The Harvard Review is published twice yearly, and the current one on the newsstand contains a delightful essay by the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, titled “Meshuggina”. It is a thoroughly entertaining piece, featuring Pittsburghese dialect such going “dahntahn” as opposed to “downtown”. But the centerpiece of the essay, and the lens through which Gutkind shares the special bond he had with his mother, is the story of Frederick Williams and the Bridge to Nowhere.
Here is a photo from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of the Fort Duquesne Bridge as it looked in 1963, its main span finished but connecting nowhere.
From The Digs, here’s the story of Frederick Williams:
Dec. 12, 1964: “The Bridge to Nowhere”
The Fort Duquesne Bridge now serves as a connection between Downtown and the North Side, spanning the Allegheny River. But that wasn’t always the case.
The bridge’s main span was finished in 1963. However, according to an article in The Pittsburgh Press, “red tape and governmental disagreement” kept it from being completed for several more years, earning it the nickname “The Bridge to Nowhere.”
“Police estimated the uncompleted bridge stands about 100 feet over the Allegheny River while the dropoff is about 90 feet from the shoreline — measured straight ahead.”
To prevent people from driving across the bridge and plunging to their death, barricades were set up at the Downtown side of the bridge and at the end of the span.
But that didn’t stop a daredevil Pitt student from attempting a “flight” from the end of the bridge to the North Shore.
On December 12, 1964, Frederick Williams, 21, of Basking Ridge, N.J. — a senior majoring in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh — crashed through the barriers and raced across the span, his station wagon flying through space and landing upside down at the water’s edge.
Mr. Williams pulled himself from the wreckage, “shaken but unscathed.” He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital, where he was examined and released. According to the Pittsburgh Press article, he offered no explanation for his historic leap.
In the wake of the incident, the State Highways Department vowed to replace the broken barricades.
John S. Yard, assistant district engineer for the department, seemed dumbfounded.
“We didn’t think it was possible to do anything like that,” he said.
Williams was a pre-med student at Pitt who, after surviving his leap to nowhere, went on to Pitt’s medical school, completed his residency and moved to California. Apparently the inspiration for Evil Knievel (who didn’t start publicly performing his daredevil stunts until two years after Williams’ leap), Dr. Williams embarked on a career in oncology in Whittier, California. You won’t find any information about Williams’ professional career or personal life online, and he has remained silent all these years about the wild ride that day in 1964 so we’ll never know what he was thinking or not thinking, as the case may be.
Gutkind writes: “I devoted a lot of time talking with my mother about my travels and adventures, and I do think it delighted her, even though she constantly complained that I was not a doctor or lawyer. But, whenever our conversations rambled, we invariably came back to Frederick Williams and to wondering why he, a nice boy from a good family, a pre-med student with everything to live for, even if he wasn’t Jewish, would take the daring, wild and crazy and Meshuggina leap.