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The Tay Bridge Horror

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The great iron railway bridge crossing the Tay estuary at Dundee, when it was at last opened for traffic on May 31st, 1879, was hailed as an Eighth Wonder of the World. To its designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, it represented the crowning triumph of his life's work. The press described it as a masterpiece of engineering skill. From end to end the bridge measured approximately two miles, the longest of its kind over running water in the world: longer, indeed, than the Victoria Bridge at Montreal and the Britannia Tubular Bridge would have been if placed together. It consisted of 85 spans of varying width, the widest of which measured 245 feet; at the shores it stood some 90 feet above the level of the estuary, rising to 130 feet above high-water mark at the centre, and a platform on the top of the bridge, 15 feet in width, carried a single line of rails. The structure did not cross the river in a straight line; towards the northern end it curved eastward to Dundee in a wide sweep.

The total monetary cost of the bridge came to something over 350,000, which was reckoned a stupendous sum, in those days. Its construction required 7,200 tons of iron, 87,000 cubic feet of timber, 15,000 casks of cement and 10,000,000 bricks. In human material, too, the undertaking was costly, for twenty lives had been lost in various mishaps before its completion. In one case a girder had blown down in a high gale, carrying with it an unfortunate workman. On another occasion a cylinder burst open while six men were excavating inside it; the water rushed in and the poor fellows were drowned like rats in a trap.

According to an official statement on record, the bridge was designed to carry no less than twenty-five times the greatest weight it could be anticipated it would ever have to support. And certainly it was subjected to rigorous tests, for three of the heaviest among the North British Company's locomotives were 'run across it at a speed of 40 miles per hour.

When completed, the bridge charmed the eyes of all who beheld it by its appearance, at once so long and so lofty, yet so light and graceful. Viewed from the high ground above Newport, a village on the Fifeshire side, it gave almost the impression of a mere cable running from bank to bank of the estuary, and it was difficult to realise that so fairylike a structure could contain those immense quantities of solid material. Yet there were some in whom its slender beauty awakened misgivings. Hard-headed, unromantic engineers in Cleveland had all along voiced grave doubts as to the advisibility of limiting the width of the bridge to a single line, arguing that such narrowness could not help but entail a loss of lateral strength. Mr. Patrick Matthew went further, uttering a warning that an exceptionally violent wind might blow the whole structure into the Tay, and it is significant also that Major-General Hutchinson, in his report to the Board of Trade made on completion of the Work remarked that he wished, if possible, to have an opportunity of observing the effects of high wind while a train was running over the bridge. One may justifiably assume that he expressed this desire with knowledge of the potentialities for mischief in a big gale striking the extensive surface presented by a train, for the history of the French railways contained three well-known instances of carriages, and in one case a whole train of seventeen coaches, being blown over by the force of the wind.

Nor were such doubts entirely confined to the technicians. In the minds of at least some few members of the lay public the delicate grace of the Tay Bridge seems to have awakened an instinctive suspicion, and one observer wrote that "seeing a train puffing along it for the first time excited the same kind of nervousness as must have been felt by those who watched Blondin crossing the Niagara." The voices of these few doubters were quickly drowned, however, amid the noise of general admiration, and in any case they received their answer in an official statement made through the Press that, notwithstanding the Tay Bridge's appearance of fragility, there was no doubt whatsoever of its thorough stability. With that they had to be content until, with stunning suddenness, the awful tragedy of December 28, 1879, proved them in the right. So great was the shock to Sir Thomas Bouch that in the following year it proved the death of him.

On that never-to-be-forgotten Sunday evening a gale was raging which the oldest inhabitants of Dundee were agreed in declaring to have been the most terrible within their memory: a gale the force of which has been variously estimated between 35 lbs. and 60 lbs. to the square foot. The waters of the estuary were lashed into a fair semblance of a storm in open sea, spray being flung up to a height of a hundred feet or more. On a night such as that no boats ventured out into the open, and ashore, too, the folk were all huddled round their firesides. Tiles and chimney-pots were crashing down into the streets, the few people abroad had to crouch on hands and knees to prevent themselves from being blown away bodily, and the flying pebbles and grit cut their faces and hands. One eye witness has recorded that he saw a railway signal-post "bent like a willow-wand."

