The black day the Quebec Bridge fell


JAMES BANNERMAN October 13 1956

The black day the Quebec Bridge fell


JAMES BANNERMAN October 13 1956

The black day the Quebec Bridge fell



In a mountainous crash the longest bridge of its kind produced history’s worst bridge disaster. Seventy-five men plunged to their death in the St. Lawrence through a remarkable chain of folly and error

Late in the afternoon of August 29, 1907, the biggest cantilever bridge in the world was being built across the St. Lawrence River, six miles above Quebec City. The part completed was a great diamond-shaped lacework of steel, balanced in its middle on a river-bedded pier; one arm of the diamond was thrust almost halfway across the river, the other jutted to a base on the south shore of the river. On its raw red girders, a hundred and fifty feet above the water on one arm and above rocky mud fiats on the other, high-steelmen in their curly-brimmed derby hats, tweed vests and striped shirts were beginning to think of supper. They looked like bartenders on a picnic. At five-thirty a fitter named Eugene Lajeunesse finished tightening a bolt and remarked to his brother Delphis that it was almost time to quit.

The brothers remembered those words for a long time afterward, with a kind of amazed pride that they’d proved so spectacularly true. Eugene had no sooner said them than the outer arm of the diamond pointing over the river gave a sudden twitching shudder. A second later it tore free from the stone pier, hurtled down into the deep mid-river ship channel and vanished in a tremendous burst of spray. At the same time the inner anchor arm, leading back to the shore across the rock-strewn mud, fell with a crash on the rocks and instantly became a pile of twisted steel. Of the eighty-six steelworkers who had been working on the two outstretched arms of the diamond only Eugene and Delphis Lajeunesse and nine others lived through the fall of the Quebec Bridge.

The seventy-five who died made it the worst disaster in the history of bridge building. But there are other ways of measuring a disaster than counting the dead, and the most tragic aspect of this one was that it need never have happened. It could have been avoided as early as 1905 if two sets of calculations had been properly checked. Because they weren't, the bridge itself was doomed two years before its death. Yet much later, almost at the last moment, there were to be three additional chances to save the men it killed.

The ominous behavior of two girders should have been taken as an urgent warning to stop building and clear the bridge; it wasn't. One man who might have suspended work on the fatal day decided not to do so because he'd had a comforting dream. And a telegram that could have brought him to his senses w'as first misdirected and then lay neglected during the last five hours before 'the disaster.

That was the end of the first Quebec Bridge on an August afternoon seven years after building on it had started. But it wasn’t the end of its story. A second bridge was started as soon as the ruins of the first were cleared away or buried in the river, and the cruel sequence of hope and bitter disappointment was repeated. When nine more years' work had been done disaster struck again—only a few hours before the last rivets were to be driven—and thirteen more steelmen died. When the Quebec Bridge was finally completed it had taken seventeen years to build and cost eighty-eight lives.

How the Quebec Bridge took its fearful toll

Diagrams show how first the cantilever span (top), then centre span (middle) crashedinto St. Lawrence. The wreckage is still in the river, a grisly tomb for men it killed.

The engineers who began it tried to span the St. Lawrence where the river was nearly two thirds of a mile across; almost the whole width had to be kept clear for a ship channel. To do this meant designing a central span of steelwork that would thrust 1,800 feet across the water supported by piers on either side of the channel—the longest cantilever span ever built. Engineers faced this task when there were no electronic brains to help with their problems—steel couldn’t be X-rayed for flaws—and technical knowledge actually wasn’t sufficiently advanced for such a big job.

But at the turn of the century a bridge linking Quebec City with the trade and commerce of the south shore of the St. Lawrence had become a matter of economic life and death. In the days of sail in the early 1800s Quebec had been the busiest port and biggest city in Canada. Then the steam engine permitted shipping to negotiate the narrowing, more turbulent river for another two hundred miles to Montreal. Quebec City went into a deepening slump. A transfusion of trade by train and wagon from across the river was needed to help its hard-hit commerce.

