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The Silver Bridge Disaster

By Stan Bumgardner

This photo taken by Herb Clagg of the State Road Commission the day after the Silver Bridge collapse,
depicts just some of the utter destruction. Courtesy of the WVSA, Maurice Hamill Collection.

Memorial Day, May 30, 1928, a crowd of more than 10,000 poured into Point Pleasant to dedicate a new state-of-the-art suspension bridge. For a brief time, the crowd more than tripled the population of this historic Mason County city. A sudden cloudburst, though, scattered the spectators and prematurely ended the celebration. It was a dark omen for the bridge and Point Pleasant.

The Silver Bridge was initially a private enterprise, built in the Roaring Twenties in Gallia County, Ohio, for about $1 million. The two-lane toll bridge (the state acquired it in 1941, and tolls were removed a decade later) was nearly a half-mile long. Its longest span, across the central channel of the Ohio River, was 700 feet; two 380-foot anchor spans connected the main span to the West Virginia and Ohio shores. A coat of glimmering aluminum paint gave the bridge an almost futuristic appearance. The Silver Bridge was a symbol of hope, and the people of Point Pleasant were rightly proud of it.

The bridge connected Point Pleasant on the West Virginia side with Kanauga, Ohio. More broadly, it made Point Pleasant a central hub in a highway system linking Columbus, Ohio, with Charleston and points further south. Promoting its potential for business and travel, local leaders nicknamed the Silver Bridge the “Gateway to the South.”

Its innovative design was a first in the United States. According to the Engineering News-Record magazine, the bridge’s most distinct feature was its “use of heat-treated eyebar chains, portions of which form parts of the top chords of the stiffening trusses.”

The steel eyebar chains stabilized the suspension bridge through vertical suspension bars connected to the deck. Each eyebar was linked to a parallel sister eyebar, each bearing an equal amount of load. This was also its fatal design flaw: the lack of a backup system in case any single eyebar failed. By contrast, most other modern suspension bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge, were designed to withstand the loss of a single cable, or even several.

Over the years, stress corrosion cracks formed in eyebar 330, as it would be identified in the National Transportation Safety Board report. Inspections by the State Road Commission—one as late as December 6, 1967—missed the escalating problem because, according to the report, it was “inaccessible to visual inspection.” As eyebar 330 slowly corroded over time, another change was happening. Automobiles were getting much heavier, and the mounting traffic jams on the bridge were adding unforeseen stress on the eyebars.

It was about 4:58 p.m., during bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic, on Friday, December 15, 1967. People were heading home from work or Christmas shopping and ready to enjoy the weekend. The crack in eyebar 330, only about an 1/8-inch deep, reached critical mass and snapped, shifting the weight load to its sister eyebar, which slipped off its pin. The broken eyebar chain set in motion a rapid and catastrophic domino effect that brought down the bridge’s two rocker towers.

The central and anchor spans collapsed in less than a minute. One eyewitness said the bridge “folded like a deck of cards.” Another noted that it “didn’t just fall in the river. It sort of slithered like a snake, then it buckled, and cars began falling off sideways.” Another person observed that it looked like the “eyebars were clapping hands.”

It also emitted a dreadful sound. Some compared it to a loud gunshot or a jet plane taking off. While the eyewitnesses saw and heard things in a slightly different way, they all sensed that something horrific had just happened. And, to this day, every person who was in the vicinity on December 15, 1967, can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when the bridge fell.

Ruth Fout was working at a business on Sixth Street in Point Pleasant, just down the block from the entrance ramp. “When we were getting our coats on about 5:00 to go home,” she recalls, “we heard a loud noise, and all the power went off. Right afterward, my supervisor’s husband rushed in and said, ‘The bridge just fell.’”

At that moment, 37 vehicles were on the Silver Bridge. All but six plunged into the frigid Ohio River or onto the riverbank in Kanauga, Ohio.

Decades later, Point Pleasant resident Robert Rimmey described to the Huntington Herald-Dispatch what he experienced at that moment: “I heard a loud crack, and I thought it was a post that used to be there on the sidewalk where I was sitting. I turned around, and I saw the bridge swaying, and the whole thing fell.”

Minutes later, he helped state trooper Rudy O’Dell pull Charlene Wood, a young expecting mother who worked at a Point Pleasant hair salon, from the precipice of the shattered bridge. She later recalled, “As I was approaching the bridge, the light changed. When it went to green, I started over the bridge, and there was a terrible shaking of the bridge. My father was a riverboat captain and had talked about barges hitting the bridge and the pier, so when I heard that, I automatically put my car in reverse. By the time I got my car stopped, mine was on the very edge where it broke off.”

The next thing Charlene knew, live power lines were on top of her 1967 Pontiac, and she was being helped from the car. That was the last thing she remembered from that evening. Charlene would remain traumatized by the incident, but her story is one of the rare positives because she survived and, four months later, gave birth to healthy twins. She later reflected, “The Lord left me here for that. I’m sure of it.”

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.