I remember very vividly the Silver Bridge collapse. The Silver Bridge spanned the Ohio River between Kanauga Ohio and Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Kanauga is a small village on Ohio State Rte. 7, two miles north of Gallipolis, Ohio. The disaster happened at about 5 P.M. on December 15, 1967, at the height of the Christmas season. According to the West Virgina Division of Culture and History, the Silver Bridge “suddenly collapsed into the Ohio River. At the time of failure, thirty-seven vehicles were crossing the bridge span, and thirty-one of those automobiles fell with the bridge. Forty- six individuals perished with the buckling of the bridge and nine were seriously injured.”
There were many heart-rending heroic stories pf passengers escaping their submerged cars but having to leave family members behind. One semi-driver, floated down the river while standing atop the cab. I believe he was rescued by a local boat owner.
I had traveled extensively in the area and had crossed the bridge many times. The Point Pleasant end of the bridge funneled traffic onto the city streets. In order to stay on U.S Route 35, all through traffic had to make a sharp turn to the right, when leaving the bridge. To compound the problem, there was a traffic light at the street intersection at the end of the bridge. This often caused a large traffic backup on the bridge. This unnecessarily caused a lot of weight stress on a bridge that was built in 1928, when traffic and vehicles were both much lighter.
I remember the many times that I crossed the bridge and had to sit in stalled traffic near the top of the bridge. I could feel the bridge vibrating, swaying and quivering as though it were alive, as traffic moved toward us in the other lane. This did not concern me excessively but I was always glad when I reached the other end. My hindsight tells me I had more faith in human structures than was warranted.
When I heard of the collapse, all of these memories came rushing back and I felt a sudden chill. The news had a profound effect on people in the area. On a trip to Huntington, W Va. later, I saw that cars were crossing their Ohio River bridge very slowly and they were leaving a large distance between each car to reduce the weight load on the bridge. Making the situation worse for the Huntington bridge, is the fact that there was both a toll booth and a traffic light at the West Virginia end of the bridge, which also caused traffic backup on the bridge.
Car ferry service was established shortly after the bridge fell and ran until the new Silver Bridge was built. There was a large back-up during rush hours. Sometimes the ferry would break down or there would be a heavy fog which would slow service. West Virginia workers who worked in Ohio had a very convenient excuse for being late for work. They would say, “Sorry, the ferry was late.”
In a very efficient manner, a new replacement Silver Bridge was built nearby and was dedicated on the second anniversary of the collapse. The bridge access roads were designed with no toll booths or traffic lights to restrict traffic.
According to the West Virginia Historical Society of the Division of Culture and History, the 2235 foot long suspension bridge was suspended by two chains formed of large steel eyebars connected with 11 inch steel pins. These can be viewed in the second photo with this article, of the new bridge in 1928. The article quotes the old adage, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” This describes the inherent weakness of a suspension bridge. Quoting the article, “The heat-treated carbon steel eye-bar broke, placing undue stress on the other members of the bridge. The remaining steel frame buckled and fell due to the newly concentrated stresses.”
Investigators performing a postmortem examination of the bridge debris, detected a small crack formed during manufacture of a steel eyebar and it widened over the years to cause the collapse. This turned out to be the “weakest link in the chain.”
According to a report by the Federal Highway Administration to a Congressional committee, the Silver Bridge collapse revealed to the public that “there was no systematic bridge inspection program to monitor the condition of existing bridges.” As a result, the National Bridge Inspection Program (NBIP) was created to train inspectors, establish uniform safety standards and set up a regular bridge inspection program.
Also from the report, there are 603,000 bridges in the U.S., of which 117,419 are on federal highways. The average interstate highway bridge is almost 40 years of age. All bridges are now inspected every 24 months or less with the exception of fairly new structures. If a bridge is found to be “structurally deficient,” the permitted load will be reduced until it can be repaired. If it is unsafe for use, it will be closed.
Undoubtedly, the program has made our bridges safer, but it is not foolproof, as was evidenced by the collapse of the interstate bridge over the Mississippi River at Minneapolis in 2007, in which 13 people were killed. A Mahalo article reports that poor maintenance due to budget restrictions was at least a contributing cause of the collapse. This demonstrates the irresponsibility and shortsightedness of people who are always advocating smaller government and lower taxes. We can’t even maintain the safety of our bridges with the present level of taxation. Civilization comes with a price.
For more photos, you may view this Herald-Dispatch.com website.
Statement of King W. Gee, Federal Highway Administration, U. S. Dept of Transportation to Congressional Committee
Mahalo.com/”Minneapolis Bridge Collapse”/Mahalo.com
Chris LeRose/”The Collapse of the Silver Bridge”/West Virginia Historical Society
Herald-Dispatch.com/”Gallery: Collapse of the Silver Bridge”/Herald-Dispatch.com