Canadian Disasters: The Quebec Bridge

April 17, 2008 at 1:45 am 11 comments

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?


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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. daranee  |  April 17, 2008 at 5:54 am

    I have this straight from a civil engineer friend though I am paraphrasing quite a bit. Legally, an engineer is culpable for any engineering disasters if s/he witnesses on site the construction of whatever. For this reason, civil engineers absolutely never go to the work site ever. Doing so would be detrimental to their livelihood.

  • 2. C. Fraser  |  April 17, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks for the info, Daranne. I question, though, whether or not this was the case in the early 1900’s. The main book I took most of this information from described the situation – McClure’s reluctance to visit the site, as more of a personal preference rather than a legal choice, and made it sound that this was atypical behaviour for an engineer at this time.

  • 3. mary sniadecki  |  May 11, 2008 at 1:22 am

    Thank you for the information. what I took from this information was that it was a personal preference: I agree with Fraser. An Engineer is responsible for his work at all times the only time that witnessing makes a different is if he sees a design flaw or any other flaw while at the site and dosen’t do any thing about it and especially if it causes a disaster; than and only than dose it constitute neglegence. Any good reputable Engineer will go to the site if he dosn’t that is being neglegent because Engineers are supposed to spot check. By the way he or she is not responsible for defected materials,short life span of materials or anything eles beyond his or her control unless he can visablely see it.

  • 4. C. Fraser  |  May 12, 2008 at 12:09 am

    Thanks for you comment, Mary. Hope you enjoyed it.

  • 5. Mary sniadecki  |  August 16, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Dear Mr. fraser; Thank you for responding. Although; I wasn’t sure weather this was a compliment. I was only telling the truth. I hope that i didn’t offend you: it wasn’t meant that way.

  • 6. C. Fraser  |  August 16, 2008 at 12:31 am

    Mary – It was an honest thank you. I appreciate your comment.

  • 7. Mary sniadecki  |  August 16, 2008 at 1:32 am

    Thank you fraser: please forgive me. I am so used to people being so intimidated and for some reason i have no clue; so forgive me. I love to give comments becuase i like learning so there fore i loved your comment. I have been in construction for 4 years and seven months and i have learned alot; believe it or not: it was the hardest college i went through; there was so much to learn in such a short span. But the most unfortunate thing is; i can’t seem to get people to listen. I no longer work physically but, i have writing abilities that i use; primarely trying to solve the issues that the construction feild has. Like all the bridge failures that have occured and crane accident that have occured and no one seems to care in my opinion. again thank you so much for your response and i appreciate you.

    Ms. Mary Sniadecki

  • 8. C. Fraser  |  August 17, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks again for your comment, Mary. It’s hard to know the intention behind what people write in comments, especially with the brevity of most comments, so I don’t blame you for being confused. My basic rule is to never be mean or insincere in my comments. If someone posts a funny comment, I’ll try to respond in a humorous manner, but I respect and always appreciate people who take the time to comment and all of my responses are sincere.

    My frame of mind when I make a comment depends on what is written too, of course. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say, so my comments are brief. But, I believe that if someone has taken the time to leave a comment, then the least I can do is to respond to it. I try to respond to all comments. I can do this because my traffic is pretty light, to put it mildly.

    I thought your comment was excellent, and appreciated it very much. Thank you.

  • 9. diana  |  January 4, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    honestly i was lookin for information about charles manson not all of this!!!!!!

  • 10. Fearon currie  |  August 15, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    what about the workers who died? Any way of finding out names etc?

  • 11. mary  |  May 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    you can google the worker on that site who died providing they listed their names] which maybe not possible


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