Echoes of "Steelton Gap"

Table of Contents

Title Page
The Editor's Notebook
Marine News
The Upper Canada Railway Society
Echoes of "Steelton Gap"
A Word of Thanks to our Members
Captain Ernest H. Ridd
A Question of Latitude
Ship of the Month No. 104
Offerings From Freshwater Press
Additional Marine News
Table of Illustrations

Lake historians remember well that day, back in August of 1974, when the Bethlehem Steel Corporation's steamer STEELTON struck the vertical lift bridge (Bridge 12) on the Welland Canal at Port Robinson and knocked it into the canal. The accident caused considerable damage to STEELTON, the total loss of the bridge (which has never been replaced), a lengthy blockade of the canal to vessel traffic, and the neat but unpopular bisection of the little town of Port Robinson. No accident of such severity has ever before or since happened to one of the Welland's many vertical lift bridges, but a similar occurrence did take place early this summer on the Mississippi River, and we thought that our members might enjoy reading a few words about this latest comedy of errors.

At Mile 428.0 of the Upper Mississippi River, near the small town of Keithsburg, Illinois, was located the Keithsburg Lift Bridge, which carried the tracks of the Trans-Action Railroad across the Mississippi. The whole structure included a fixed span across the Blackhawk Chute, tracks over Blackhawk Island, and a series of fixed spans leading up to the vertical lift span over the navigation channel near the left bank of the river. The bridge, with its limited vertical and horizontal clearances, had long been a source of considerable annoyance to river pilots, particularly as a rather sharp bend in the river had to be negotiated directly below the bridge. The tracks themselves had not been used since about 1972 and the lift bridge had remained in the open position. It had, however, remained an interesting landmark as, for many years, it had been the only vertical lift bridge on the entire Mississippi River.

On June 30, 1981, some children crept out on the east approach to the bridge in order to set off fireworks in eager anticipation of July 4th. Unfortunately, their firecrackers set fire to the oil-soaked ties on the floor of the bridge and, before long, a pretty good fire was blazing. As luck would have it, the fire got hot enough that it melted the cables on the east-side counterweight and, of course, the bridge span then fell into the channel, breaking off the west tower and badly twisting the east tower.

While the Corps of Engineers tried to decide what to do about the situation, and with the Trans-Action Railroad denying that it had any responsibility to remove the fallen bridge, traffic on the river came to a standstill and tows of barges began to back up in large numbers on both sides of the bridge. Finally, it was agreed that towboats could pass certain barges back and forth between them under the fixed spans of the bridge, but no such manoeuvre was permitted with any barge containing dangerous cargo. The towboats, of course, had to remain on whichever side of the bridge they had been when it fell.

It was finally conceded that the only reasonable way to open the channel quickly was to dynamite the fallen bridge, and the Corps proceeded to do just that on July 5. Unfortunately, however, the explosive charges were so placed that, when they went off, they not only demolished the lift span but also knocked the next westward fixed span off its east pier so that it hung downwards on an angle into the river! In any event, the main channel could then be cleared and the remains of the lift bridge were dredged up and deposited for safe-keeping on the upper wall of Lock 17, some ten miles upriver at New Boston, Illinois, pending the resolution of the problem of just who is going to have to pay for the demolition of the famous old bridge. It is likely that the rest of the structure will also be dismantled in the near future.

And so, no longer can travellers on the Upper Mississippi look forward to seeing the old Keithsburg Bridge. But fortunately, unlike the Port Robinson situation, the loss of the bridge has not caused any disruption of highway traffic, nor has it split into two disconnected sections any innocent little towns.


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