when death for trapped motorists and pedestrians was imminent transformed ordinary men into heroes. Men who had risen from their breakfast tables with never a thought but to resume their daily routine found themselves cast in the lists of heroism by fate.

Hundreds of persons milled around the tunnel mouth, breathless. Those who had fled in time came staggering from the entrances whence the gas murk rolled. They were gasping, eyes bloodshot, hearts pounding.


Policemen, firemen, motorcycle officers, the disaster squads of the United States bureau of mines, civilians, plunged into the tubes where men and women lay unconscious in their automobiles stricken where the gas terror had overtaken them.

Lights were obscured within the tubes by the density of the gas. Rescuers groped through the darkness, fumbling from car to car, soaked handkerchiefs over their faces, hunting for those who had fallen.

Thomas Morrison and C.W. Hooker, two patrolmen, were two whose bravery stands forth as something to be remembered. With no gas masks, both fought their way hundreds of yards into the death trap. They carried out, on their backs, four persons, who would have died but for their arrival. Morrison found one man sprawled in the bottom of a coupe, his hands grasping at the door. The fact that there was no motor key in the car indicated that a panic-stricken companion had fled, leaving the other occupant of the car to his fate.

There were many brave men like Hooker and Morrison who performed mighty deeds in that welter of foundered cars and unconscious men and women, and vanished when their work was done so that their names are unknown.

The story of Charles Maire, an electrician on the Panhandle division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was pieced together, after he was found lying on his face beside the railroad tracks, 200 yards away from the scene of the disaster. Those who found Maire think he was among the first to rush to the tunnel to aid in resue work when the alarm was sounded.


After helping to carry out those who had dropped, his own lungs tortured with the gas, his heart laboring desperately, Maire wandered vaguely back toward the work he had left. There the gas felled him, without warning. It acts that way.

A workman, shoving his dazed, gas scarlet face into a blue handkerchief, staggered from an orifice between the tubes. He swayed a moment, speechless. No one noticed him for a short interval, so great was the confusion. He waved his arms. Then without warning, exactly as if someone had kicked him in the knees from behind, the man's legs doubled up and he fell on his face on the concrete pavement.

Rescuers picked the victim up. He fought them madly, still silently and in the clutch of the gas, while he grabbed at his throat with horrible gestures.

Officers and men of the Pittsburgh police force never distinguished themselves with greater gallantry than in the black depths of the tunnel.

Liberty Tunnels Dedication    Liberty Tunnels Dedication
First aid is given to policemen overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while rescuing people from inside the tunnels.


As order was forced upon the excited, jabbering throng at the mouth, a rift in the crowd showed a row of men in the gray-black uniform of the motorcycle service, writhing on the curb. Rescuers had oxygen tubes to the mouth of each man.

One officer slumped on his back on the cushion of an automobile, his gunbelt flapping loosely, his shirt open, his chest rising slowly with each painful breath. His comrade at his side was able to sit up, supporting an oxygen tube with trembling arms and sucking at the good air as if his strained body would never get its fill of oxygen.

These men had raced into the tubes time and again. Almost overcome, their courage had driven them back for more. When the last victim was carried out, the men of the motorcycle division still beat back once more into the evil-smelling, choking fumes lest some persons might still be fighting for life in one of the abandoned cars.

As the last cars were towed out and certainty was established that no other person remained in the tubes, the men of the motorcycle squads toppled to the street and lay there. They had fought the fight to the end.

Alexander Tyhurst and Roy Brandt, two patrolmen, knocked down connecting doors within the tubes and allowed the passage of air. They found three of their comrades, Cox, Kepeler and Sergeant A.L. Jacks, huddled against the wall and carried them to safety.

Ammonia was sprayed in the tubes by the disaster squads of the bureau of mines to counteract the carbon monoxide.

Brave men and their work alone held back certain tragedy, when the Liberty Tunnel disaster counted first toll in Pittsburgh's "stupendous folly," the street car strike.

* Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Press - May 10, 1924 *

Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924
Thousands of Pittsburghers, accustomed to going to work in streetcars, jammed into motor vehicles in an effort
to get to their places of employment. Traffic jams, like this one on West Liberty Avenue, were typical of
of the road conditions that prevailed on virtually every artery leading to downtown Pittsburgh.

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Cars Jam At Mouth And Tube Blocked

More than two score of men and women are in a serious condition as the result of being overcome by fumes in the new Liberty Tunnels today when the increased automobile traffic due to the streetcar strike caused two lines of cars to be blocked for the entire length of the tunnel, one and one-fifth miles.

The tubes were closed after the jam but later were reopened with a motorcycle patrol directing the cars.

For more than an hour police officers, firemen, rescue workers from the United States bureau of mines, and volunteers fought the fumes to rescue the motorists. Scores of others abandoned their cars when they realized the danger of their situation and came staggering from the tube in a dazed state.

Police officers, with no protection other than handkerchiefs over their faces, worked until they dropped and had to be removed by their fellow rescue workers. Firemen with gas masks and search lights assisted this work as did a crew of twelve men from the government bureau of Schenley Park.

Inability of traffic officers to keep autombiles moving away from the Brownsville Avenue end of the tube onto Carson Street caused the cars to become stalled back in the tube. For a few minutes the passengers and driver in the automobile thought the blockade was only temporary and would soon be relieved. When they realized the jam was critical, they abandoned their cars and ran toward the ends of the tube for safety.


Assistant Superintendent of Police Joseph Dye, assisted by all of the police commissioners, many lieutenants and squads of patrolmen, assumed charge of the confused situation and directed the rescue work. Patrol wagons, ambulances and fire equipment waited at the mouth of the tunnel to be of service.

Many of those removed from the gas-filled tubes were given first aid treatment at the homes of Fred Eberle on Brownsville Road. Others were taken directly to one of the several hospitals which sent ambulances to the scene of the disaster.


Charles Eisenbarth, aged fifty-three, foreman of the Allegheny County road department, who is caretaker of the tubes, made fou8r trips into the deadly carbon monoxide fumes to rescue the trapped mototists and pedestrians.

As he emerged from his last trip, he was able to walk but a few staggering steps at a time. He was writhing in his agony of pain and thrashi about with his arms as he tried to breath. Although almost unconscious and unable to talk, Eisenbarth fought savagely when rescue workers attempting to give his restoratives.

Addison Gumbert, County Commissioner, and Thomas Pfarr, County Fire Commissioner, were early on the scene and set about making the inquiries and observations which probably will be the basis for an investigation.

Traffic was detoured away from the Tubes by way of Warrington and Brownsville Avenues.


Bert Jacks, E.J. Thompson, H.J. Duffy, Harold McAfee, Joh Hilson, Henry Cox, Louis Kedeler, Frances Little, M. Rosen, Alex Heazlett, Joseph Galsea, Alfred Carelly, G.W. Barcla, Regina Dempsey, Katherine Haas, S.J. McClelland, Hannah Lawrence, Charles Maire, A.M. Hutchens and James McCarthy.

All of the victims were overcome by fumes and transported to local hospitals, many in serious condition. After proper medical treatment, all were eventually released.

* Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Press - May 10, 1924 *

Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924
The top and center photos show a number of policemen being resusitated after being overcome with carbon monoxide
fumes while rescuing persons caught in the traffic jam in the Liberty Tunnels. The bottom photo shows members
of the fire department's gas squad who donned their masks and helped clear the traffic jam from the tunnels.

Some Of The Actual Photos From The Press Archives

Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924.    Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924.


Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924.


Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924.    Liberty Tunnels - May 20, 1924.

Liberty Tunnels Ventilation

An architectural drawing of the intake and
exhaust shafts inside the Liberty Tunnels.


An architectural drawing of the wind shafts
at the portals of the Liberty Tunnels.


The Tunnel Ventilation Power Plant
located atop Mount Washington.
Ventilation for the Liberty Tunnels is provided by this power plant, located atop Mount Washington along Secane
Avenue. The plant, built in 1925, can push 1,100,000 cubic feet of air per minute through the tunnels.


