ERECT AN ENTIRE NEW ONE!
In the forenoon of Friday, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Florence were electrified with the hurried information that the Florence bridge had collapsed a number of persons had been killed or seriously wounded. It was about 9 a.m. when the news reached Sheffield and at once a general rush was made to the scene of the disaster. Carriages, buggies, wagon and vehicles of every kind were soon hurrying to the catastrophe, some two and a half miles from Sheffield. The livery stable was taxed to its capacity and many pedestrians took their feet in the hands and walked.
A reporter for The Reaper was among the first arrivals, and he was at once busy inspecting and interviewing. Arriving at the river bank the melancholy conditions at once presented themselves. The first span of the bridge was as completely cut from the main structure as if the jagged tooth of the saw and the sharp edge of the axe had been used to trim the timbers clear and true with the piers. A space of one hundred and fifty-six feet, representing the span between the piers was swept away and a great gap disclosed the dimensions between the Northern and Southern bank.
Down in the river, which fortunately is low for this period of the year, the wreck and ruins of five loaded cars, a locomotive and tender filled the complete space between the piers. It was a sight to see. The great crowds which gradually assembled from the Florence side of the bridge and from Sheffield and Tuscumbia gazed in awe struck wonder at the runs below; and many in the crowd were heard to thank God that this criminal carelessness did not occur when their dear ones were on the train passing back and forth so many times between the three towns.
In order that the reader may understand the situation clearly it is best to give what was gathered by the reporter from eye witnesses in regard to the occurrence. It seems that the regular freight train from the Tuscumbia and Sheffield branch of the Memphis & Charleston (M&C) railroad, which crosses the bridge in the morning at 8 o’clock, was held back an hour on account of repairs going on, on the Florence end of the bridge. The signal was then given and the train began slowly to cross. In front of the locomotive were there cars heavily loaded with stone, taken from the Sheffield bank of the river to be used for fluxing purposes at the Philadelphia furnaces at Florence. Then followed the engine, tender and a number of cars loaded with coke, all destined for the same furnace. The first of the three cars of stone had barely touched the pier, the engine in the center of the span and the coke following, when, without a word of warning, the bridge gave way and the cars fell with a crash into the river fifty-five feet below. In the descent the train fell upon the wagon way and carried it off as clean as if it had been cut by a razor. From the time of the first crash until the train was a the bottom of the river, there was scarcely an appreciable period. The small cheek on the wagon way was no cheek at all; it was crash and a fall.
At the Sheffield bank a number of cars of coke were left standing on the bridge, one of them at the very edge of the declivity, the pin breaking and leaving them standing On the train were R. L. Plemons, conductor, Thomas Clem, engineer, Frank Jones (colored) fireman and Lawson Hamlet, brakeman. Mr. Plemons fortunately, was on the first car of stone and as he saw the bridge giving way, leaped for his life, landing safely on the edges of the ties, while the loaded car of stone careened backward and fell with a splash and a dull thud, into the rapid current below. Mr. Hamlet was less fortunate. He was on the rear end of the first car, which turned bottom up in the river.
The foreman of the bridge gang, Mr. G.Y. Hill, a few moments before had been to the far pier in a skiff and had just landed on the Sheffield side. He gives a graphic description of the unexpected accident. It seemed but a moment when the space was filled with cars passing over the span and in another second his attention was caught by a crash and a cry, and before he realized that an accident had occurred the engine and loaded cars had swept away the wagon way and was in the bottom of the river. He hurriedly leaped in his boat and pushed out to the rescue. The car on which Mr. Hamlet was standing was completely turned over and he escaped instant death is miraculous. But, with a wonderful tenacity of life by some means, he reversed his position and was rescued from the bottom of the car by Mr. Hill. It is the more remarkable that he was not buried beneath the ruins from the fact that when conveyed ashore it was found that his thigh and right are were broken; his left shoulder dislocated, his collar bone broken and otherwise injured internally. Up to this writing he is still alive, but it is doubtful if he will pull through.
The engine did not turn over, but careened to one side, lying with the surface of the river, at an angle of about forty five degrees. To this is attributed the safety from instant death of the engineer and the fireman. As it was, each badly injured, they crawled out of the cab window and were rescued from their dangerous perch by boats from the shore. A number of parties were waiting to cross the river on the wagon way below at the time of the accident. They had been delayed a long time waiting for the passage of the freight. Among these were Judge W. P. Chitwood, on his way to hold court at Florence. Judge Chitwood was one of those who were restrained from crossing by the gate keeper, and was so spared for many years of usefulness, providentially. Judge Chitwood says before he could fully understand what occurred the heart-rending cries of the women on the bank was pitiable to listen to, one of them believing that her child was borne down in the wreck. This proved to be unfounded, and happily one mother’s intense vision of misery was tuned into rejoicing.
The Florence bridge has a history, burned down during the hostilities. After peace reigned and it was rebuilt, and was again blown down during the terrible cyclone of 1874, when so many houses were prostrated and so many valuable lives lost. It was again re-mantled and has remained in its rickety shape until the present time. Originally intended for light locomotives and cars of 10,000 pounds and not exceeding, the road officials have
undertaken to carry heavily laden cars of from 60,000 and possibly 80,000 pounds. At the southern extension of the bridge, or rather the Sheffield side, there is a quarry from which limestone is obtained for the Philadelphia furnace. There are no scales to determine the tonnage, and there is no telling what dangerous weights have passed over this death trap on triggers. The cars have been loaded, heaped up and piling over, and a bridge that the wind has once blown away has been used to bear the weight of great mogul engines and heavy draught of furnace supplies.
The result is seen; One man almost dead, two others seriously injured and a great gap lying between the two banks of the river. There were many bitter comments made by the onlookers against the officials of the M&C which was overheard by The Reaper reporter. Each one had his own notion of the bridges insecurity and with one voice they proclaimed, while looking at the debris in the river, the accident a shame, outrage and crime.
Note: Re-typed from an article in the Sheffield, Alabama newspaper, The Reaper, dated May 9, 1872