The Anniversary of the Honeymoon Bridge Collapse - January 27, 1938 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Friday, January 27, 2017

The Anniversary of the Honeymoon Bridge Collapse - January 27, 1938

"To respect the dignity of a relationship also implies accepting the end when it comes. ~André Brink, Before I Forget

Today marks the anniversary of an ill-fated honeymoon. On this day in 1938, the Honeymoon Bridge's girders buckled, and with a mighty roar, the 840-foot span smashed onto the ice-jammed Niagara River below.

The Honeymoon Bridge was a two-hinged steel arch bridge which crossed the Niagara River about a quarter of a mile below the famous Niagara Falls, linking Ontario and New York. Built in 1898 by the Pencoyd Bridge Company and designed by Leffert Lefferts Buck, it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world at the time of completion.

The Honeymoon Bridge over the Niagara River in 1910.
Source: Toronto Virtual Reference Library
Every winter, ice bridges formed in the Lower Niagara River threatening the stability of the steel arch bridge as the abutments were built close to the surface of the river. The bridge also tended to sway under heavy loads or high winds.

In January, 1938, a perfect storm of conditions occurred which would bring about the Honeymoon Bridge's untimely demise. According to the Niagara Falls Museum, there was: "Thin ice on Lake Erie, a 5-day January thaw, and 3 days of high winds." This caused water and ice levels to rise to record heights below the bridge.

A postcard showing the Honeymoon Bridge before its collapse in 1938.

January 17, 1938

"I walked with them, as crowds have that effect on me, I want to do what they do, to journey towards some point of revelation, which of course never comes." ~Neil Jordan, Mistaken

The media and the public flocked to Niagara Falls as it became clear that the bridge was in jeopardy. Newspapers across Canada and the United States kept those who were not able to travel to the frozen scene apprised.

The fall of the Honeymoon Bridge started innocuously enough, as most romances do. The bridge, with its graceful steel arch rising about 165 feet above the waters of the lower gorge, and the dazzling whiteness of the expanding ice, jamming the river below, made a spectacular couple. In fact, only ten days before the bridge met its wintry end, the Ottawa Journal waxed poetic about the ice forming in the Niagara River:

Source: The Ottawa Journal, January 17, 1938, page 14.

"The first 'ice bridge' of the season spread further today over the waters of the Niagara Falls Gorge, as the cataract was being bedecked in its Winter finery." ~The Ottawa Journal
Part of the Honeymoon Bridge in January 1937.  (Source: Niagara Falls Tourism) 

January 26, 1938

"It is a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up." ~J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

On January 26, 1938, the Lethbridge Herald reported the bridge was beginning to buckle.
"The worst ice jam in many years thundered over Niagara Falls today and the famous International Falls view bridge began to buckle beneath the ice pressure. Waves appeared in the 1000-foot span, and it was closed to traffic." ~The Lethbridge Herald
Customs and immigration officials from the American shore reported the bridge making "rumbling and crumbling" sounds and crowds watched as part of the upper bridge structure shifted downstream. The newspaper also reported, "A section of the upper part of the span about three or four feet long bulged out six inches to a foot. The movement was accompanied by a rumbling noise and was over in a few seconds."

The view of the sag in the bridge floor from the Canadian side, up-river. The rail split to a 6-inch crack in the center.
(Source: Toronto Virtual Reference Library)
While some people watched the drama unfold, others were making predictions. William Hill, a veteran riverman who rescued eight of twelve sightseers who had been carried out on the rapids when a smaller ice bridge under the falls broke away in 1912, predicted the ice bridge would come loose and the bridge would collapse on the night of January 26.
William Hill, veteran riverman, predicts the collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge.
(Source: The Ottawa Journal, January 26, 1938, Page 17.)
By afternoon, the owner of the Honeymoon Bridge and official of the International Railway Company, said he felt the bridge would fall into the Niagara in a few hours unless the ice pressure was relieved.

Engineers planned to dynamite the ice masses below the Honeymoon Bridge.
(Source: The Ottawa Journal, 5 O'clock Edition, January 26, 1938, Page 1)

Engineers began preparing to dynamite the ice masses. The Ottawa Journal reported that the water was 40 feet above normal at 2 pm, 15 feet higher than the 1909 record.