For almost forty years a series of proposals to build a bridge was offered, all of them abortive. Then in 1887 a collection of Quebec City businessmen formed the Quebec Bridge Company, to construct a toll bridge across the river at a point six miles upstream where the Chaudière Hows into the St. Lawrence. Then for ten years they stalled while looking for assurance that there would be enough traffic to pay them a profit. At the same time they were looking for an engineering name sufficiently large to stand behind such a vast undertaking.

Finally in 1897 the American Society of Civil Engineers met in Quebec City, and at the meeting the bridge company’s chief engineer, E. A. Hoare, met one of the continent’s most renowned bridge builders, Theodore Cooper, of New York, who was then almost sixty and at the climax of a distinguished career. Hoare asked him if he’d be the supervising consultant on the Quebec Bridge. Flattered at the idea of building the biggest span in the world, Cooper said yes.

Still, lack of money held back the bridge until 1899, when the directors were promised subsidies of $300,000 from Quebec City, $250,000 from the provincial government and a million dollars from the federal government. Promptly, they let the contract for stonework. In October 1900 the company laid the cornerstone of the first pier. Soon after, it realized that much more money would be needed to put steel on the piers. It was at this fortuitous moment that the federal government decided to build a transcontinental railway. It needed a bridge near Quebec City to link the new line with the Grand Trunk and Intercolonial lines across the St Lawrence and thus offered to underwrite 56,678.200 of Quebec Bridge Company fonds.

The Phoenix Bridge Company, of Phoenixville, Pa., which had submitted designs for the steelwork but refused to build without a guarantee of payment, row started construction. Plans for the steelwork had been drawn by the chief designer of Phoenix. P. L. Sziapka. His problem, besides leaving the whole midriver channel clear for shipping, was to make sure even big liners could steam under the bridge without knocking off the lops of their masts. This meant the bottom girders had to be a hundred and fifty feet above the water. Sziapka also had to provide for two railroad tracks, two streetcar tracks and two roadways. To do all this he designed a bridge sixtyseven feet wide and 2,800 feet long, not counting the approaches. The cantilever span needed to keep the channel clear was 1.800 feet long—ninety feet longer than the two main spans of the bridge across the Firth of Forth in Scotland, until then the longest cantilevers m the world.

The principle of the cantilever is simply that of a beam or framework supported ut one end and carrying a load at the other unsupported end. 1 hus, in the case of the Quebec Bridge, cantilevers were anchored on both banks and supported in their middle by piers off each shore. An arm from each pier jutted outward above the river to be linked to its opposite number by a span in the centre. With its lacework of supporting steel each cantilever, stretching from shore to pier and from pier toward midstream, had the approximate shape of a diamond with its fat width resting on a pier.

When the design was sent to 1 heodore Cooper he could find only a few details that didn't seem to him sound; and once th»y’d been changed he gave his approval. The federal government suggested that its expert, Collingwood Schreiber, who was chief engineer of the Department of Railways and Canals, also okay the plans. But Cooper replied angrily that this was an affront to his reputation, so the government backed down.

Another two years were taken up completing the plans, moving steelwork from Phoenixville and building a small bridge across the Chaudière to carry steel and stone. By the spring of 1905 working drawings for the project—the minute, step-by-step blueprints covering every phase—were ready. It now became possible to calculate to the pound the weight of the cantilevers—the weight of the arms stretching out from the piers on each side of the channel. Up to then this weight had merely been roughly estimated from Szlapka’s plans. If a comparison had been made it would have shown that the real weight of the two outstretched arms of each cantilever was about eight million pounds more than had been estimated. But the comparison wasn’t made. On July 22, 1905, without further investigation, the first girder was bolted to its stone pier on the south side of the river.

The working drawings didn’t reach Theodore Cooper in New York until seven months later. When they did he spotted the difference in weight almost at once. But by then six sections of the anchor or inner arm of the cantilever had been erected. He was faced with a bitter choice. Either he had to condemn the design he’d previously approved and order the work begun again with a new design, or take a chance that the extra weight wouldn’t be disastrous. Cooper had a couple of months to make up his mind (the construction season didn’t begin until mid-April).

