On Wednesday, January 3, 1923, the Allen Street Bridge in Kelso collapses into the Cowlitz River as workers are returning home from work. The bridge in the small Cowlitz County city in Southwestern Washington was built in 1906 entirely of wood, and has been weakened by recent flooding and overuse. When a large traffic jam puts excessive stress and strain on the old bridge, a suspension cable breaks, toppling the supporting towers and dropping the entire structure into the river. Scores are immediately rescued from the wreckage but further efforts are severely hampered by bad weather and darkness. Twenty or so people die in the disaster but, with most of the bodies never found and because of the large number of transients working in the area, an exact figure will never be known. Nonetheless, in terms of fatalities, this is Washington's worst bridge disaster.
In 1921, the Long-Bell Lumber Company of Kansas City, Missouri, purchased 11,000 acres of flat valley land between the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers, about four miles west of Kelso, with the intention of building two lumber mills. It soon became apparent that several thousand laborers would be needed to operate the mills. Kelso, founded in 1847, was the nearest population center and had fewer than 2,000 residents. Rather than allow a sprawling mill town to develop, Long-Bell decided to build a planned city, which was dedicated in July 1923 as Longview.
During the two years of construction, Kelso was besieged with transient laborers, putting severe strains on the town's infrastructure. Aside from private ferry boats, the Allen Street Bridge was the only way across the Cowlitz River and it carried a huge amount vehicle and pedestrian traffic traveling to and from the Long-Bell construction site.
A Bridge Built of Wood
The Allen Street Bridge, known locally as the Kelso or Cowlitz Bridge, was built entirely of wood in 1906, connecting the towns of Kelso and Catlin (now West Kelso). It was a narrow, 600-foot, two-lane, bascule-type drawbridge that used counterbalance weights in overhead towers to assist the machinery in pivoting the deck upward, opening a passageway for vessels. Two piers of heavy pilings provided the foundations for the structure.
The bridge replaced another wooden bridge destroyed in 1906 by a flood. Although renovated in 1915, by 1920 the wooden bridge was said to be in such poor condition that many Kelso residents refused to use it. To meet the needs of heavy traffic, the state highway department, in association with Cowlitz County and the City of Kelso, started construction of a replacement bridge, downriver and close to the old bridge, in early 1922. The new Allen Street Bridge, with four lanes and a vertical lift span, was constructed entirely of steel and cement by the Pacific Bridge Company. It went into full service a few weeks after the collapse of the old bridge, on Monday morning, March 19, 1923.
Wind and Rain
1922 was one of the driest years in Washington since record keeping began in 1895. Annual rainfall was nine inches below normal. But the weather changed in December, bringing nearly one third the total rainfall for the year. The rivers in Washington and Oregon were running at flood stage and full of logs and debris, threatening bridges. Barge cranes and dynamite were used to dislodge the logjams that gathered about bridge piers, exerting tons of pressure.
On December 31, 1922, a terrific storm hit the Pacific Northwest. The weather station on Tatoosh Island recorded a phenomenally low barometric reading of 29.02 inches. The North Head weather station near the mouth of the Columbia River recorded gale force winds from the southwest at 76 miles per hour. Seattle reported receiving almost an inch of rain and other areas, much more. Over the next several days, storms continued moving in from the Pacific Ocean, bringing torrential rains, swelling rivers, and causing floods. Even by Pacific Northwest standards, it was extremely wet. The Cowlitz River, at 15 feet above normal, was nearing flood stage.
The Cable Snaps
On Wednesday, January 3, 1923, there was the usual rush of traffic across the Allen Street Bridge as people returned home from work. The drawbridge had just been lowered and a mass of vehicles and pedestrians were waiting to cross. A stalled car at one end and two horse-drawn wagons at the other slowed traffic across the bridge to a crawl. At 11 minutes before 5 p.m., the upstream steel support cable at the east anchorage of the bridge tore loose, running through a pulley at the top of the east tower, with a loud report. When the east end cable snapped, it released tension on one side of the bridge, toppling the two supporting towers and middle span into the river.
The middle span, approximately 300 feet in length, turned over as the west tower slowly fell, spilling trucks, automobiles, and pedestrians into the swift, muddy river 20 feet below. The draw span dropped like a trap door, dumping all the vehicles and pedestrians into the water. The east tower fell onto the new bridge, still under construction, and broke apart, but the east approach to the bridge was left standing. The collapse also broke the water mains and telephone lines to West Kelso. The broken telephone lines fell across high voltage power lines, shorting out transformers in Kelso and plunging the city into darkness.
When the bridge started to collapse, the pedestrians near the ends scrambled back to the riverbank, escaping unhurt. Many people thrown into the water saved themselves from drowning by crawling across wreckage to shore or by hanging onto floating debris until rescued. The steamers Pomona and Cowlitz along with several other small steamboats working in the area were credited with saving at least 40 lives.
The wreckage was immediately secured to the new bridge and along the riverbank so that later on it could be thoroughly searched for trapped bodies. By 6 p.m. no bodies had been recovered, but several had been reported floating down the Cowlitz toward the Columbia River, three miles downstream. Although hampered by darkness and heavy rain, rescue workers continued searching for victims throughout the night, using flashlights.
Rescue Efforts Continue
On Thursday morning, January 4, 1923, the Cowlitz County Coroner's Office brought in three divers to search the river bottom around the collapsed bridge and under the wreckage. Wires were stretched across the mouth of the Cowlitz to catch any bodies floating down the river. By 10 a.m., still no bodies had been recovered. The Pacific Bridge Company began the task of hauling motor vehicles and timbers out of the river with a barge crane. Although many of the rescue workers were convinced that few bodies, if any, would be found in the tangled cables and wreckage, they continued searching in earnest. Crews grappled for bodies up and down the Cowlitz all day long without result.
