PITTSBURGH — The sun rose over Three Rivers Stadium for the last time on Feb. 11, 2001. Crowds ringed the downtown landmark and the river shorelines and bridges were packed with humanity while final checks were made inside the stadium by experts from Controlled Demolition, Inc.
Five unmanned Channel 11 cameras huddled together in the middle of the stadium as helicopters hovered above and breathless commentary filled airtime for those watching at home. The suspense in the chilly air was as taut as any championship game. The giant loomed tall, enjoying its last moments of triumph over gravity.
Three Rivers Stadium had already seen more than its fair share of moments where time seemed to stand still. The edifice in the City of Champions dominated downtown views for three decades and boasted of the trophies and treasures hidden within, earned at the cost of blood, sweat and tears shed by players and fans alike.
Built at a cost of about $55 million, Three Rivers Stadium was typical of civic planning at the time it was built. A multipurpose stadium was so common that Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis all had similar concrete doughnuts. All have since been demolished and, tellingly, all of those cities now also have separate and purpose-built facilities for their professional football and baseball teams.
It took only two years to build Three Rivers, but it took nearly 20 years of discussion to get to groundbreaking day on April 25, 1968. Ultimately, the project would transform the North Shore and Oakland as well, with the resulting demolition of Forbes Field.
The location seems a natural fit now, but it wasn’t always so. One prominent early proposal was for a stadium that would straddle the Monongahela River. But in the end, the 84-acre location on the North Shore was returned to its roots. Underneath the scrap metal yards occupying the site in 1960s was the ghost of Exposition Park, which had served as the Pirates home from 1891-1909.
Since it opened on July 16, 1970, Three Rivers hosted numerous playoff games and the World Series, despite the Pirates losing their first game in their new home on that otherwise auspicious day.
The Pirates would win the trophy in the following year, with familiar names like Clemente, Mazeroski and Stargell echoing around the concrete rings and drowned out by cheering fans as the team rode on to Baltimore for its ultimate victory. Stargell would repeat the trip against the Orioles in 1979.
The Steelers would best the Pirates’ championship wins. Moving to Three Rivers Stadium, the team steamrolled through the NFL playoffs and racked up four Super Bowl wins in a six-year period.
Like the Pirates, the Steelers’ ultimate victories would come elsewhere, but it was in Three Rivers Stadium where balls seemed to hang in the air while the crowd held its breath. Sometimes they came down unfavorably, breaking hearts and dashing dreams – but then there were the other times. The times when flashbulbs lasted an eternity and the cheering went mute as expectant fans prayed for a miracle to be performed right in front of them.
The Immaculate Reception, as Myron Cope coined it, is such a beloved moment in team history that a monument still stands in the parking lot outside Heinz Field where Franco Harris snatched victory from the Oakland Raiders.
It is considered by many as the most significant single moment in the history of the franchise. The NFL has even ranked it as the greatest play of all time.
Despite being a wellspring of ego-sustaining victories through the tough economic years it was open, the somewhat charmless Three Rivers struggled through updates. In the final analysis, it wasn’t the structure that failed, it was the inability to add enough luxury boxes to suit team owners and a design that was a compromise between two disparate sports but a master of neither.
With so much history hugged by the stands inside and Three Rivers’ fate sealed, fans were eager to grab a piece of the iconic stadium. Worried about a repeat of Forbes Field, which was ransacked as fans stripped out seats and anything else they could walk out with, security was tightened and an auction planned.
The proceeds of seats, signs and even the Sony Jumbotron were partially used to pay for the destruction that liberated them.
Thousands attended the auction at the Civic Arena and prices were lofty as even locker room trash cans sold for $175. Seats and sections of turf were the most popular items.
Cleared and stripped of anything interesting or valuable, there was only one thing left to do with the shell of memories the stadium had become.
In order to make the transition as seamless as possible, the new stadium and neighboring ballpark were built simultaneously as Three Rivers wound down. As a result, the nearest part of Heinz Field was a mere 60 feet away from Three Rivers, which made the planned implosion a little trickier than normal.
It’s estimated that over 20,000 people went to Point State Park to watch Pittsburgh’s greatest monument to sports conquest crumble to dust. Thousands more lined Mount Washington and other high points around the city.
The charges were set off to bring down the stadium in a sequence of sections, rather than all at once, to minimize vibrations and potential damage to the surrounding structures. After the last tonnage of concrete hit terra firma fireworks were launched to celebrate the end of the era.
Heinz Field and PNC Park were completed and the former site of Three Rivers Stadium became home to some new office buildings, a parking lot and the Stage AE concert venue was constructed. Nothing remains of the stadium other than the Immaculate Reception monument at the exact spot where Franco Harris made his famous catch.