Collapse of the Elk River Bridge in Charleston

Charleston Daily Mail
December 15, 1904

Drops Into Elk

Six Teams And A Number Of School Children Go Down Into The Icy Waters Of Elk River

2 Bodies of School Children Recovered and a Number Make Narrow Escapes All the Drivers Got Out Rumors of Missing Passengers U.S. Diver to Search the River Bed - Story of the Great Catastrophe

Thronged with boys and girls on their way to school and with teams and drivers, the Wire Suspension Bridge across the Elk River at the foot of Lovell street collapsed Thursday morning at 8:15 o'clock with terrible results. Although, such a catastrophe has been predicted time and time again by some people no one ever anticipated the occurrence at such time when the victimes are mainly of the school age.

The fatalities first reported were young girls. Mamie Higgenbotham aged 11, daughter of Ed Higgenbotham, and Ray Humphreys, aged 15, who resided on the West Side. Ed Higgenbotham, father of first girl resides on Roane street on the West Side and is janitor at the Lincoln School building on the West Side.

The injured include Zella Smith aged 17, daughter of Wilson Smith, of Pennsylvania avenue. Compound fracture of the elbow.

William Holmes, colored driver for Gates and Hogeman, who resides on Truslow street. He sustained a number of cuts and bruises and suffered from the shock.

Henry Fielder, driver for Gates and Hogeman, resides on the West Side, sustained serious internal injuries.

Among those who escaped uninjured were Lillian Cavender, aged fifteen, who was about the middle of the bridge and who broke the effect of her fall by catching a wire as she fell. She was rescued from the debris among the first. George Woodall, driver fro Gates and Hogeman, also escaped unhurt. Gordon Young, driver for West Charleston Feed Company, also escaped.

The two large cables on the upper side of the bridge pulled from their moorings in the stone anchor on Lovelll street. The accident was due to this. The flooring was tilted and the people and wagons were slid off. The strain later snapped one of the cables on the lower side. The flooring dropped and turned completely over.

Although only two have been recovered dead so far it is feared that there are several bodies still under the debris and the ice. A small body was seen on one of the teams by several people but has not been heard of yet. Ira Woods driver for the Charleston Milling and Produce Company, is being searched for by friends who fear that he did not escape.

Immediately on the arrival of people on the scene of the disaster about twelve skiffs were manned and people commenced getting out the injured. The fire department was summoned and under Chief White's direction commenced doing all they could. Miss Cavender, numb with cold and suffering from the shock although uninjured was carried from the ice where she dropped by Chief White. His men and civilians rescued the others.

George Woodall, son of Judge E. A. Woodall and who is a driver for Gates and Hugeman, was driving a team about the middle of the bridge when the drop came. He jumped and landed on the ice and was uninjured.

Gordon Young was driving a one-horse delivery wagon of the West Charleston Feed Company on the bridge when the crash came. He jumped onto the ice and crawled to shore uninjured. His horse was lead out of the water and up the bank on the West Side and was one of the two horses that were saved out of thirteen. The animal was barely scratched.

William Holmes, a colored driver for Gates and Hogeman was carried out among the first. He was cut about the head and was thought to be badly injured. He was taken to the Elk Bridge saloon and Dr. W. W. Tompkins called in. His injuries were found not to be so serious as first supposed and he was bundled in blankets and taken in the police patrol wagon to his home on Truslow street.

Henry Fielder, another driver for Gates and Hogeman who is thought to be seriously injured, was taken to his home on the West Side in the patrol wagon.

Tom Mickey, colored driver from R. A. Marshall, was driving a covered delivery wagon across the bridge when it dropped. His escape with little or no injury is regarded as miraculous. He was taken to his home on Piedmont road.

The body of little Mamie Higgenbotham was the first of the dead to be recovered. One of the skiffs was breaking up the ice near the middle of the river when the body was seen near the surface. She was taken out streaming with water and with an ugly cut on the forehead. The little body was carried to the store of A. P. Silverstein near the bridge where she remained until she was taken to the undertaking establishment of the Mead Brothers and Company

Nearly an hour lapsed before the body of Ray Humphreys was found. It was taken charge of by J. W. Hill of Mead Brothers and Company and was removed to that establishment where the inquests will be held.

