Canadian Disasters: The Quebec Bridge
Everyone likes a disaster.
It’s OK, you can admit it. No one will judge you. Except maybe that funny looking guy who keeps finding my site by searching for ‘Vintage Porn‘.
Sometimes a magazine or television show will have a ‘Top Ten Disasters of the Century’ type of article or show and tell about some really horrible happenings that the world has experienced. I enjoy these shows. Disaster shows are popcorn worthy.
(Was the Hindenburg Disaster a disaster?)
During horrendous disasters thousands of people can die tragic deaths suffering great amounts of pain while flames shoot fifty-feet in the air just before a tsunami reaches the shore and drowns everyone while all the survivors are crushed under tons of rock from the avalanche that was started when a 9.0 earthquake hit the region.
During other disasters someone spills coffee all over their white button-down shirt just before a meeting to discuss the development of more inconsequential and unnecessary plastic products that will end up choking a regional landfill within a year.
Disasters come in many packages. Most of them non-recyclable.
Or perhaps your sports team is about to lose game four of a seven game series and your life is all but over because how can you possible continue to live your life in a happy fashion if your sports team can’t win one lousy game.
That’s right, Ottawa, I’m looking at you.
(Are the Ottawa Senators a disaster?)
Canada has had its share of disasters. Being a guy interested in this type of history I’d assumed I had at least heard about all of the major disasters that the nation had faced. Recent reading has lead me to realize that, in fact, there is one major one that has up until now escaped my attention: The Quebec Bridge Disaster.
(The Quebec Bridge as it might look if Quebec separates from Canada)
Since Canada is a country filled with rivers and waterways, bridges and bridge building have played an important part in the developing infrastructure. Quebec City of the late 1800’s, located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, was a city in obvious need of a bridge. The St. Lawrence River divides the eastern provinces from the rest of Canada. Not only would a bridge connect the country and make travel easier, it was also becoming an economic necessity for Quebec City, as Montreal already had a bridge connecting it to the south shore, it would also be another symbolic joining of Canada.
In 1887 the Quebec Bridge Company (QBC) was formed to make the dream of a bridge become reality.
In October of 1900 the cornerstone of the first pier was laid, during a ceremony attended by boatloads of dignitaries and curious spectators.
Three years later, in 1903, work finally began on the bridge. This means it only took the QBC sixteen years to get the project started. This is now known as ‘Quebec Time’.
The project was frought with difficulties. The QBC hired American bridge-builder, Theodore Cooper as the consulting engineer for the project. The funny thing was that Cooper didn’t actually like to visit building sites, and so he had it put in his contract that he only had to spend very limited time at the work site.
(Is this a picture of Theodore Cooper? No, it’s Charles Manson. He was also crazy.)
Cooper had built several bridges previously, but getting on in his career he desperately wanted a project which would cement his place in architectural history. After he was hired in 1900 he immediately changed the plans for a 1600 foot span to one that would require a 1800 foot span. This would make the Quebec Bridge the longest cantilever bridge in the world. Cooper was pleased.
In February of 1906 it was discovered that the materials for the bridge would actually weigh over 7000 tons more than anticipated. This would increase the stress on the structure by an additional 10 percent. Should construction of the bridge be stopped and the project reevaluated?
Cooper said, “No way, Jose,” or something like that. Work would continue.
The next summer brought even more warnings signs. It was discovered that two pieces of the south cantilever arm were bent. The manufacturer argued that the pieces had been bent when they had left the shop, while a site engineer, Norman McClure, insisted that the pieces had warped after being installed, which suggested that they were experiencing forces beyond that for which they had been designed.
As work went on, McClure continued to measure the pieces. In late August it was discovered that the pieces had bent an additional two inches.
Work on the bridge was halted. McClure immediately left for New York to consult with Cooper on what should be done. The only available phone line at the time was a party line, and it was decided unwise to broadcast the situation over such a system, so a trip to New York was the only option. When McClure explained the situation to Cooper he, surprisingly, agreed that work should remain stopped until further tests should be done and a solution worked out.
(You never know who might be listening when you use a party line)
Unfortunately while McClure was away the general foreman at the site, ordered work to continue.
On August 29, 1907 workers were swarming over the Quebec bridge waiting for the work day to end. Instead they heard a loud booming noise, which was the result of a flawed piece of the south anchor arm failing. In seconds over 19, 000 tons of steel came crashing down, killing eighty-six workers.
Unfortunately not all of the workers died immediately. Many were trapped in the wreckage and their coworkers could do nothing to free them. They could do nothing but watch as the water rose and slowly drowned those trapped.
That, my friends, is a disaster. It’s also Canadian. This makes it a Canadian Disaster. We should be proud; it’s a horrendous disaster. People died. Millions of dollars were lost. The project was delayed for years.
Aren’t disasters wonderful?