One of the eight large electric motors
that power the tunnel ventilation system.
One of the eight large electric motors that power the tunnel ventilation system.


One of four fans that blow fresh air into tunnels.
One of the four giant fans that blow fresh air down a shaft and into the center of the tunnels.

Portal Interchange Proposals - 1938/1957

Proposed plan for new interchange at
 Liberty Tunnels and Route 51 - February 18, 1938.
This plan for the South Interchange was published on February 8, 1938.

Due to the ever-increasing amount of vehicular traffic congestion at the southern end of the Liberty Tunnels, and the resulting massive rush hour traffic jams, plans were put in place the 1930s for a redesign of the southern interchange. At this time, the tunnels were handling nearly three times their designed capacity.

City planners made public this ambitious plan for what they called Liberty Plaza in February 1938. The interchange diverted thru-traffic around the intersection and facilitated a more uninterupted flow of vehicles. In addition, the West Liberty Avenue trolley lines would be diverted onto the Beechview line, via a trolley tamp, and over the Palm Garden Trestle to the South Hills Junction.

Proposed plan for new interchange at
 Liberty Tunnels and Route 51 - August 4, 1939.
This plan for the South Interchange as published on in the Pittsburgh Press on August 4, 1939.

The proposed $1 million plan called for thru-traffic on Saw Mill Run Boulevard to be reouted onto the south face of Mount Washington, beginning near Bausman Street. Traffic would bypass the busy tunnel entrance by traveling over the southern portals to a point at the intersection of Saw Mill Run and Warrington Avenue.

Traffic at the south interchange of
the Liberty Tunnels - August 1951.
Traffic congestion at the south end of the Liberty Tunnels, shown here on August 21, 1951. One improvement
made in 1954 was passage of a bill making it illegal to make the dangerous left turn into the tunnels.
Beginning in 1951, these turns had been restricted to peak morning and evening rush hours only.
This was a popular route for Mount Washington motorists wanting to use the tunnel.

The trolley ramp was built, but the remainder of this project was put on hold. Twenty years later, in 1957, the plan was put back on the table. Once again it was highly recommended and very close to becoming a reality. Once again the project was shelved.

Proposed plan for new interchange at
 Liberty Tunnels and Route 51 - 1957.
An overhead view of the proposed southern interchange as published in 1957.

The issue was revisited in 1970 when $16.8 million was budgeted for a massive reconstruction of the southern interchange. As in the past the plan never materialized as the money was allocated to supplement other road improvement projects.

Unfortunately for frustrated South Hills motorists, it took another twenty-nine years before a solution was found and funded to relieve this traffic bottleneck. A new South Interchange was dedicated in 1999 and the results were wonderful. Seventy-five years of frustration were wiped clean in one brilliant stroke.

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In addition to the proposal for an upgraded Southern Interchange, the Post-Gazette, on March 8, 1957, reported that studies were being done on a restructuring of the Northern Interchange, with a grade seperation between McArdle Roadway and the bridge.

Proposed plan for new interchange at
 Liberty Tunnels and McArdle Roadway - May 13, 1958.
This plan for the North Interchange was published on May 13, 1958.

Somewhat similar to the changes on the southern side, McArdle Roadway would be diverted to pass over the Northern Portals via an overpass to connect with Arlington Avenue. The southern end of the bridge would be widened, and a series of connecting ramps that included one that looped under the span. This would eliminate the need for traffic signals at the north end of the tunnels. Removing the ground level intersections were intended to facilitate the continuous movement of traffic.

This ambitious $4 million project was put on hold, pending an evaluation of the effects of the Fort Pitt Tunnels and bridge, which were under construction at the time. When the new tunnels opened, traffic flow through the Liberty Tunnels experienced a 31% decrease, from 58,000 to 37,500 daily. Although this proved to be only a temporary improvement, but enough to abandon the interchange proposal.

Southern Portal Interchange Reconstruction - 1999

The new South Portal
 Interchange - 1999.

