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The Silver Bridge Disaster

On May 30, 1928, a new, 2,235-foot, eye-bar chain suspension bridge would open for traffic. The Silver Bridge, as it would come to be known due to its paint job, crossed the Ohio River, connected the towns of Point Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio and cost $1.2 million to build. There was a lot of excitement for this new bridge as it would shorten the route of many truckers and potentially bring a lot of business to the small towns in the area.

The opening ceremony included a parade, with the Governor of West Virginia and the Lieutenant Governor of Ohio both in attendance, though the festivities would be cut short by rain, possibly a harbinger of things to come.

Point Pleasant itself is a small town of about 4100 residents, founded in 1774 as Camp Point Pleasant and situated at the spot where the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers meet. The history of the town includes the mention of a curse, laid upon the land by a Shawnee leader known as Chief Cornstalk. 

Chief Cornstalk

Chief Cornstalk led the Shawnee tribe in a bloody battle with the Virginian Militia, led by General Andrew Lewis, in 1774. This battle would be known as the bloodiest conflict between the Europeans and Native Americans prior to the Revolutionary War. 75 Virginia troops would lose their lives and the Native American losses were estimated to be upwards of 250 or more. Chief Cornstalk would survive the battle and return to what was then Camp Randolph in 1777 to discuss peace between the Shawnee and the settlers. Rather than signing a treaty, the militia would take Chief Cornstalk and his son prisoner and execute them. Legend says that just before he was beheaded, Chief Cornstalk laid a curse on the land that would stand for the next 250 years.

General Lewis
Battle of Point Pleasant

Point Pleasant would officially become a city in 1804 when Mason County would split from Kanawha County, making Point Pleasant the seat of Mason County. Events over the next 163 years would be minor footnotes in the history of West Virginia and the small town would seem to be taking the same course that many other small towns take, quietly existing as the outside world carried on. The building of The Silver Bridge in 1928 along with a World War II munitions plant being built nearby in 1942, however, would set Point Pleasant on a completely new path.

The Mothman story is covered in another entry on this site, but it bears mentioning here, as the events between the first sighting of that mysterious creature on November 15, 1966, and the tragedy of December 15, 1967, would work together to ensure Point Pleasant had its place on the map. 

Model A Ford

The Silver Bridge was originally designed to carry a light amount of traffic, mostly consisting of vehicles like the 2,ooo-lb Ford Model A that was common when the bridge was built. Over the years, the average vehicle would get heavier, weighing in closer to 3,000-lbs, and the type and volume of traffic would increase significantly. By 1967, traffic included trucks and tractor trailers alongside the increased car traffic. Traffic lights had been installed on either side of the bridge to help control the flow of traffic, meaning that some vehicles would spend a decent amount of time sitting on the bridge, waiting on the light to change. The design of the bridge also meant that there was a lot of movement caused by the vehicles crossing the bridge, with one newspaper telling the, most-likely fabricated, story of a trucker who asked a local if the bridge always swayed like it had when he crossed, with the local responding "That old bridge is gonna fall down one of these days". 

That old bridge is going to fall down one of these days - Newspaper clipping 1967

On the evening of December 15, 1967, people in Point Pleasant were going about their business as usual. Many were preparing for the upcoming Christmas holiday. If they weren't already home, they were making their way home, and many were crossing the Silver Bridge on their way from work or holiday shopping.

Just after 5:00 PM, a loud bang echoed through the valley, grabbing the attention of people for miles around.

As everyone rushed to figure out what had happened, those closest to the river would witness the unthinkable. The north tower of the Silver Bridge began to fall, taking the other towers and the bridge along with it. 37 cars, 2 gravel trucks and 5 tractor trailers were on the bridge when it fell into the cold Ohio River below. An untold number of people found themselves trapped in a life-or-death struggle to escape their vehicle and reach the shoreline. Rescue workers would arrive on scene over the following minutes and hours, with dive teams being assembled to try and free anyone trapped below the icy water. Some were saved, but many more were lost to the depths.

Howard Boggs

Over the following days and weeks, divers would work to recover as many bodies as possible. In the end, they would recover 44 bodies in the next 6 weeks, with 2 bodies never being recovered. Stories would surface of survivors and victims, with many fitting into both categories. Howard Boggs, for instance, survived the collapse of the bridge but lost his wife and 17-month-old daughter in the tragedy. James Meadows would perish alongside his young son, leaving a widow and young daughter behind. His widow would later say she would normally have been with James on the trip across the bridge to go shopping but had decided not to go on that particular evening. These are just a couple of the many stories of those who were affected by the collapse, with just about everyone in town knowing, or being related to, someone who had perished in the disaster. 

Mrs. James Meadows

An investigation would take place over the following months to determine what exactly had gone wrong, with the fault being placed on what would become known as "eye bar 330". It would turn out that during the manufacturing process, eye bar 330 had formed some microscopic cracks. These cracks had gone unnoticed, and the eye bar was installed along with all the others during construction by the American Bridge Company out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Once in place, eye bar 330 would wear faster than the other parts around it as the microscopic cracks caused undue stress. Over time, it would become more and more brittle, breaking apart and causing the rest of the bridge to go down with it. 

eyebar 330
St Marys Bridge

The St. Mary's Bridge, a sister to The Silver Bridge that sat further up the river, would be shut down immediately for an emergency inspection, and it would be torn down and replaced years later, in 1971, when it could not be proven safe. President Lyndon Johnson would order a nation-wide bridge inspection program to be instated, leading to the National Bridge Inspection Program as a part of The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1968. This would help to catch disasters before they happened and has undoubtedly led to many lives being saved. The Silver Memorial Bridge would be built as a replacement for the silver bridge about a mile downstream from the original site, opening in 1969. 

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