An absolute masterpiece of American engineering, the Silver Bridge was designed by the J.E. Greiner Company of Baltimore (who later designed the Chicago Skyway and Baltimore Harbor Tunnel) and built by the American Bridge Company of Pittsburgh (who later built the New River Gorge Bridge and Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge) in partnership with the West Virginia-Ohio River Bridge Corporation. The WV-ORBC had been organized just a few years prior by Dr. Charles E. Holzer, who, as someone who needed quick access to patients, intimately understood the need for quicker transportation between Ohio and West Virginia.
From the start of construction, it took less than a year to construct the $1.2-million-dollar bridge, shattering records for every company involved. It was a gleaming silver testament to the genius of the designers and skill of the builders, supported by revolutionary rocker towers and eye-bar chains that boasted a strength of 150,000 pounds per square inch.
The opening of this bridge bound Point Pleasant and Gallipolis forever, making us a single people. (Though, we do still enjoy an occasional friendly rivalry!) It was the pride and joy of the two river towns, and although it occasionally swayed, most of the thousands of people who crossed it daily attributed this to the innovative rocker towns and trusted the strength of the Silver Bridge. Certainly, in 1967, very few people would have believed you if you told them that the bridge was going to collapse.
Yet at 4:58 p.m. on Friday, December 15, 1967, an eye-bar broke just below the Ohio tower. Many eyewitnesses heard what sounded like a shotgun, and then the shaking began. It was so rough that some cars were moving as much as six inches to either side. Suddenly, the bridge rocked violently one way, then the other, metal grinding loudly against metal, and then, a horrible silence… As eyewitnesses later said, one moment the bridge was there, and the next it wasn’t.
Exploiting a flaw in the eye-bar/rocker tower design that required pressure from all three chain systems to maintain balance and structural integrity, the failure cascaded across the full 2,235-foot length of the Silver Bridge in less than sixty seconds, less time than it has likely taken you to read this far. Of the 74 people on the bridge, 64 fell with it.
Quickly overcoming shock, and fearing that as many as two hundred people could have been on the bridge as it was near rush hour, eyewitnesses hurried to the scene to save who they could. First responders rushed to rescue those trapped in the twisted mesh of steel that was once the Ohio approach, keeping warm by fires and working through the night; Bill McCormick and another man at the City Ice & Fuel landing jumped onto their workboat, and at least one other man went out in his boat; Holzer and Pleasant Valley prepared for a rush of victims, and temporary morgues were set up at the Grace Methodist Church in Gallipolis and later the National Guard Armory above Point Pleasant.
Rescuers were able to save eighteen lives that night, thirteen pulled from the wreckage on land and five from the cold Ohio River, but the death toll was steep. Forty-six lives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, were lost in the collapse.
A tragic event in any circumstance, it was made worse by happening only ten days before Christmas. Yet in true West Virginia-fashion, many companies, organizations, and individuals came together to support their neighbors and donated money, food, and gifts to help give them some sense of continuity through the holidays.
Two years later, at the dedication ceremony for the replacement Silver Memorial Bridge, Federal Department of Highways Administrator Frank Turner reflected on the loss two years prior and the recent establishment of the National Bridge Inspection Standards, perhaps the only silver lining to come from the disaster. He told the crowd, “when we build upon tragedy and find new solutions to increase safety for others, we then can perhaps find small consolation that such a loss has not been in vain. It is really this effort which we dedicate here today.”
53 years later, many locals still remember that night. Where they were, what they were doing, the shock at hearing the news, and then the fear that a relative was on the bridge… Though the public memorial this year is cancelled due to the current pandemic, this Tuesday evening we remember the forty-six lives lost on that bitterly cold night and a community’s grief.
Information from the WV State Archives, WV DOT, and “Images of America: The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967” written by Stephan G. Bullard, Bridget J. Gromek, Martha Fout, Ruth Fout, and the Point Pleasant River Museum.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at [email protected]