By this time several thousand people gathered on the banks of the river and it was all the police could do to force the crowds to observe the police line.

Mayor Rudesill arrived on the scene early and under his supervision the police and fire department conducted the work of rescuing the bodies. The patrol wagon was kept on the scene all the time. The steamer Baxter was secured to come up the river and break the ice and that work is now going on.

United States Engineer Thomas E. Jeffries has sent for a diver from one of the government locks and the man and the heavy apparatus used in his work are expected Thursday evening.

Miss Lillian Cavender of Ohio avenue who was about the middle of bridge when the crash came and who was uninjured in spite of the terrible fall she had, was removed as soon as she was rescued from the ice and debris to the residence of James Bibby on Lovell street. Wrapped in blankets and heavy comforts she coolly talked to a Mail reporter barely an hour after her terrible experience.

"A party of girls composed of Mamie Higgenbotham, Zella Smith, Louise McWhorter, Ray Humphreys, my sister Louise and myself were all walking across the bridge on our way to the Union School building. Ray Humphreys and Mamie Higganbotham were a short distance behind Zella Smith and me and my sister and Louise McWhorter were just ahead. It was exactly 8:15 o'clock.

"I didn't hear any crash and the first thing I knew was that I was falling. As I fell, I clutched a wire and stopped myself for a moment, but it cut my hand so I had to let go. I think that wire kept me from being hurt. On the bridge at the time, I remember six wagons. There was a little boy on the seat of one of them. I don't know who was behind us. My sister and Louise McWhorter felt the flooring sinking and they ran and got off"

Although some of the people on the bridge declare there was no crash, residents in that vicinity declare the noise could be heard all over that part of the town.

The wire suspension bridge across Elk was built in 1852, and at that time was considered quite a wonderful structure. It's cables were severed during the civil war and then a pontoon bridge was erected and used for a time. After the war the old cables were spliced and new ones added to make it a safer structure.

Of late years the bridge had been very wobbly and some two years ago it shook so when a team or two was crossing it that passengers on the bridge at the same time had to walk like sailors to keep their balance, and it became popularly known as the "drunken bridge." At the same time it was badly sagged and one corner dropped down and the West Side end toward Kanawha became badly sagged. A new floor was then laid and this seemed op give the structure more stability at least temporarily.

Of late years, owning to the growth of Charleston, and its industrial and commercial development, the traffic over this bridge became very heavy; in fact, by many, it was considered too heavy for a structure of that character, as the span was a very long one, between 600 and 800 feet.

Last September, on Labor Day, when the parade of the labor organizations of Charleston was arranged for it was originally on the program to start from the West Side, but the program was later changed so that the parade started from the east side of Elk, abandoning the West Side, and thus dispensing with the crossing of the bridge on account of the statement as published in the Charleston papers at the time, of the "unsafe" condition of that bridge.

Two schoolgirls who had just stepped on the west end of the bridge when it collapsed and who sustained falls of but ten or twenty feet were worse injured than those who dropped to the water. Ottie Gibbs, fifteen-year old daughter of A. A. Gibbs of Cinder Road, had both hips broken and an arm broken. Her injuries are thought to be fatal. She was moved to the residence of Mrs. Hubbard on Charleston street near the bridge. Elma Tucker aged 13 years, daughter of J. F. Tucker of Glenwood Heights who was in company with the Gibbs girl, sustained fractures of both arms and a broken leg. She had regained consciousness at noon and hopes for her recovery are entertained.

Among the wild rumors circulated were those that Dr. C. E. McMillian, John C. Thomas and a girl named Beckwith were missing. These reports have proved untrue when investigated by the Mail and all the persons are safe and sound.

About one o'clock, Miss Zella Smith, who sustained a compound fracture of the arm and who was taken to the nearby residence of C. G. Gebhart, was operated upon by physicians and is resting easily.

The length of river spans and clear height of the Elk bridges as gathered from the United States Engineer's office are:

K & M bridge, 209 feet in length; 40.40 feet above water.

Keystone bridge, 273 feet in length: 40.40 feet above water.

The Ladies Aid of the Breame Memorial have postponed their supper indefinitely on account of the bridge disaster.


West Virginia Archives and History