This is a 1999 graphic showing the new South Portal Interchange at the intersection of West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run Boulevard. For decades the city had been trying to find a way to ease the traffic congestion at the entrance to the tunnels, which were now being used by over 80,000 vehicles per day. At rush hour, the delays could run upwards of one hour.

Finally, after years of frustration, the city acted. By the end of the 20th century the new interchange was in place and traffic congestion was lessened to a large degree.

The Liberty Tunnels Interchange at night.
Vehicle and overhead lighting glimmers along the Liberty Tunnels Interchange in the early morning rush hour.

Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction (2008-2014)

The Liberty Bridge in 1940.
Liberty Tunnel Reconstruction - 2013.


Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.    Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.
Liberty Tunnel Reconstruction - 2013.


Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.    Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.
Liberty Tunnel Reconstruction - 2013.


Reconstruction work on the
South Portal - July 1, 2013.
Reconstruction work on the Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels - July 1, 2013.


Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.    Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.
Reconstruction work on the Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels - 2013.


Reconstruction work on the
South Portal - July 1, 2013.
Reconstruction work on the Southern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels - 2013.


Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.
Reconstruction work on the Northern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels - 2013.


Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - 2013.    Liberty Tunnels Reconstruction - October 3, 2013.
Reconstruction work on the Northern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels - 2013.


Reconstruction work on the
North Portals - October 26, 2013.
Reconstruction work on the Northern Portals of the Liberty Tunnels - October 26, 2013.

Vintage Postcards Of The Liberty Tunnels

Postcard showing the south portals
of the Liberty Tunnels in 1926.
The South Portal of the Liberty Tunnels in a postcard from 1926.


The northern portals of the Liberty Tunnels
and the traffic circle in the early 1930s.    The northern portals of the Liberty Tunnels
and the traffic circle in the early 1930s.
Postcards from the early 1930s showing the North Portals of the Liberty Tunnels and the traffic circle.


Postcard showing the north portal of the Liberty Tunnels.
The North Portal of the Liberty Tunnels in a postcard from the late-1920s.


Postcard showing the renovated north
portal of the Liberty Tunnels. The
large circular monument was removed
and replaced by a smaller traffic signal.
The North Portal of the Liberty Tunnels in a postcard from the early-1940s.

Holiday Traffic Nightmares

The 1950s were the golden age of Sci-Fi thrillers. Flying saucers and men from Mars were all the rage. On September 2, 1957, Post-Gazette staff writer Kent Goddard wrote this short Sci-Fi piece with a Pittsburgh twist. The story revolves around a space traveler's frustration with the stifling atmosphere of Labor Day weekend traffic congestion inside the Liberty Tubes.

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Frightened Flying Saucer Pilot Flees Labor Day Crush

And Don't Think It Can't Happen Here, Either

Startled motorists were stunned yesterday when what appeared to be a foreign sports car shot skyward from the northern opening of the Liberty Tubes at 8:30pm and roared above the Golden Triangle in a shower of blue-white light.

Police, military authorities and scientists were unable to account for the strange phenomenon. Jets from the Greater Pittsburgh Airport took off in pursuit minutes after the alarm was sounded, but the strange craft had vanquished overhead leaving only the pale eerie light.

Residents of the suburbs called frantically in to police headquarters, claiming to have spotted a flying saucer. Switchboards at the Post-Gazette, police headquarters, the airport and the anti-aircraft command were swamped with calls from panicky citizens.

No one could explain the presence of a vehicle resembling a sports car that could leave the earth's atmosphere at an estimated 2,500 miles an hour.

The mystery, however, was explained by a ham radio operator, who had accidentally left his tape recorder connected with his receiver. He was U.H.F. Kilocyclos, or 2308 Longwave Drive, Transmitter Hill. His young son, "Tweeter," had been playing with the receiver and tuned it in on an unused wave length before going out into the back yard to play with his Kiddie Car.

