After four CSX freight cars plummeted off the Susquehanna River Bridge Friday night during the late winter nor’easter, we had a few questions about whether anything similar had ever happened there before.
There was at least one similar accident. On September 23, 1908, “with a splitting roar, like a park of artillery in action [part of] a loaded coal train sank through the great Baltimore and Ohio bridge between Perryville and Havre de Grace, plunging into the Susquehanna River below,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
A locomotive and four cars passed over safely, while six cars remained on the portion of the bridge that survived the collapse. But, 12 cars went down 100 feet into the river along with a 377-foot span of the bridge weighing thousands of tons.
“Due almost to a miracle” no lives were lost, and only one man – Watchman William Wilson — was injured. Wilson was standing on the bridge and when the crash came, he went down with the debris, landing on the eastern bank of the river. When rescuers reached him they were overjoyed to find that the timber was scarcely touching him. He was taken out of the mass of twisted timbers without any difficulty and carried home to Havre de Grace.
“It was almost a miracle too, that one of the fast express trains did not go down instead of the freight. The New York and St. Louise Express had rushed safely across the bridge shortly before the coal train chugged onto the span. About 6:30 a.m. the heavily laden New York and St. Louis express, running on limited time from New York blew for the bridge. A few moments before the coal train on the other side had been given orders to hold up for the limited.
Once the fast express rushed pass, Freight Engineer Patrick Lynne of Baltimore pushed onto the bridge. Just as the engine and lead cars safely rolled off onto Harford County soil, the engineer heard a series of terrifying roars and felt a mighty jerk on the engine. “He looked back to see through the fog the whole bridge over the eastern channel giving way.”
Conductor McCullough was standing on the top of the caboose when he heard a noise like the explosion of dynamite cartridges, and through the fog he saw most of the train disappear into the river and a great yawning gap in the bridge. He leaped onto the bridge and hurting his ankle.
The crash was easily heard in Perryville and Havre de Grace, and people men rushed to the scene from every direction. “Like wildfire, the news spread – the bridge is down. The Baltimore and Ohio bridge is at the bottom of the Susquehanna with a train on top of it. The excitement in Havre de Grace and Perryville was intense, for in the fog it was difficult to tell just what had happened.”
In 1907, the American Bridge Company and Eyre-Shoamerk Company started renovating the structure, and timber falsework was used to shore up sections of the bridge under construction, allowing construction to proceed with minimal disruption of traffic.
“A coal car derailed on the bridge and struck a mobile crane” according to Wikipedia. “The crane collapsed, bringing down the eastern channel truss, which sank in deep water.”