Story: Bridge Collapse Jams Soo Locks

From the Port Huron Times Herals, October 7, 1941.


Downbound Ore Freighters Halted; Sabotage Ruled Out; Two Trainmen Drowned

Washington, October 7, 1941 - The federal bureau of investigation said today that an army engineer's report of the collapse of the railroad bridge spanning the Soo canal at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., did not indicate any act of sabotage. The FBI therefore does not plan to investigate.

Sault Ste. Marie, Mich, Oct. 7 - AP - Collapse of one arm of a lift bridge - believed to the largest of the bascule type in the world, brought defense-vital iron ore shipping form Lake Superior ports to a temporary halt here today.

The giant span, owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad company, sagged beneath the weight of a loaded freight train. A locomotive and tender shot from the open end of the approach to the St. Mary's Falls canal, carrying two trainmen to their deaths and effectively blocking the two largest of the Sault Ste. Marie locks which link Lakes Superior and Huron.

May Clear Path In 4 Days

A wrecking train was summoned immediately, but Lieut. Col. Jules Houghtaling, intelligence officer for the Sault Ste. Marie military district estimated it would be four days before the locks would be sufficiently cleared to provide passage for fully laden ore carriers, which included some of the largest craft that navigate the lakes.

Two channels remained open to navigation. They were the Poe locks on the American side and the Canadian locks. Military authorities said neither of the open channels, however, provided sufficient draft for fully loaded ore carriers.

An emergency order was issued to vessels now loading to limit their draft to 16 feet 6 inches. The normal draft of ore carriers is 17 to 20 feet, loaded.

By 10-30 a.m. approximately 25 vessels - down bound from Lake Superior with cargoes - were at anchor awaiting passage.

Military authorities said another 50 which took on their loads prior to the bridge's collapse would arrive at the entrance to the canal and locks by midnight and another 50 by midnight Wednesday. Light vessels up bound for cargoes were passing steadily through the smaller locks, which also will accommodate down bound craft loaded after receiving notice of the new cargo restriction.

The north leaf of the railroad bridge collapsed into the north section of the canal under the weight of a freight train coming from the Canadian side, according to an official explanation of the accident by J.B. Chadwell, chief administrative assistant in the war department engineer's office.

Blocks No. 3-4 Locks

Chadwell said the north section of the St. Mary's canal, together with the third and fourth locks, were completely blocked to all traffic ads a result. The south arm of the bridge, he reported, is still intact but is three feet below its normal position.

Chadwell said the cause of the bridge collapse is not known. Col. Fred T. Cruse, commander of the military district, said it appeared to be "purely accidental" and that there seemed to be no reason to suspect sabotage. There had been no similar mishap since the bridge was constructed, about 1914.

Two Carried to death

One of the two great spans in the bridge collapsed as a heavily loaded Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic train started to cross from Canada. The locomotive, dragging two freight cars behind it, dropped into the river.

Four men were riding in the locomotive. Engineer Hazen Willis and Conductor Dave Monroe trapped in the engine cab were drowned.  Fireman Carl Zelmer and Brakeman Francis Peller climbed back up the twisted bridge girders to safety.

Believed Accident

Railway men and military authorities prepared at once to begin the tremendous task of raising the locomotive and the two cars out of the river so that vessel traffic could resume.

It would first be necessary to cut portions of the broken 165-foot span apart in order to free the other span, of similar size.

Patrolman E. H. Anderson said at police headquarters that there had been "talk" of sabotage but that this had been discredited because the bridge had been "very well guarded."

"I don't think sabotage was possible," Anderson said.

Rain was falling as the freight train - 40 to 50 cars loaded with paper from the mills of Canada, pulpwood, steel rails and miscellaneous freight - proceeded out onto the bridge. Suddenly, said Bridge Tender Albert Penman, the north span started sagging.

"Then it went down, slowly," Penman said. "I stood there watching it. The locomotive went with it. Two of the fellows crawled up the bridge, but the other two, I guess, drowned."

As the morning wore on, boat after boat sailing in from Whitefish bay and Lake Superior dropped anchor.

The St. Mary's canal, one of the world's busiest waterways, connects the upper and lower lakes of the Great Lakes chain and feeds to the steel mills of the East the vast stores of ore from the iron range of the North.

Everything Seemed O.K.

From his tower on the American side of the river, Bridge Tender Penman said he saw the train come onto the bridge. The bridge is of jack-knife design and steel construction.

"All I can tell you," Penman said, "is that the bridge was all set. The signal lights were set and everything was O.K. in the tower when the train came on. I don't know how it could have happened.

"I don't see how I can be found at fault in any way. The same thing would have happened with any other operator."

It was explained that the bridge while American owned, is operated jointly by the Canadian Pacific and Duluth South Shore & Atlantic Railways and the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge company. It consists of a series of sections resting on concrete piers, with a jack-knife drawbridge across the main channel of the canal. It was the latter portion which collapsed.

The International bridge, of which the bascule is a part, is more than a mile long over-all, and is built in sections. It spans a Canadian power canal, an island bisected by Canada's ship canal, approximately half a mile of unnavigable St. Mary's river rapids and the American locks.

Swing bridges over the Poe canal on the America side and the Canadian canal remain in operation.The bascule bridge which collapsed, spanned the two largest American channels - now completely blocked by the drooping north span of the bascule and the south arm, which is sagging approximately three feet below its normal horizontal position.