If the tape had recorded an authentic conversation. intelligence authorities were convinced that the conversation had occured between the operator of the bogus sports car and his home base. Mr. Kilocyclos brought his tape to the Post-Gazette, where a transcript was made before turning it over to the military authorities.

Following are excerpts from the transcript:

"Visi-Tor calling headquarters. Visi-Tor calling S-N-A-F-U."

"This is Saucer 9-QXA-12. Come in Visi-Tor."

"I am making a preliminary report on my exporation of the Pittsburgh District. Time on the Intergalactic Calendar 3945 in the year of the Asteroids 2,310,497, the 8000th day. Hours. Here they call it 5:30pm September 1, 1957."

"Go ahead, Visi-Tor. What have you discovered."

"Everything has been normal during the past few days, but today the Earthlings seem to have gone mad. They are killing each other with automobiles. Hundreds have drowned themselves, eaten too much, fallen off cliffs, crashed planes into the ground and gotten hideous sunburns."

"All factories are closed. The only people working are the elevator operators in hotels, newspaper reporters, policemen, radio announcers and restaurant owners."

"The planet seems to have gone wild. It is impossible for me to go anywhere on the ground and I do not dare fly. They say the Nike missile is deadly and they say horrid things about something they call a sabre jet. Am therefore stranded in a motionless line of auto traffic miles in length."

Liberty Tunnels Sci-Fi - 1957.

"Now the line has started to move. I have just been pushed forward three inches. This happens every six or seven minutes."

"I am now in a dark tunnel filled with exhaust fumes. Request permission to return. Atomic disintegrator device could bore through hill above tunnel."

"No," came the reply. "Remain in traffic. It will bump you through tunnel. Just be patient."

"Fumes are getting worse. This is Visi-Tor requesting permission to leave."

"No. Stay there. How long have you been in tunnel?"

"Three hours," was Visi-Tor's answer.

"That is normal, Visi-Tor. Do not, repeat, do not get panicky. You are all right. This is normal. Repeat. This is normal."

Then the occupant repeated his plea several times to be allowed to leave.

Finally he called again.

"End of tunnel in sight. Request permission to return to home galaxy where I will be safe."

"No," came the reply. "Repeat. No. Spelled N-O."

"Cannot stand another day here."

"After tomorrow will be as usual. Urge you to stick it out, Visi-Tor."

"Tomorrow is tomorrow. Today is today. Am going to take off from tunnel mouth. Over and out."

There was a strange noise followed by a whoosh.

"Do not be alarmed, Visi-Tor. Repeat. Don't be alarmed. It is only Labor Day weekend."

Then silence.

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To be fair to poor Visi-Tor, the Liberty Tubes, which handled 60,000 vehicles a day on a normal day and possibly twice that amount on a holiday, was one of the most uncomfortable place to be during a long traffic jam. Congestion and poor traffic management at both ends of the tunnel brought vehicular movement to a crawl.

In addition, the heat inside the tunnels, combined with the overwhelming smell of stagnant exhaust emissions, could drive anyone insane, or at least temporarily delirious.

Fifty-some years later, things can still get a bit frustrating during rush hour. However, with the new south interchange and other traffic improvements facilitating the movement of automobiles, along with much stricter emissions standards, the drab interior of the Liberty Tubes is not quite as foreboding an environment as it once was.

Wherever you are out there, Visi-Tor, come back and give the 'Burgh another try.

Traffic Officer Pete Janus

Liberty Tubes Traffic Keeps Cop Jumping

You're not the only one worried about your morning cup of coffee.

At the south entrance to the Liberty Tubes, traffic cop Pete Janus plays guardian angel for thousands of motorists every morning.

"If I can get these people into work ten or fifteen minutes early, they can get a cup of coffee before they start," Janus says. "That's important to people."

A real sore spot has been where Route 51 North intersects with West Liberty Avenue and where some motorists using 51 then turn into the tunnels. From 6:30am to 9:00am, the morning rush, the center-lane traffic turns right into the tunnels.

Signals warn drivers fifty yards before the intersection, but many either do not heed the warning or do not have time to cut into the left lane.