He knew there was a hideous danger the overloaded anchor arm would fail: on the other hand there were two factors that inclined Cooper to take the risk: his heart was set on being known as the man chiefly responsible for having built the greatest bridge in the world. Two years earlier his health had failed and his doctor had forbidden him to leave New York. Cooper had pointed out to the directors of the bridge company that this meant he could never visit the bridge while it was being built and would have to rely on reports from engineers on the spot—a most unsatisfactory arrangement and reason enough for the directors to get a younger and more active man to replace him. But when they urged him to stay on. Cooper’s pride at being in charge of so prestigious a work as the great bridge won out over his conscience, and he stayed.

The second thing in favor of taking the risk was that the federal government wanted the bridge finished by the summer of 1908, so it could be formally opened by the Prince of Wales, later George V, when he came to Quebec for the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city. Cooper wanted that too, because he felt that having his bridge opened by the heir to the British throne would add the supreme toueh of distinction. But, if he ordered the work already done to be torn down and a new design made, the bridge couldn’t possibly be ready in time for the Prince. Besides, Cooper finally convinced himself that even with the extra eight million pounds’ load, there was a margin of safety; small, but in his opinion sufficient.

Thus the famous engineer, old and alone in his New York office, reasoned himself out of his fears for the bridge he’d never seen, and made no objection to the work going on according to Szlapka’s design. During the season of 1906 and for the first couple of months of the 1907 season, as far as Cooper could tell from the reports he got. all went well. Then on June 15, 1907, Norman McLure, the inspecting engineer at the bridge, wrote Jo say that two girders of the anchor arm were a quarter of an inch out of alignment. McLure said misalignments had been found in several of the other girders and had been corrected by forcing them into line with hydraulic jacks; but that these two girders were so placed that jacks couldn’t be used, and that he’d like Cooper’s advice on what to do. Cooper replied: “Make as good work of it as you can. It is not serious.”

Early in August, McLure wrote that the two girders had gone a fraction of an inch farther out of alignment since his June report; they also appeared slightly bent. Cooper was disturbed, and asked McLure for fuller details and an explanation of how the bending had occurred. McLure couldn’t explain, and didn’t share Cooper’s concern. But his inspector on construction. E. R. Kinloch, took a different view. Kinloch, who checked the misalignment nearly every day, was worried because it was increasing, slowly and almost imperceptibly, and because it seemed to him the bends were increasing too. Yet McLure still wasn’t much disturbed—until August 27, a Tuesday.

A phone call wasn’t safe

At half-past nine that morning Kinloch looked at the girders for the first time since the previous Friday, and got a great shock. Over the week end the girders had gone two whole inches farther out of line, and were now unmistakably bent. He ran to the bridge office to report what he’d found. McLure was there with his assistant, A. H. Birks, a young graduateengineer who was a nephew of the Montreal jeweler, Henry Birks, and the senior foreman for the Phoenix company, B. A. Yenser. Yenser was as alarmed as Kinloch; but McLure didn’t even consider it meant serious trouble, and Birks claimed there was no danger at all.

Yenser and Kinloch urged McLure to go at once to New York and tell Cooper what had happened, saying a written report wouldn't do and that the long-distance phone service was too bad to rely on. McLure said Cooper would only laugh at him if he went, but finally promised to put the matter up to Edward Hoare, the bridge company’s chief engineer, in Quebec City. Ordinarily McLure would have called him from the one phone at the bridge, but some of the workmen were already worried about the bent girders. Since the phone was on a party line MeLure was afraid the call would be overheard, and that if word got around the men might refuse to go on the bridge again. So he went to Quebec.

There Hoare told him to go to New York by the one-o’clock train the next afternoon. He said he'd be at the bridge in the morning in time to look things over before McLure left. He got there about half-past ten. McLure had told him Yenser had made up his mind that the “traveler,” a huge working platform of metal scafTolding that could be moved along the bridge as construction progressed. should be taken down before they put any more steel on the end of the span, to lighten the weight on the suspect girders. Yet when Hoare arrived at the bridge he saw {hat instead of dismantling the traveler Yenser had had it moved farther out on the span.

When Hoare asked why, Yenser said he'd dreamed the night before that it was foolish to be so nervous about the bent girders, and that he'd now changed his mind and was going to go by the dream. Hoare accepted this fantastic explanation. So did Birks. McLure hadn't been present when Yenser told the others of his change of mind, and went off to New York thinking Yenser was determined not to do any more work until the traveler was taken down.

