"Without an Instantís Warning": Disaster on the St. Lawrence, 1898
 "I can hardly realize that the bridge is gone... I had just gone ashore, and was looking towards the bridge when all at once the pier in the centre of the two spans seemed to crumble away, and the two completed and finished spans, with the 30-odd men working on them, tumbled into the water."
J. Simmons, Phoenix Bridge Company Chief Engineer This was the scene south of Cornwall Island one century ago this year. The disaster struck during the construction of one of the railway bridges across the mighty St. Lawrence River on September 6th, 1898. The injuries sustained in the calamity were unprecedented for the area: fifteen labourers from Canada and the United States were killed while many of the survivors sustained both physical and psychological injuries. This historical summary of the event is presented this week on account of the significant milestone, as well as to recognize this coming weekís National Day of Mourning for killed and injured workers.

The company that owned the railroad line had originally been incorporated as "The Ontario Pacific Railway." This name was later scaled down and changed to a more modest "Ottawa & New York Railway." The two Cornwall bridges were necessary to complete the line between Canadaís capital and the State of New York. The first spanned the north channel of the river between the Canadian mainland and Cornwall Island and the second extended from Cornwall Island to the American mainland. The latter bridge was the one which collapsed in 1898.

Work had been progressing well with the construction of the bridge throughout the year. By early September 1898, labourers were finishing up the last superficial tasks before the bridge was to be made operable. Painters were applying coats of paint and the last rivets, nuts and bolts were finding their intended destinations. Then, at noon on September 6th, "without and instantís warning" as the newspapers described it, one pier and two spans of the near-complete bridge tumbled into the river with more than two dozen men accompanying the wreck into the swift water.

Louis White was one of the men who was on the bridge at the time of the collapse. White was a notable lacrosse player in his time, and used some of the sportís skills to survive the disaster. When he realized that the bridge was about to give way, he sprinted for the shore and survived a 50-foot fall to the ground. His injuries included fractured ankles, a damaged spine and some internal injuries. White was one of seven Mohawk Indians who were injured in the disaster.

At the end of the day, none of the bodies of those who were killed had been recovered, indicating that the dead had endured horrible deaths by being pinned to the riverbed by the heavy steel girders from the fallen bridge. The official list of the dead included Louis Baumer, Tom Birmingham, Cyril Campbell, John Clause, J.D. Craig, W.J. Cubby, Harry Davis, R.L. Dysart, Dan Hughes, W.F. Jackson, F. Lavigne, Robert Martin, Pat Murphy, William Saunders and William Sherman. Some of the dead were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery on Cumberland Street in Cornwall.

Shortly after the disaster, rumours circulated throughout Cornwall that the fault for the accident was in the construction of the pier that had collapsed. This was confirmed by Robert Douglas, who was commissioned by the Canadian Department of Railways and Canals to make a "searching inquiry" on the accident and to report on the state of the remaining piers. In his report he concluded that the pier which had collapsed was built not on bedrock, but on soft clay. Naturally, the clay could not withstand such weight and the pier sank into the riverbed and eventually collapsed to one side, bringing down two spans of the bridge.

Months later, the collapsed pier and spans were re-built and the bridge was finally made fully operational. It served as a railway and even later as a vehicular bridge for a half-century before being replaced (during the Seaway era) with the high-span bridge which now links Cornwall Island to State of New York. While traveling on the present bridge, one of the original piers of the old railway bridge can be seen close to the American shore. It is the last remnant of both the engineering feat and the worst catastrophe in the history of Cornwall and area.


Note for illustrations: I would like these to be as large as possible (3-column, if possible?) If you have to reduce one to a 2-column, reduce photo 1 since photo 2 has much more interesting detail.

Photograph 1:

Incredibly, this photograph was taken by a lucky photographer only a few hours before the accident. The second pier from the shore is the one which collapsed on September 6th, 1898. (National Archives of Canada)

Photograph 2:

Twisted metal characterizes this photograph, taken a few hours after the collapse. Most of the accident victims were trapped under the wreckage and were not recovered for days. (SD&G Historical Society)