- or -How to Wipe Out a Lift Bridge in One Easy Lesson
The (Toronto) Globe, October 4, 1886:
The steambarge D. D. CALVIN, timber laden bound from Au Train, Michigan, to Garden Island, arrived down yesterday. About 11 o'clock last night, she started to pass some vessels to get near the lock (at Port Colborne) so as to get an early start. When near the swing bridge, the engineer mistook the backup whistle and went ahead and the steamer crashed into the bridge, knocking it off the pivot and damaging it badly. The steamer sustained no damage. The wrecked bridge is lying across both entrances to the canal and blocks navigation. They expect to have navigation clear this evening. The following vessels are detained in consequence of the break: Bound down schooners - OLIVER MOWAT, J. H. BECK, AMERICAN, B. BARWICK, PRUSSIA; Steambarges - CALVIN, GLENGARRY and consorts; Steamship - J. PUDGEON JR.; Bound up schooner - CITY OF SHEBOYGAN.
(Later) - Port Colborne, October 4, 1886:
The wrecked bridge was pulled out of the way this afternoon and vessels started ahead this evening.
The above clippings, provided for our use through the courtesy of member Lorne Joyce, illustrate just one of the many incidents wherein Welland Canal bridges have had altercations with passing steamers over the years. Such incidents involving the canal's swing and jack-knife bridges are unfortunately rather frequent, and a check back in history will produce reports of numerous such occurrences.
Accidents involving the canal's eleven (now just six with the opening of the Welland bypass channel) vertical lift bridges, however, are very rare and never up to 1974 has there been any incident causing serious damage to any of these structures. Indeed, when one stands on the pier under one of these, it seems hard to imagine any harm coming to the massive lift span or to the seemingly skyscraping towers at either end of the bridge. Maybe the apparent strength and solidity of the bridges has lured us into a false sense of security.
Slowly, the details of the accident became known. It had been shortly after 4 o'clock on the morning of the 25th that the Bethlehem Steel Corp. steamer STEELTON had been downbound light in the canal above Port Robinson. Bethlehem steamers, although normally not regular canal visitors, had been seen in the canal frequently throughout the summer as they had been carrying iron ore to Lackawanna from Picton and Contrecoeur. At the time of the accident, STEELTON was heading back down to Contrecoeur for another load.
As STEELTON approached Port Robinson in the early morning darkness, the vertical lift bridge carrying the town's main street over the canal began to rise to let the freighter pass. But before the bridge could open fully, STEELTON was right upon it, and although the steamer tried to back off, her pilothouse came into contact with the edge of the sidewalk which overhung the roadway on the south side of the bridge. The bridge was actually about half way up at the time. A vertical lift bridge runs up and down along heavy tracks or rails which extend up the inner side of each tower and thus when STEELTON made contact with the lift span, it could not move with the pressure exerted on it. The whole structure was pushed to the north and the west tower buckled at the spot where the span was when hit. The upper half of the nearly 200-foot tower fell over into the canal amidst a tangle of fallen cables and pulley wheels, while the massive 300-ton concrete counterweight plunged down through the tower, smashing through the roadway on the bridge approach and landing on the pier below. The east tower of the bridge did not break off, but rather was pushed over sideways, the entire structure coming to rest lying on its side in the canal. The east approach span was completely uprooted as the tower fell over and came to a ninety degree angle with the rest of the roadway.
But right in the middle of the twisting, breaking mass of metal was the bridge-master who had been at his controls in the cabin atop the bridge lift span. As the towers fell and the counterweights broke away from their restraining cables, the lift span began to plunge toward the canal. The bridgemaster, although only slightly injured, must have thought his last moment had come. The west end of the span came down hard on the west pier, but the east side had swung to the north and fell into the canal, coming to rest on the muddy bottom. The bridge control cabin wound up scant inches from the surface of the canal and it was not until twenty minutes later that the bridgemaster was rescued by local firemen using a rowboat.
Thousands of sightseers descended on the area after sunrise to view the wreckage, but by then STEELTON had been backed away from the bridge and was moored several hundred feet back along the west shore. The entire front of her pilothouse had been pushed in by the impact and there was also damage to the rail atop the texas. Her steering pole, of course, was demolished and the forward end of the forecastle was ripped open as if by a can opener when the bridge fell down across it. The day after the accident, STEELTON was taken back up the canal to Port Colborne where she was moored along the West Street wharf. There repairs were put in hand by Herb Fraser & Associates, the steamer being back in shape in about ten days.
Meanwhile, the Seaway Authority was faced with the task of clearing the debris from the channel so that the canal could be reopened to traffic as soon as possible. The seaway heavy-lift derrick HERCULES was brought up from the St. Lawrence section, arriving some four days after the accident. In addition, the McAllister tugs SALVAGE MONARCH and HELEN M. McALLISTER arrived with the Marine Industries salvage barge M. I. L. BALSAM (ex BALSAMBRANCH). In little more than a week from the time of her arrival, HERCULES floated clear the last section of the fallen span and crews then set about clearing underwater debris. The lift span itself was eventually floated down the canal and on the morning of September 14 was moved into Port Weller Dry Docks where it is to be broken up.
The canal was closed until September 9th, resulting in a considerable backup of vessels awaiting passage at either end of the waterway. The lineup was not as bad as it might have been, however, since a strike of Canadian engineers and deck officers at the time had most of the Canadian lake freighters laid up. One of the most humourous parts of the whole affair (although not the slightest bit humourous for Bethlehem Steel) was the fact that five of their six vessels were trapped by the accident. STEELTON, of course, was in the canal itself, while LEHIGH, JOHNSTOWN, SPARROWS POINT and ARTHUR B. HOMER were caught in Lake Ontario, As a result, Bethlehem brought STEWART J. CORT, their one remaining ship, into Lake Erie with ore, the first time she has brought a cargo into that lake in her two years of operation.
Observers have been wondering how such an accident could possibly occur. Vertical lift bridges on the Welland are equipped with traffic control lights; a red light shows when the bridge is down, a flashing light while the bridge is going up or down, and a green light when the span is fully raised. Seaway regulations provide that a ship may approach a bridge no closer than the Limit of Approach sign (a considerable distance back up the canal) until such time as the green light shows on the bridge. In addition, if a bridge has not begun to rise when a ship passes an even more distant "Whistle" sign on the shore, then the ship is to sound her whistle or establish radio contact to ensure that the bridge will open. A recent press release from the Seaway Authority has indicated that there did not appear to be any mechanical fault with the bridge, but that STEELTON appears to have disregarded both the Whistle and Limit of Approach warnings.
Undoubtedly the entire matter will become a nasty legal tangle. The demolished bridge had been built in 1931 at a cost of $803,000 and it is estimated that replacement cost today would approximate $10-million. At the time of writing, no decision had been made on replacement and, as a result, the village of Port Robinson (pop. 300) can look forward to being cut neatly in half for some considerable period of time to come. Eventual replacement may be by means of a tunnel and not by a bridge at all.
And so STEELTON (which, by the way, was involved in an argument with the Homer Bridge on the canal earlier in the season) has taught us a lesson. No matter what precautions are taken to prevent accidents, human error can result in tragic consequences. We shall await the outcome of the inevitable litigation with great interest.
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Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.