McLure made his report to Cooper in New York the following morning at eleven. The old man immediately realized the situation was critical, but hoped he could still find a way to save the bridge —although he had no clear idea how it could be done. All his experience of bridge building had been with much smaller bridges. T he only cantilever bridge in the world anywhere near as big as this one was the bridge across the Firth of Forth, which had been finished in 1889. The experience of its builders might have helped him but they had never bothered to publish an account of the difficulties they'd faced and what they did to overcome them. Cooper had no guidance.

McLure assured him Yenser had stopped erecting steel. Cooper had to make certain the building wouldn't be started a*ain until he gave the word. But since he wasn't an official of the Phoenix company he thought there was a chance Yenser might disregard an order from him telegraphed directly to the bridge. He therefore decided to channel the order through Phoenix's chief engineer. John Deans, at the head office in Phoenixville. And at 12.16 noon Cooper wired Deans, saying: "Add no more load to the bridge till after due consideration of facts. McLure will be over at five o’clock.”

Cooper had assumed Deans would at once re-telegraph this message to the bridge; but as it happened the assumption was one more mistake in the fatal sequence. Deans wasn’t in his office when the wire reached Phoenixville at 1.15, and didn't get back until three. The only action he took then was to arrange for Szlapka and another company engineer to be on hand to meet McLure at five. After that Deans got on with routine work, while the wire that might have saved seventy-five lives lay undealt-with on his desk.

McLure arrived sharp on time, and told Deans and the other two engineers how things had stood at the bridge when he left. He said Birks had since wired him that he was sending Phoenixville a report by mail on later developments. Deans suggested there was no point in doing anything until the report came, and that since McLure had said no construction w'as going on there was really no frantic hurry. McLure and the others agreed. They reached this decision at almost the exact instant the bridge fell— at 5.32 in the afternoon of August 29.

At that instant, on the bridge, a steelworker named Ingwall Hall was standing near the outer end of the cantilever turn, on top of the traveler. Counting its height and the height of the arm, he was three hundred feet above the river, a thousand feet from shore. Just as he was about to signal for a girder to be lowered into place he heard a loud grinding noise, and felt the metal scaffolding of the traveler tremble like a man shivering with cold. While he was still wondering what had gone wrong the traveler lurched forward and began to fall; slowly for a second or two, then so fast the rush of wind made Hall’s eyes water.

There was a tremendous bursting splash when the bridge hit the river, and that was the last thing Hall remembered until he found himself floating on the surface. He didn't feel any pain, and concluded he'd somehow come through unharmed. Then he looked at his right hand, which felt a little strange, and saw' that tw'o fingers w'ere gone. He couldn't swim very well, but managed to stay afloat by dog-paddling.

On the north side of the river the men who were putting up a wooden falsework for the steel of the north half of the bridge, which was to be begun after the south half was finished, had noticed nothing amiss until the bridge had already started to fall. They at once scrambled down the falsew'ork. leaped into small boats pulled up on the shore, and put out to the rescue. Fifty-five of the men who’d been on the cantilever arm were held tast in the steelwork and drowned. The rescuers picked up Hall and five remaining men who w'ere alive and swimming.

One ot these, an erecting-gang worker named Charles Davis, had been on the extreme tip of the arm. He had been thrown oil the girder he'd been riveting by the violent shudder of the bridge, just before it went down, and hurled clear. All he remembered afterward was that he could see the steelwork below him as he fell, realized it meant the bridge was falling faster than his body, and wondered at this while he hurtled through the air. Another erecting-gang worker who’d been on the cantilever arm and survived the fall. D. B. Haley, had noticed the same thing, and been so struck by it he too could remember nothing else about what happened to him.

The men on the inner, anchor arm of the bridge, which led shoreward, had a very different experience. The inner arm crossed the flat stretch of foreshore between the river and the bottom of the steep wooded cliff on the south side. The floor girders of this anchor arm were a hundred and fifty feet above the foreshore, which at the moment the bridge fell was dry for four hundred feet between the cliff bottom and the edge of the mid-river shipping channel, because the tide was then low. Thus the entire arm hit solid ground, with such terrific force that its rigid steel framework crumpled to a twisted heap. About twelve of the men who’d been working on it (there were perhaps thirty altogether, but an exact count was never made) were instantly killed. Six were able to get out of the wreckage alive — among them the brothers Delphis and Eugene Lajeunesse.