So, they stall at the intersection's green arrow pointing toward the tubes. Immobile irate motorists honk horns.

Like the banishing of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Janus descends from his roadside booth and casts these traffic "sinners" into the Liberty Tubes and into the hell of downtown rush hour.

"Get in there!" Janus says, pointing a long finger toward the dark tunnels, blowing his whistle and whipping out his ticketbook. That's usually enough to compel these dejected "fallen ones" to turn right. If not, a $25 traffic ticket is issued.

"Feel sorry for them? ... Nah ...," Janus says. "I'm just doing my job."

The hard-lined cop, who hates traffic jams, says he tries to be courteous and fair. But that's a two-way street, he says - if they get out of line, he writes them up.

"We're here to help you by controlling traffic," says the 33-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Police Department. "People think policemen throw their weight around. But that's not the case at all."

Sometimes the traffic guardian has mercy on the erring. If an out-of-state motorist, unfamiliar with the area, is late for a flight at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport, Janus signals him in the right direction.

Trailers and rigs surpassing the tunnel's capacity are not forced into the Liberty Tubes, either. In that case, Janus issues a warning and records the license number.

Officer Pete Janus - 1981.    Officer Pete Janus - 1981.

The nimble Janus, wearing badge No. 83, rarely sits in the intersection's mustard-colored booth. He controls the lights from either inside or outside the booth and says he keeps traffic flowing smoothly when standing in the midst of it. Constantly moving, gesturing and directing, Janus manages to keep physically trim despite his 65 years.

"See this belly here? That's a beer belly," Janus says with a twinkle in his eye. "Root beer."

He will be retiring next month after seven years manning the south end of the Liberty Tubes. Before that, he directed traffic at Fifth and Wood and at Sixth and Liberty. Ironically, that's where limber-limbed traffic cop Vic Cianca made his fame.

"Pete works hard and gets the traffic moving," Cianca says. "Every (traffic) policeman has his own style, but we all have the same goal."

"You can't stand in the middle of traffic like a stiff robot with your arms raised at a 90-degree angle. It just doesn't work."

"We could always depend on Pete being at the corner (Route 51 and West Liberty)," says fellow officer, Mike Griffin. "He works the corner real well."

Janus, who lives in Beechview with his wife Ethel, spent four years in the Ninth Division of the U.S. Infantry during World War II. He joined the Pittsburgh Police on May 10, 1948.

He has not missed a day's work since starting at the Liberty Tubes, with the exception of time he missed in January 1979 when he slipped on an ice patch and broke his leg on the job. Sometimes the pain still bothers him, but he usually forgets it when supervising traffic flow.

Day after day, Janus stands fearlessly in the midst of rush hour traffic. He's never come close to being hit, he says, and never worried about it. He has a guardian on his own protecting him.

"The Mighty Lord looks after me," says Janus, a member of the Advent Episcopal Church in Brookline. "I have faith enough in God to know he takes care of me."

* Article by Ann Carnahan copied from the Pittsburgh Press - June 28, 1981 *

Related Links

The Old Bell House Tavern at Saw Mill Run - 1890
Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad
The South Hills Streetcar Junction
Streetcar Service in Brookline
Coal Hill/Mount Washington
Boulevard Of The Allies
County Tunnel #1 - Neeld Tunnel - 1915
West Liberty Avenue Reconstruction - 1915
Saw Mill Run Road at West Liberty Avenue - 1925
Saw Mill Run Road at West Liberty Avenue - 1931
History of Saw Mill Run Boulevard
History of the Liberty Bridge

* Last modified: February 17, 2019 *

Twin-Tube Auto Repair at the intersection
with Saw Mill Run Road in 1925.    The Tunnel View Hotel at the intersection
of West Liberty Avenue and Warrington Avenue.
Two businesses that took their name from the Liberty Tunnels were the Twin-Tube Auto Repair (left) and the
Tunnel View Hotel, both at the intersection of West Liberty and Warrington, shown here in 1925.

<Historical Facts> <> <Brookline History>