Over the next several days, heavy rain continued to fall and the Cowlitz River continued to rise, greatly hampering rescue and salvage efforts. The Pacific Bridge Company stopped clearing the wreckage, and rescue workers and divers, menaced by logs and debris racing down river, suspended their search for victims. Instead, they concentrated their efforts exploring the riverbanks, eddies, and flooded areas below Kelso.
On Wednesday, January 10, 1923, freezing weather returned to Washington, turning the rain into snow at higher elevations. Although rain continued to fall in Cowlitz County, river levels dropped rapidly and flood waters began to subside. The weather station in Portland, Oregon, 45 miles south of Kelso, reported that nine inches of rain had fallen there since January 1.
On Saturday, January 13, 1923, the water level in the Cowlitz River had dropped sufficiently to allow the search for victims to resume. Barge cranes from the Pacific Bridge Company and the Silver Lake Railway and Lumber Company went to work clearing wreckage and a hauling a few trucks and automobiles from the river. As workers grappled, divers continued searching the river bottom near the bridge and under the wreckage, and a large fleet of vessels patrolled down-river, looking for victims. Charges of dynamite were set off in the water at 200-foot intervals in the three-mile stretch from Kelso to the confluence with the Columbia River, to loosen any bodies stuck in the mud on the river bottom.
By Wednesday, January 17, 1923, Cowlitz County Coroner William D. Van Note concluded that a further search for victims and vehicles would be unprofitable. Out of 13 automobiles belonging to known victims, only six had been recovered and Van Note knew there were more vehicles in the river. Flood waters covered the river bottom with several feet of sand, burying everything. Divers searched the entire riverbed, described as being as smooth as a beach, for a considerable distance below the bridge without finding a trace of a vehicle. Two vehicles and a wagon located four days earlier had to be dug out of the sand with a dredge. But still no bodies were recovered.
The Extent of the Disaster
Eyewitnesses reported there were between 100 and 150 people and as many as 20 vehicles crossing the bridge when the cable snapped. No one on the east approach or draw span was killed. The loss of life all came from the middle span, which was the first thing to fall. Fortunately, most of the pedestrians were able to vacate the span before it turned over. Fourteen people were taken to the Kelso Hospital with serious injuries. Two of them died: Harold Kirk, age 35, an employee of the Long-Bell Lumber Company, and George R. McDonald, age 36, a plumber from Vancouver, Washington.
Based on a careful check of homes, rooming houses, hotels, and places of employment throughout the area, Van Note estimated that 35 to 40 people were missing. This included at least a dozen men loitering about the Long-Bell employment office in West Kelso throughout the day, who had started for East Kelso at about the time of the disaster.
The list of known victims continued to change for days after the accident, as persons reported missing were found alive. Further searches for bodies down the Cowlitz and Columbia Rivers proved fruitless. Eventually the coroner released an official tally of two dead (Kirk and McDonald) and 18 people known to be missing and presumed dead: Benjamin Barr, a Cowlitz County commissioner-elect, and Arleigh Millard, of Woodland; W. V. Buck of Illinois; Maria Florence Huntington, Alonzo G. Huntington, and their son Lloyd G. Huntington, and John Godfrey, William F. Heartley, Emil Johnson, and Earl Pennel, all of Kelso; F. M. Beacon of Seattle; Ralph Chamberlain of Alberta; Alan Chisholm of Saskatchewan; John Cooper of Louisiana; W. P. Croake and Robert Titland of Tacoma; Luther J. Hall of Longview; and W. F. Philo of Portland.
Not until July 13 was the first body (by then badly decomposed) found, on a jetty two miles south of Kelso -- that of Arleigh Millard, who had been driving the car in which commissioner-elect Benjamin Barr was riding. (Barr's body was not found.) Several additional bodies were eventually discovered, including those of Luther Hall and Maria Huntington in August, Lloyd Huntington in November, and W. V. Buck nearly a year after that in October 1924.
The exact death toll would never be known as many of the victims were transient day-laborers either looking for work or employed at the Longview construction site by contractors. Claims for death or injury resulting from the bridge collapse were filed against Cowlitz County and the City of Kelso, eventually totaling over $500,000.
"A Toothpick Might Topple It"
A coroner's inquest was never held and experts differed as to the immediate cause of the disaster. A. J. Haley, a structural engineer from Astoria, Oregon, said the old Allen Street Bridge should have been declared unsafe and closed when, on December 23, 1922, the Silver Lake Railway and Lumber Company's log boom, located between Castle Rock and Kelso, broke loose, sending over three million board-feet of timber down the river. A huge logjam occurred at the bridge, exerting tons of pressure and loosening the piers of the supporting towers. The logjam, one of the worst in the history of the bridge, was finally cleared on the day before the collapse. On December 25, 1922, Haley stated publicly that the bridge was so unstable that "a toothpick might topple it over" ("Engineer Gave Warning ...").
J. F. Hamilton, the engineer in charge of constructing the new bridge, said he had inspected the suspension cables on the old bridge a few days before the collapse and found them in good condition. He had no explanation why a cable broke. Other experts opined the suspension cable failed due to excessive stress and strain on the bridge caused by the large traffic jam. The old wooden bridge simply wasn't designed to carry the amount of weight or volume of traffic brought about by Long-Bell's construction of Longview. Although there was never an official determination, it was undoubtedly a combination of circumstances and events that caused the disaster.