The Dixon Bridge Catastrophe

Americans were a lot more trusting in the Victorian era.

Recently I was watching a documentary. I can’t remember what the topic was, but during the course of it, they zoomed in on a newspaper with a headline about the subject in question. I paused the video, as I tend to do, because I like to actually read the article, not just the parts that the documentarians highlight. When I did that, I noticed another headline off to the side. It said, “Bridge Catastrophe. 46 killed.” Unfortunately, most of the article was not on screen. But it was about a bridge, and being a bridgetender myself, I had to learn more.

I love living in the Google Era. I found the bridge in mere seconds. According to Wikipedia, it was the Dixon Bridge, a.k.a the Truesdell Bridge, located in Dixon, Illinois. But this was one heck of a freak accident. It had nothing to do with a bridge collapsing under the weight of a train, as is often the case. No, this was a tragic intersection between a design flaw and pedestrian foolishness.

Residents in the area had been trying to easily cross the Rock River for decades. They had a ferry for a time, and then about 10 different wooden bridges that always got demolished by high water and ice pack. Finally, as their population continued to increase, they decide a serious bridge needed to be constructed. They chose an iron bridge design, 660 feet long, which cost them $75,000.

While the Dixon Bridge was being constructed, another bridge, in Elgin, Illinois, also designed and constructed by L.E. Truesdell, partially collapsed. Twice. The conclusion, though, was that someone must have tampered with the foundations. The Dixon Bridge was dedicated on January 21, 1869.

Fast forward to May 4, 1873. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday. Word got around town that Rev. Pratt was going to baptize 6 people in the river, just north of the bridge. After a long winter, it was something to go out and see on a lovely spring day, so the baptism drew a crowd. About 150-200 witnesses filled the bridge span. People were even climbing on the trusses.

As the third person waded into the water to be baptized, the bridge began to vibrate. Henry Strong, the bridgetender (it was a toll bridge) started ordering people off the trusses and the span. Since everyone was on the west edge of the bridge, it couldn’t take the weight. There was a large cracking sound on the north span, and the bridge tipped over. The three other spans quickly followed suit, each going in a different direction.

The bridge was 18 feet above the water, and the water was 20 feet deep. The current was 8 miles per hour. Some people, trapped by the tangled wreckage, were within 6 inches of the surface of the water. So close. Those who avoided the wreckage panicked while trying to save themselves, and many of them pulled others down in their mad scramble. Much of the twisted ironwork pinned the bodies in for several days before they could be removed by using hack saws. 46 people died, and at least 56 were injured.

The rest of the town joined the survivors in their rescue efforts, and the surrounding homes quickly filled up with the dead and dying. The Wikipedia article tells several amazing survivor stories that illustrate how we will all fight for our lives when faced with the alternative. Local papers said that it took 11 days for all the bodies to be recovered and all the missing to be accounted for. Five bodies had floated 10 miles downstream. One body was found 14 miles downriver, below the dam.

The ferry was set up again, this time to transport coffins. Ten thousand spectators a day came to silently view the wreckage. Church bells tolled continuously, and the streets were filled with funeral processions.

In the months to follow, blame was cast upon Truesdell, of course, but also the city council, and even, ridiculously, the Baptists. Needless to say, the Truesdell design fell out of favor. It is interesting to note that in America, one did not have to have a license or an education to be called an Engineer until 1907. Americans were a lot more trusting in the Victorian era.

I wonder if those last 4 people ever got baptized.

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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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