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Rachel Carson Bridge

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Remembering Rachel Carson

The Allegheny County native and Ninth Street Bridge namesake is credited with advancing the global environmental movement

Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907, on a family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania, located up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. The youngest of three children, Carson quickly developed a love of nature. She was an avid reader who quickly began writing her own stories. By age 10 she became a published author when St. Nicholas Magazine ran a short essay she had submitted for their September 1918 issue. After finishing high school, Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), graduating magna cum laude in 1929. She continued her studies at the oceanographic institute at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and then at Johns Hopkins University, where she received a master’s degree in zoology. Although she intended to obtain a doctorate she was unable due to a need to support her family during the Great Depression. 

Carson took a position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio copy for educational broadcasts. She remained there for 15 years, and in 1936 was promoted to editor-in-chief of publication for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. During this time she turned some of her government research into lyric prose. This work was eventually published in the Atlantic Monthly and titled Undersea. Years later in 1941, after expanding upon this work it was published as a book titled Under the Sea Wind. Carson continued writing over the coming years, and in 1951 published The Sea Around Us. The book won her a National Book Award, a national science writing-prize, and a Guggenheim grant. 

In the mid-1940s Carson had become concerned about the use of synthetic pesticides. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Carson first encountered the subject of DDT. Lauded as the "insect bomb" and used during World War II, the revolutionary new pesticide had only just begun to undergo tests for safety and ecological effects. Although she had written on this subject at the time, it was not considered appealing enough for publication. This concern, however, would play a key role in her lasting legacy. 

Thanks to the success she had now found as an author Carson was able to move to Southport Island, Maine In 1953. Dorthy Freeman, a summer resident of the area heard the now-famous author was about to become her neighbor and wrote a letter to Carson welcoming her to the area. Their shared interest in nature among other things led to what would become a deep friendship between the two and would last until Carson’s death in 1964. Although they destroyed many letters they exchanged over their 12-year relationship, around 900 of these letters were later published in the 1995 book Always, Rachel

Celebrated as a scientist and a poet with an inherent love of the sea, Carson was a writer for most of her life. But it is for her book Silent Spring, published in 1962 less than two years before her death, that she is best-known. Describing the harmful effects of pesticides, pollution, and man's attempts to control nature through use of synthetic substances, the book is widely credited for being a catalyst for the environmental movement of the 1960s. Carson’s legacy was further solidified years after her death when the environmental movement’s campaign to ban the use of DDT in the United States resulted in the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF would go on to bring lawsuits against the government to establish citizens’ rights to a clean environment. The arguments made in these lawsuits largely mirrored Carson's own, and by 1972, the EDF and other activist groups had succeeded in phasing out the use of DDT in the United States. Ultimately the catalyst that the publication of Silent Spring created also contributed to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For its role in the development of the modern environmental movement, in 2012 Silent Spring was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society. 

To memorialize Rachel Carson’s contributions to the world, and to celebrate her Allegheny County roots, there are several local landmarks dedicated to her. In 1975 the nonprofit Rachel Carson Homestead Association was created to manage Carson's birthplace and childhood home in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Now known as the Rachel Carson Homestead, it is a National Register of Historic Places site. A 35.7 miles hiking trail, called the Rachel Carson Trail, maintained by the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy, was dedicated to Carson in 1975. Most notable is perhaps The Ninth Street Bridge, which was renamed the Rachel Carson Bridge on Earth Day, April 22, 2006, after years of lobbying by Esther Barazzone, president of Chatham University. It is one of the three parallel bridges called The Three Sisters, along with the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the Andy Warhol Bridge. The bridges are the only trio of nearly identical bridges, and first self-anchored suspension bridges built in the United States.

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  • Rachel Carson Bridge