“From the wreckage came moans and then screams and the tide rose and drowned the trapped men”

Eugene, an erector, had just finished tightening a bolt on a girder of the anchor arm, and had made the prophetic observation to his brother that it was nearly time to quit, when the bridge gave its convulsive shudder. The violence of this threw Eugene against the steelwork and knocked him unconscious. Delphis wasn't dislodged from the girder he was standing on, either then or, incredibly, by the fall itself. A few seconds later Delphis found himself unhurt on his girder, still twenty feet or so above the muddy foreshore. He dropped to the ground and turned half-stunned to look at the wreck of the anchor arm, out of which Eugene was crawling on hands and knees, bloodspattered but not seriously injured.

The ten or eleven men-who had neither been killed by the fall nor able to get out as the Lajeunesses and the four other lucky ones had done, were trapped in the tangled girders of the arm, which were so closely interwoven there wasn’t enough space between any of them to let a man crawl through. All these prisoners were in the part of the arm that had fallen on the outer stretch of the foreshore—dry just then at low tide. But it wouldn’t remain dry. At six o’clock, half an hour from then, the tide would begin to come in and flood the outer stretch, and from then until high water at 11.34 it would rise a little more than thirteen feet—about half an inch every minute. And from seven o’clock until the moon rose at ten in a sky overcast by sullen clouds, the night would be as black as pitch.

The men who’d come across from the north shore in boats, and the handful of men who’d been safe on land on the south shore, tried frantically to rescue their trapped comrades; but it was no use. They had no oxyacetylene cutting torches to work with, and no heavy equipment of any kind. The twisted girders were far too strong to be pried apart with the crowbars that were all they had. While the twilight lasted the would-be rescuers could see and be seen by the imprisoned men. After nightfall, since there weren’t any searchlights and the only light came from dimly burning oil lamps and a string of bonfires hastily lit along the cliff, the men in the wreckage were hidden by darkness.

It was already impossible to see them when people began to arrive from the surrounding villages; above all from New Liverpool and St. Romuald, nearest the bridge, where most of the workmen either had their homes or, if they weren’t from the neighborhood, boarded with village families. Among them were wives, mothers and children of the men. In the darkness and confusion there was no way of making sure who had been killed and who had escaped. From the wreckage came moans of pain and later the sound of a greater agony: the gurgling screams of man after man as the tide rose the final inch and drowned him.

A priest. Father A. E. McGuire, of the nearby parish of Sillery.'had been one of the first to reach the bridge. He had himself lowered down the cliff on a rope, and waded out along the wreckage to give the doomed men the last rites. They had no other comfort. By ten o’clock, when the moon came up, the tide had risen so far the water on the tide flat was ten feet deep. Except for the slapping of the little waves and the swirling of the current through the twisted girders, the ruins of the inner span were silent.

At midnight there was a new horror to face. One by one the bodies of men who had been on the outer arm ;fbovc the river when it plunged into the water came floating up from the depths, pulled clear by the drag of the tide. As each body surfaced a boat put out to pick it up and bring it ashore. Between midnight and dawn sixteen of the dead were recovered in this way, and laid in coffins that had been sent in horse-drawn vans from Levis, six miles downstream. The sixteen, and those from the inshore arm when they could eventually be taken out. were the only dead whose bodies were ever recovered. The skeletons of the rest remain at the bottom of the river, entombed in the twisted steel.

Young Birks, who had thought there was no real danger in the bent girders of the anchor arm, was the only engineer the bridge killed. Yenser died on the traveler he had dreamed it was safe to move farther out on the river arm. Of the dead workmen, twenty were Americans, twenty French Canadians, and thirty-five were Indians from the village in the Caughnawaga reserve at Lachine, outside Montreal. Nearly every house in the village had at least one man to mourn. To this day the womenfolk there speak of the fall of the Quebec Bridge simply as The Disaster. And to this day the Caughnawagas, reckoned the best high-steelmen on the continent, are bound by a promise the women exacted when The Disaster happened—that never again would so many of their men work together on a single construction job.

