ABSTRACT

On March 20, 1941, more than 110,000 yd3 (84,000 m3) of rock slumped from Brilliant Cut in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Failure was triggered by water pressure buildup due to ice blockage of drainage outlets on the slope face. I investigated this slide as part of my Ph.D. research at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968–1969 and have continued to study it. Historical photographs discovered in 1997 provided new insights on the construction and failure of Brilliant Cut and led to this re-evaluation. In this paper, my 1968–1969 work is summarized and then additional geological and historical information is presented along with key observations from the historical photographs. These photographs reveal that slope excavation at Brilliant Cut in 1930–1931 removed lateral support, in turn initiating stress release and progressive failure that loosened or broke bedrock adjacent to the cut. This fractured rock mass remained marginally stable for a decade but then collapsed in March 1941. The 1941 failure was triggered by water held back in rock fractures by a frozen crust over talus and fractured rock on the slope face. A progressive failure mechanism by Brooker and Peck explains the behavior of Brilliant Cut from 1931 to 1941. Sliding Block stability analyses demonstrate the mechanism of progressive failure and suggest that friction angles were reduced gradually to near-residual values along the failure surface, with low water levels in the slope. With drainage blocked in 1941, a water level developed about 30 ft (9 m) above the basal failure surface to initiate the catastrophic failure. This water level is below that previously inferred to have existed at the time of failure.

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