The Dixon Bridge Catastrophe

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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Bridges as Barriers

As a bridgetender for nearly two decades, I’ve come to view bridges as ways to connect people. They can often be the fastest route from one side of a river to another. They’re a delightful transition from here to there.

At the same time, I’ve known many people who see bridges as things to avoid. If it takes you 5 miles to get from point A to point B, and there’s a bridge along the route, many people will go 7 miles to avoid what they see as a bottleneck. The thing is, they’re often using interstates to avoid these bridges, even though the distance between exits is much longer than the average bridge, and in fact they’re often going over several overpasses in the process. Interstates tend to jam a lot more often than drawbridges. So I don’t get this aversion that people seem to have about them.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about this subject, so when a friend came across an article entitled, “In Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago, Bridges Have Become Barricades”, she naturally thought of me. (Thanks, Jen!) But this adds a whole new spin to my rant. Mayor Lightfoot is intentionally causing bridges to hinder passage. This horrifies me.

It seems that during recent Chicago riots, the mayor has been ordering the city to raise the drawbridges and keep them raised. Yes, I’m sure this is rather effective in keeping looters from their targets, but there are several issues with this concept that bother me. First of all, I can’t imagine that this is putting the city’s bridgetenders in the most comfortable position. They can now be targeted by the rioters and will be every bit as trapped as the rioters are. Also, I would hate for Chicago’s beautiful bridges to be the focus of vandalism.

But the thing that bugs me the most about this concept is the inhibition of the free flow of Americans. I’ve spent my entire career trying to make my bridge openings as short as possible to avoid impeding traffic too much. We are even told that we should continue our bridge openings even if there’s an ambulance or a firetruck en route so as to speed the vessel’s passage through and close as soon as possible, but every bridgetender worth his or her salt will raise a traffic gate back up for an emergency vehicle if it’s at all possible.

Using a bridge as a barricade is making it perfectly clear that some neighborhoods are better than others. It sends the message that more privileged areas need to be protected from the unwashed masses. It pits one part of a city against another.

I love bridges. I look at them as sacred. I hate the idea that they are being politicized in this fashion.

I think a better idea is making the protestors feel heard. Listen to their needs. They deserve accommodation as much as any other citizen does. If they’re treated with dignity rather than met with teargas and walls, they will be more willing take pride in the community in which they are an integral part.

Another side rant is that the article I link to above refers to us as “bridge tenders”. Would you call someone a bar tender? No. It’s bartender. It’s bridgetender. I don’t care what your spell check says. Get it right.


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Hithering and Thithering

True confession: I’ve been to 22 countries, but I’ve never been to Chicago, not even to change planes at the airport. How is that even possible? With all the hithering and thithering and to-ing and fro-ing I’ve done, you’d think I’d have at least briefly set foot in this major travel hub. But no.

It’s not as if I’ve made an effort to avoid Chicago. In fact, I think it would be well worth a visit. There’s much to do and see there. Our stars just don’t seem to have aligned.

Even on my epic drive across country on historic Route 66 I missed Chicago, where it starts. I didn’t have enough time. So instead of getting my kicks from Chicago to LA, as the song says, I instead went from St. Louis to LA. One does have to make sacrifices now and then.

Finances have cut my travels way, way back in recent years, but I still have the travel bug, and I always will. It’s my reason for being. So, dear Chicago, perhaps we will meet some day after all. Until then, think of me kindly, and please don’t take my neglect personally.


A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book.

My Jacksonville to Seattle Odyssey—Part 3

From now on I’ll be a day behind in my telling of my trip, because last night I spent with family, and I wanted to give them all my attention. You understand, I’m sure.

Well, Kentucky was my first new state in a long time, and now I’ve driven through another: Illinois. For the first hour, my only impression was slate grey, because I hit this unbelievable wall of fog right at the state line, as if nature follows human geography. It was quite surreal.

Even stranger was the radio station I landed on. They asserted that humans bred with angels and produced giants, and because of this God sent the flood to wipe them out. I find it rather terrifying that there are people out there who believe this stuff, and that they can vote.

I came across the best business model ever– a gas station that includes a puppy park, and makes a point of informing you of that on the highway. I got gas there instead of its many competitors for that very reason, thinking my dogs might enjoy a leashless romp. But it turned out to be a tease, because they haven’t built the thing yet. So my dogs peed in the corn field next to the station.

Speaking of stops (or actually ones to avoid), I spent a long time reflecting on the fact that I’d be driving right by Ferguson, Missouri, where the riots have been going on. Oddly enough, I saw no sign for this town on the interstate, which gave me the unsettling feeling that I never quite knew where the danger lay. Riots, my God. It’s heart breaking. But to be honest, the way the economy is, and the racial tension, especially with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, it amazes me that we aren’t seeing more riots. There’s a lot to be angry about, and this is a scary time to be American.

Around noon I crossed the Mississippi River and passed Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. It was strange how insignificant the crossing of our biggest river was. Probably because I was caught in a traffic snarl of old rusty bridges and mostly had to keep my eyes on the road. The arch is beautiful, though, and it means that I’m now officially in the West.

I’ve got to say that this country of mine is massive. I’ve been driving for days and I’m only about 1/3 of the way to my destination. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a pioneer. I doubt the average European immigrant had any concept of the size of the journey they were embarking upon. And back then there was no infrastructure, no motels, no highways, no restaurants, nothing but a lot of unknown. I don’t think I fully understood how brave these people were until this moment.

Momentary panic set in when my radio completely died. I have South Dakota and Montana in my future. Imagine facing that in silence. But a simple fuse replacement solved the problem. Whew.

My only other thought is that on my way to my niece’s house, I passed Knob Noster, Missouri. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m too tired to make it.

Next stop: Chamberlain, South Dakota!

Check out part 4 here!