The epitaph of the bridge itself was written by the members of the royal commission of enquiry appointed two days after it fell—J. G. G. Kerry, a civil engineer of Campbellford, Ont., a Montreal engineer named Henry Holgate, and Professor John Galbraith of the University of Toronto. The commissioners’ report, made in February 1908, put the gist of their findings in six short paragraphs:

The collapse of the Quebec Bridge resulted from the failure of the lower chords in the anchor arm near the main pier. The failure of these chords was due to their defective design.

The stresses that caused the failure were not due to abnormal weather conditions or accident, but were such as might be expected in the regular course of erection.

The design of the chords that failed was made by Mr. P. L. Szlapka, the designing engineer of the Phoenix Bridge Company.

This design was examined and officially approved by Mr. Theodore Cooper, consulting engineer of the Quebec Bridge and Railway Company.

The failure cannot be attributed directly to any cause other than errors in judgment on the part of these two engineers.

These errors of judgment cannot be attributed either to lack of common professional knowledge, to neglect of duty, or to a desire to economize. The ability of the two engineers was tried in one of the most difficult professional problems of the day and proved to be insufficient for the task.

The material loss, about two millions, was absorbed by the government of Canada under the guarantee it had given. The Quebec Bridge and Railway Company (the “Railway” had been added to its name in 1903) went out of business. It had no liability toward the eleven survivors or the heirs of the seventy-five dead, because all the men had been employed by the Phoenix Bridge Company. Phoenix had taken out a liability policy with the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Company, of London, England. Neither Phoenix nor the insurance company would reveal the total amount paid, but an informed guess is that the heirs and survivors got between fifty and one hundred thousand dollars to share among them.

The Laurier government felt that the disaster couldn’t be allowed to defeat the project, but was determined to be responsible for the design, cost and control of the second Quebec Bridge. It was confident that this time, with the grim lesson of the first bridge to learn from, success was certain—but through nobody’s fault the second bridge was to lead to a second tragedy. In the summer of 1908 the government appointed a board of seven engineers, all civil servants, to make a new design. Construction work began in the summer of 1913.

Nothing disturbing happened during the building of the main cantilever arms on each side of the river. By September 1916 they were ready for the final stage: the hoisting into place of a central span 640 feet long and weighing five thousand tons, to link the two arms stretching across the river. This was to be done by floating the span out in the river on pontoons and hoisting it into position with hydraulic jacks.

At 8.50 in the morning of Sept. 11 the hoist began. The jacks took the strain and started to raise the span. When the five thousand tons of steel had been hoisted two feet (there were almost a hundred and forty feet left to go before the span would come level with the waiting arms of the cantilevers overhead) it was bolted to the lifting hangers to hold it until the jiacks could be moved upward for the next hoist. This cycle of two-foot hoists was being carried out for the third time when the pontoons floated clear and left the span hanging twenty feet in the air above the river.

At 10.30 hoisting began again. Twenty minutes later another two-foot cycle was finished, and the span had been bolted to the hangers for the next stage. Just as the jacks were being moved upward there was a loud cracking noise, the span lurched sideways. The northern end held firm to the hanger, but the southern end tore away and sagged downward. A few seconds later the other end tore away too, and the whole span plunged into the river, taking with it the ninety men.

When the count of those the new bridge had killed was made, it was found that thirteen men had been caught in the girders and dragged to their death in the deep water, only a few yards from the wreckage and she skeletons of 1907.

The engineers who investigated the accident soon found the cause. A crossshaped steel casting, attached to a corner of the span as a link to hold it during the hoist, had given way.

Work on a new span was begun at Sillery in June 1917, using the same design and eventually floating it off and bringing it upriver to the bridge by the same methods. At four in the afternoon of Sept. 20 the last of the two-foot lifts was completed without a hitch, and the span was permanently fastened to the cantilevers, a hundred and fifty feet above the St. Lawrence. And in August 1919 the Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales and making a postwar tour of Canada, declared the bridge open in the King's name.

At that moment His Royal Highness was standing directly over fourteen thousand tons of twisted steel in the depths of the river, and the bodies of the dead men whose memorial was the Quebec Bridge—-strong, triumphant at last, if