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Spokane's Division Street Bridge collapses on December 18, 1915.

HistoryLink.org Essay 7642 : Printer-Friendly Format

On December 18, 1915, at 6:11 in the morning, a steel bridge across the Spokane River at Division Street collapses, sending five people to their deaths and injuring a number of others. Although erected during the horse-and-buggy era, it is considered more than strong enough for the later automobiles and streetcars on Division, a major arterial linking the north and south sides of Spokane. The dead and injured are all occupants of one of two Washington Water Power electric streetcars on the bridge at the time. The collapse remains the worst bridge disaster in the history of Spokane.

How it Happened

The first Division Street Bridge was a wooden-truss structure built in 1882. The steel bridge that replaced it in 1892 served Spokane until the collapse in 1915. At the time of the tragedy, two Washington Water Power electric streetcars (or trolleys) were on the bridge. One, inbound to downtown and carrying the motorman, conductor and 15 or 17 passengers (newspaper accounts vary) plunged into the river. An outbound trolley on its first run of the day was carrying two passengers, the motorman, and the conductor. Fortunately, its snow scrapers caught on the north edge of the broken bridge, preventing its rolling back into the water. Although the car was suspended at a 45-degree angle, the four male occupants were able to escape virtually unscathed.

The dead and injured were all passengers on the inbound car. The river was 30 to 40 feet deep at that point, but the bottom was littered with old pilings onto which the streetcar and heavy bridge floor rested. Otherwise, they would have been totally submerged. Conductor Murrow I. Davis (1878-1978) recalled years later:

"As usual my motorman, John Becher, and I reported for work at 5 a.m. We were carrying the first inbound passenger load, all men, on the old Aster Street line. Snow had fallen during the night and freezing temperatures caused a fog to rise from the river as we approached the bridge. It was exactly 6:11 in the morning. We were nearing the center of the span when suddenly, without warning, there was a shudder and almost instantly everything went black. A large steel girder from the collapsing bridge slashed across our car, cutting off everything above the seats. In the darkness there was nothing we could do, as the car quickly sank into the icy water, coming to rest on the bridge floor as it sank to the river bottom. All of us who made it were lucky to have come out alive. I shall never forget to my dying day the crashing steel, the awful sudden darkness lighted only by flying sparks made by electrical short circuits, and the screams of the injured and dying" (Spokesman-Review, December 12, 1965)

Davis, one of the less injured, helped some of the other survivors get out of the streetcar as water poured in, then guided them across a twisted girder that had fallen, forming a sort of bridge between the streetcar and the north bank of the river. During this rescue, ice started forming on the spray-covered metal. One victim reported that his wet gloves froze to the girder to which he was clinging.

The Fire Department, unfortunately, went first to the south end of the bridge, from which they could not reach the victims. It took about 30 minutes for them to arrive at the north end via another bridge. From there, they were able to remove the 12 injured passengers and crew by means of ladders lowered down the slippery riverbank. According to varying newspaper accounts, the five dead were either killed outright by the fallen girder that slashed through the top of the streetcar or trapped underneath it and drowned. The collapsed span had severed electric lines as well as gas and water mains, complicating rescue efforts and disrupting services in a wide section of the city.

If anything could be called fortuitous about the tragedy, it would be its early morning timing: Had the collapse occurred later, far more people would have been at risk. It was, after all, the last shopping Saturday before Christmas. Investigators soon established that no automobiles or pedestrians had been on the bridge at the time of the collapse.

Why?

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, the city of Spokane, Washington Water Power, and Hugh L. Cooper of New York, the engineer who had designed the bridge, all scrambled to disclaim responsibility. Cooper coincidentally was in Spokane on another area project at the time and was able to inspect the ruins. He asserted:

"I do not believe the design was in any way weak ... the bridge has [never] been subjected to the working load it was designed to carry, 4800 pounds per linear foot, a weight greater than any modern standard railway freight train. ... When the bars broke precipitating the structure into the river they were only carrying about one-seventh the load that would normally be necessary to break [them]. ... The bridge was damaged in the flood of 1894 ... [when] an old Howe truss railroad span was washed out, came down the stream and struck the specific bars that broke Saturday morning a heavy blow. As a result they were abnormally distorted and bent out of shape or broken entirely, and have since been re-welded. ... The upstream bar of the fractured pair ... shows today the marks of a heavy blow on the upstream side" (Spokesman-Review, December 21, 1915).

