Shortway Bridge History

Shortway Bridge: The last of the toll spans

By Jim Reis from Pieces of the Past, Volume 2, pages 174-177 and reprinted here with the author's permission.

The Shortway Bridge collapsed June 15, 1892

It started with a trembling sensation. Several men tried to run, but it was too late.  At 10 am on June 15, 1892 about 60 men were working on the bridge under construction over the Licking River between 11th Street in Newport and 12th Street in Covington.

Among them was William Wilson, an iron work inspector from Covington.  He told The Kentucky Post what happened:  "I was standing on the false works, near the traveler on the Newport side, talking with Andy Baird, one of the contractors, who had just arrived.  We were chatting together.  Suddenly we felt the structure sinking beneath us and with common impulse, we started to run for the Newport end.  We had scarcely gone 10 feet when the whole thing went down and we were thrown headlong through the air.  I lost consciousness and did not recover my senses until I rose to the surface.

The first thing I saw was the form of Baird, fearfully mangled, wedged in between the timber.  He groaned several times and died.  I managed to then seize a piece of drifting timber and to hold on until a small boat came to my rescue.  I cannot tell the cause of the accident."

The traveler was a large wooden structure with pulleys that towered over the bridgeworks.  It was used to lower beams into place for the bridge structure.  The false works were the temporary wooden piers used to hold up the bridge while it was under construction.  J P Lynch and Bruce Conas also escaped.  They were working at the top of the bridge but fell with it, not under it.  Each swam safely to shore.  About 30 others, however, were not as fortunate.

Witnesses told the Kentucky Journal that day the horror of the accident was magnified by the "shrieks and screams and wailing of women and of children, and even men accustomed to scenes where death came by violence-were appalled."  Emergency crews from Covington, Newport and Cincinnati responded quickly, but bodies were everywhere.  Witnesses said the banks of the Licking River were red with the blood of those dragged onto the banks.

Within two hours, more than 20 bodies had been recovered.  Divers said other bodies were still pinned beneath the wreckage on the river bottom.  Hospitals and undertakers called in extra help to handle the disaster.  Telegraph operators were kept hopping as out of town families tried to find out whether their loved ones were among the dead and injured.  Most of the bridge workers were from Greater Cincinnati, but others had come from as far as New Hampshire, Maryland and New Jersey.

When daylight broke the next morning, several thousand spectators already had gathered to watch the recovery efforts.  Volunteers were slowly sifting through the rubble when a second section of the bridge collapsed about 9 am.  Five men were working under the 2000 pound section at the time, but a warning shout saved their lives.  The rescue workers found several bodies and by the end of the day, The Kentucky Post was reporting 21 confirmed dead, 14 injured and 3 missing.  Several of the injured, including Inspector Wilson, later died from their injuries.  A story six months after the accident said the bridge collapse claimed 31 lives.

The investigation into the disaster was hampered by the deaths of several key figures directly involved in the project.  They included bridge contractors Andrew and Robert Baird and project foreman C D Champlox.  A coroner's report blamed part of the accident on the lack of safety measures due in part to the builder's desire to break a bridge building record.  The report said the piles had not been properly installed.  They had only been driven into the river's muddy bottom.  It also raised questions about the weight of the traveler, which some people said was too heavy for the structure.

Despite the disaster, work resumed on the bridge. An article in the December 17, 1892 issue of the Kentucky Post announced the bridge would soon open.  The bridge was described as 1000 feet long and 65 feet above the low water mark of the river.  It was double tracked for use by electric trolleys.  The bridge was built by a different company, the Bridge Company of Cleveland, at a cost of $200,000.  It was financed through stock issues.  The Bridge Company's board of directors was made up of Colonel Samuel Bigstaff, Judge C J Helm, W H Harton and F C Miller.


Photo submitted by Jeff Weimer

The bridge, known then as the 11th Street Bridge, operated only until May 10, 1914, when questions about its structural safety forced its closing.  Plans were drawn up for another bridge and it was to have been completed by the end of 1914.  But delays and cold weather slowed the work.  The Shortway Bridge finally opened on April 7, 1915.  The first public vehicle to use the bridge was a Green Line trolley operated by Conductor A B Colbert and motorman Johnson.

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