Chuck Beckley, who was a high school kid working as a lab tech at The Athens Messenger 47 years ago, posted a photo to Facebook of a roadside marker that read:
Silver Bridge Collapse
Constructed in 1928, connected Point Pleasant and Kanauga, OH. Name credited to aluminum colored paint used. First eye-bar suspension bridge of its type in US. Rush hour collapse on 15 December 1967 resulted in 31 vehicles falling into the river, killing 46 and injuring 9. Failed eye-bar joint and weld identified as cause. Resulted in passage of national bridge inspection standards in 1968.
The model above is one that was exhibited at a fair I covered in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
Who covered it?
Churck asked Bob Rogers, “Did I pick up film from the bus station for you and Jon [Webb], or Ken for this?”
It wasn’t me. I didn’t start working for The Messenger until the summer of 1968. On that particular day, I was on a train about half-way to Cincinnati headed back to Cape for Christmas break. At one of the stops, a passenger got on and started spreading the word about a big bridge collapse in Point Pleasant. He didn’t have a whole lot of details, and I was anxious to get home to see family and Girlfriend Lila, so I didn’t give it much thought.
I spent a lot of time later covering the building of the new Silver Memorial Bridge. Here are the piers of the old bridge. If the railroad bridge in the background is indicative of how well bridges were maintained in those days, it’s no wonder the bridge went down.
Over in less than a minute
Even though I didn’t cover the actual tragedy, I’m haunted by the gouges and scars on this pier. In other photos on that roll, you can still see cables and wires dangling down into the water.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology website explained it in chilling detail:
On December 15, 1967 at about 5PM the traffic signal at one end of the Silver Bridge turned red. The rush hour traffic, together with the Christmas shopping traffic, completely occupied the main span of the bridge connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia with Kanauga, Ohio. Suddenly a loud cracking sound was heard and one of the main towers began to twist and fall.
In less than a minute, all three spans of the bridge collapsed into the icy Ohio River, carrying with them all the cars, trucks, and people. Forty-six died.
[The failure of an eyebar set the chain of events in motion] Once this eyebar failed, the pin fell out, unpinning this part of the suspension chain. The adjacent tower was subjected to an asymmetrical loading that caused it to rotate and allow the western span to twist in a northerly direction. This span crashed down on the western shore, folding over on top of the falling cars and trucks. Loaded by the whole weight of the center span, which had now become unsupported on its western end, the east tower fell westward into the river along with the center span. Finally, the west tower collapsed toward Pt. Pleasant and into the Ohio River, completing the destruction of the Silver Bridge.
Two bodies were never recovered.
Silver Memorial Bridge
I took this photo of the new Silver Memorial Bridge on December 6, 1969. The replacement bridge opened on December 15, 1969, exactly two years after the collapse.
When I went through that area last summer, I looked for any remnants of the old Silver Bridge. Either I was in the wrong place or every trace of it has been removed. I still think about what it must have been like to have been stuck in that traffic jam nearly half a century ago.
James Baughn’s Bridgehunter website has more information on the bridge and its collapse.