Yet a civil engineer brought in from Portland attributed the collapse to other causes, including steel that was "inferior at the time of the bridge was built," a problem that should have been prevented "under proper engineering inspection" (Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 24, p. 2).

Washington Water Power President David L. Huntington claimed on the day of the collapse:

"The Washington Water Power Company had nothing to do with the designing or construction of the Division Street Bridge [or its maintenance] except to keep up the floor system under the company's tracks. This system was renewed recently and put into the best possible condition. We do not yet know the cause of this distressing accident, but it is evident that the company was in no way responsible for it" Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 18, 1915).

Upon first examining the wreckage, Spokane City Engineer Morton Macartney stated: "The I-bars, which are steel braces running lengthwise with the bridge, were snapped off as if they were icicles" (Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 18, 1915). The day after the tragedy he speculated: "It is possible that some construction defect might have existed in the bridge for years and escaped the human eye in the very closest inspection" (Spokesman-Review, December 19, 1915). Ironically, the collapse occurred only a week after city workers had finished strengthening the bridge's steel supports. During this, "the bridge was entirely stripped of its timbers and every opportunity afforded for a thorough examination" (Spokesman-Review, December 19, 1915).

By the next day, outside experts brought in by Macartney had concluded that "granulation or crystallization"   (Spokesman-Review, December 20, 1915) of the steel caused the tragedy. Macartney explained that this condition (today called metal fatigue) might develop over time with vibration or might be fixed in the metal at the time of rolling. In either case, he insisted: "No amount of examination could have revealed the defects" (Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 20, 1915). Nevertheless, the bold front page headline of the day read: "City Faces Big Damage Claims as Result of Bridge Collapse."

Building a New Bridge

The people of Spokane soon petitioned for a concrete bridge to replace the destroyed steel bridge. In the meantime, the city hurriedly erected a "creaking and shivering temporary span" of timber that did not inspire the confidence of streetcar riders (Spokesman-Review, December 12, 1965). For the permanent bridge, City Engineer Macartney proposed a "barrel type" plan consisting of three main arches filled with earth and paved, plus a number of smaller arches. It would be 600 feet long, approximately 270 feet spanning the Spokane River. The roadway would be 50 feet wide, and there would be two sidewalks each nine feet wide. Washington Paving Company of Seattle was awarded the contract of $108,443 and completed the new bridge in 1917.

This concrete bridge served Spokane until 1992, when it was replaced because of increased traffic.

Sources:
Byron Barber, "The Golden Era of Bridge Building," Pacific Northwesterner Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter, 1984), p. 10; Clarence H. Colby, "And: When Disaster Hit," Spokesman-Review, December 12, 1965; Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs, Spanning Washington: Historic Highway Bridges of the Evergreen State (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005), 130; Jim Kershner, "Disaster on Division," Spokesman-Review, January 29, 2006, p. D-10; Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 18, 1915, p. 1-3, 5; December 19, 1915, p. 1, 2; December 20, 1915, p. 1-3; December 22, p. 6; December 24, p. 1, 2; Spokesman-Review, December 19, 1915, p. 1-3; December 20, 1915, p. 1, 2, 6; December 21, 1915, p. 1; December 22, p. 1; "Trolley Hero is Dead," Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1978.
See also: "Collapse of Spokane Bridge," Pacific Builder and Engineer Vol. 23, February 23, 1917; "Spokane May Inspect City Bridges," Pacific Builder and Engineer Vol. 21, (January, 1916), 34.


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Wreckage of Division Street Bridge, Spokane, 1915
Courtesy Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture


 
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