January 27, 1938

"'What if I fall?', Tim cried.
Maerlyn laughed. 'Sooner or later, we all do." ~Stephen King, The Wind Through the Keyhole

Headline from the 5 O'clock Edition of the Ottawa Journal announcing the collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge.
(Source: The Ottawa Journal, 5 O'clock Edition, January 27, 1938, Page 1)

The morning papers on January 27, 1938 reported a new twist in the spidery steelwork, but drastic measures to save the bridge came too late. The Niagara Falls Museums described the collapse.
"At about 4:10 p.m. on January 27th, a movement of ice on the American side pushed the bridge off of its abutment. With a huge roar, it collapsed into the gorge, forming a twisted steel "W" on the ice below." ~The Niagara Falls Museums 
4500 tons of scrap steel from the fall of the Honeymoon Bridge on Jan. 27, 1938.
(Source: Toronto Virtual Reference Library)

Full view of the collapsed Honeymoon Bridge taken by Toronto Star photographer.
(Source: Toronto Virtual Reference Library)
Perhaps the best report I read about this collapse came from The Ottawa Journal on January 28, 1938. Below is the paper and a transcript of the article.

The Ottawa Journal, Friday, January 28, 1938, Section 2, Page 15.
Tremendous Power of Ice Floe Leaves Niagara Bridge a Twisted Mass of Steel Wreckage
Thousands See Great Bridge Fall
Falls View Structure at Niagara Suddenly Collapses in Spectacular Fashion and Drops 125 Feet.
NIAGARA FALLS, Ont., Jan. 27.--(CP)--Falls View bridge, for nearly four decades the footpath of the world's brides and bridegrooms, crashed with spectacular effect late today into the massed ice of the Niagara river.

Thousands on the Canadian and United States sides of the famous gorge, 400 yards below Niagara Falls, shrieked in excitement when the 1,260-foot steel span stretching 175 feet above the river-bed, gave way to crunching ice-blocks that had threatened it since early yesterday.

If the event had been stage-managed it could not have offered more thrills to hundreds of tourists and thousands of persons from the Niagara district who gathered for the spectacle. Hotels were crowded tonight as they never had been before in mid-Winter.

Ice Rigid for Hours.

The most damaging ice-jam in 30 years, which already had put the Ontario Power Company plant out of operation, was rigid in the river for hours. Piled 50 feet high at the foundations of Falls View bridge, closed since yesterday, it seemed to have ceased attacking.

Over a period of 30 hours it had rammed the concrete abutments, jarring the steel framework, throwing the span out of alignment. Engineers who had examined the damage predicted the bridge would fall--"maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week".

But at 4 p.m. the bridge stood.

A little earlier the crowds on both shores had swelled from hundreds to thousands. On the Canadian side they came in motor cars from all parts of Ontario. To see the end of "honeymoon bridge" came throngs from several states on the American side.

The end came without warning. While the crowds shivered in the near-zero temperature, patiently waiting for something to happen, the weakened American end of the span sank about six feet. Only a groaning sound, as steel supports twisted, was heard.
The mid-section gave way and the structure shivered from shore to shore. Pulling with it the roadways touching both countries, the great bridge fell 125 feet and for a few seconds was lost to view from the shores.
At 4.14 p.m., through a spray of loose snow that arose from the gorge as the bridge landed, the spectators made out the foundered giant. It was broken in at least four places.
Its latticed arch had driven deep into the ice and in a general way the bridge seemed merely to have taken a position 125 feet lower than it had occupied since 1898. At each end was the wreckage of steel that had yielded.

Two boys standing near the ice-piled "Maid of the Mist" landing on the Canadian side, about 100 feet from the bridge, were believed to have been closest to the falling span.

Workmen Ordered Away.

Some time before the collapse, the International Railway Company, owners of the bridge, ordered all workmen from the abutment on the American side. Working in gangs of 12 for brief periods, the men jabbed at the ice-blocks with pickaxes in an attempt to relieve pressure on the foundation.

Following an inspection of the abutment by engineers, the ice-breaking work was stopped. The company made no official statement at the time, but it was believed the work was abandoned because the bridge showed signs of giving way.

Only a few minutes before the crash, engineers finished a final examination of the abutment. Under the bridge-end for a short time were Walter McCausland, official of the company and Henry E. Reixinger, chief engineer, and P. L. Prattley, Montreal engineer.

Missed By Minutes.
Robert Rigg, supervising inspector of the Canadian Immigration Department at the bridge, estimated the engineers missed being caught in the wreckage by only five minutes.
"They couldn't have been gone longer than that, because when the bridge started to collapse I looked to see if they were still there.

"I was standing about 10 feet from the entrance to the bridge when I saw it begin to cave. The noise of the crash when the whole thing struck the ice was terrific. Two young chaps were down on the ice about 100 feet upstream from the bridge. I imagine they were scared speechless."

Telephone service between the two Falls cities was affected somewhat, as wires were strung under the bridge. Electric cables were yanked from the bridge approaches.

Plans for removal of the bridge were not decided early tonight. A sudden shift in the ice-mass might further wreck the structure, carrying it down the river. There was no indication when the ice would move.

Movietone News caught the entire bridge collapse on film.

April 1938

"The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye, the story of love is hello and goodbye."  ~Jimi Hendrix

The Honeymoon Bridge was back in the news in April, just long enough to say goodbye as the wreckage sank into the Niagara River. On April 12, 1938, the American half of the bridge was submerged, leaving only about 200 feet of the Canadian half on the ice.

The Honeymoon Bridge wreckage begins to sink.
(Source: The Ottawa Evening Journal, April 12, 1938, Page 1)

And with a final photo on April 14, 1938, the Honeymoon Bridge bid its farewell and sank below the melting ice.

The last portion of the Honeymoon Bridge resting on the melting ice of the Niagara River.
(Source: The Ottawa Evening Journal, 5 O'clock Edition, April 14, 1938, Page 1.)

Works Cited 

Bailey, George. "The Collapse of the Niagara Falls Honeymoon Bridge." Niagara Falls Canada. Niagara Falls Tourism, 16  Jan. 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. 

Brink, Andreì P. Before I Forget. London: Secker & Warburg, 2004. Print.

"Falls View Bridge." Toronto Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. 

"Famous Bridge Threatened, Pressure Of Ice Jam Buckles Structure." Lethbridge Herald 26 Jan. 1938: 1+. Print. 

"Honeymoon Bridge (Niagara Falls/Clifton, 1898)." Structurae. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. 

""Honeymoon Bridge" Wreckage Sinks." Ottawa Evening Journal 12 Apr. 1938: 1. Print. 

"Niagara Falls Bridge Collapses Under Pressure of Ice - 1938." YouTube. YouTube, 21 July 2015. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

"Ice Pressure Causes Bridge to Collapse." Ottawa Journal 27 Jan. 1938, 5 O'clock ed.: 1+. Print. 

Jordan, Neil. Mistaken. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull, 2011. Print.

King, Stephen. The Wind through the Keyhole. New York: Scribner, 2012. Print.

"Leffert Lefferts Buck (1837 - 1909)." Structurae. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. 

Museum, Niagara Falls History. "Collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge | Niagara Falls History Museum - City of Niagara Falls." City of Niagara Falls History Museums. Niagara Falls Museums, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

"Niagara Ice Bridge." Ottawa Journal 17 Jan. 1938: 14. Print. 

"Niagara's Famous Honeymoon Bridge Disappears With King Winter." Ottawa Evening Journal 14 Apr. 1938, 5 O'clock ed.: 1. Print. 

Parakh, Deepa. "Fall of the Honeymoon Bridge." Lundy's Lane Historical Museum (1997): n. pag. Niagara Falls Museums. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.

"Predicts Bridge To Collapse This Evening." Ottawa Journal 26 Jan. 1938: 17. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, an Imprint of Scholastic, 2000. Print. 

"The Story Of Life Lyrics." The Story Of Life Lyrics - Jimi Hendrix. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

"Thousands See Great Bridge Fall." Ottawa Journal 28 Jan. 1938, sec. 2: 15. Print. 

"To Dynamite Ice Threatening Niagara Bridge." Ottawa Journal 26 Jan. 1938, 5 O'clock ed.: 1+. Print. 

"To-day à 4;500 Tons of Scrap Steel on the Ice of Niagara Gorge; Niagara's Ice Jam Pushed Falls View Bridge from Its Foundations; Then Held Firm While It Came down in a Heap. The Upper Gorge Holds This Wreckage of a 40-year-old Bridge Which Engineers Say Might Have Lasted Another 35 Years." Toronto Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

"The Upper Steel Arch Bridge, Connecting United States and Canada, Niagara Falls." Toronto Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

"Watchers on the Canadian Side of the River Saw the Sag in the Bridge Floor When They Looked along This Up-river Side. The Rail Split to a 6-inch Crack in the Centre." Toronto Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.