It seems to have been almost universally anticipated that the railway officials would not dream of allowing any trains to cross the bridge through that howling tempest, and much surprise was voiced when it was seen, even early in the evening and some time before the gale had risen to its supreme height, that trains had not yet been stopped from passing over. Captain Scott, of H.M.S. Mars, stationed a few hundred yards below the bridge, testified afterwards that he had watched its oscillations as the early trains crossed with the deepest apprehension, expecting to see it give way at any moment, and passengers who had travelled, in one of those trains related the sickening sense of alarm they had experienced when the structure "swayed like a pendulum" beneath them at that dizzy height above the black, storm-tossed waters of the estuary. Indeed, the guard of a train which passed over the bridge at about ten minutes to six admitted that the fury of the gale had actually lifted and jammed the carriages.

The slow train from Edinburgh was telegraphed well on scheduled time from the numerous stations at which it stopped on its leisurely Sabbath Day's journey, and it arrived at St. Fort, the last station before the bridge on the Fifeshire side, only five minutes behind time. On account of its being the only train in the day which patronised all the small roadside halts, it was a popular one. The actual number of passengers it carried was a point which for some time afterwards lay in considerable doubt, mainly owing to uncertainty as to how many people might have been travelling on return tickets issued at Dundee. The first statements made put the figure as high as three hundred, but after full examination of all the available evidence it became clear that, apart from Company's servants, the train's human freight must have consisted of some seventy-five adults and from fifteen to twenty children. It was composed of four third-class coaches, one second-class, one first-class, and a brake-van.

When the train drew to a standstill at St. Fort the tempest was at its very height. It needs but little imagination to conjure up the inward trepidatien with which the passengers must have listened to its screaming voice and the rattle of the windows in their sockets, and, as they felt the coaches swaying and lifting bodily on the rails, having pictured the journey in immediate prospect for them across that frail, spidery framework 130 feet above the seething river. The ticket-collector recalled afterwards that several of them asked in a joking fashion whether he thought the bridge would hold up on such a night. Poor souls! No doubt the jests upon their lips masked a very real anxiety in their hearts, though mercifully they cannot have seriously imagined that only a few fleeting minutes now separated them from eternity.

What followed must be unequalled in the annals of the world for the sheer intensity of its tragic drama.

From St. Fort the train was signalled on to the signal-box at the south end of the bridge, and on its arrival there at 7.9 the signalman handed over to the stoker the baton without which the block regulations in force permitted no train to cross. It then moved on again at the cautious pace of three miles per hour, and at 7.14 the signalman advised his colleague in the box at the north side that it had entered the bridge, which message was duly flashed on to Tay-bridge Station in Dundee. A surface-man then joined him in his cabin, and together they watched the red lights at the rear of the train slowly dwindling to pin-points in the distance, the surface-man, like so many others that night, expressing grave misgivings as to the safety of the bridge in such a hurricane. Presently the points of red light disappeared from view, and the signalman remarked that "she" had turned now into the eastward curve that swept round to-Dundee. But his companion was still oppressed with a. profound foieboding, and insisted that something was amiss. Infected by his uneasiness, the signalman decided to put through another message to the north side. To his indescribable alarm he found himself unable to get any acknowledgment. There were eight wires running into his cabin: one after another he tried them all, but only to encounter dead silence from the other side.

At the north end, meanwhile, a similar state of puzzlement and apprehension had arisen, which grew rapidly to stunned horror. The train, as has been related, had been duly signalled as having entered the bridge at 7.14. The man in the north-side signal-box, straining his eyes through the storm, watched its lights come into view and followed them across the lower spans and into the high girders. Then, abruptly, came a shower of sparks, which seemed to leap out from the bridge and plunge downward to the river like a fiery cataract. Through the din of the elements no sound at all had reached him. Just that sudden cascade of fire. Then the blank darkness again and the eerie moans of the wind around his signal-box.

Recovering from his momentary paralysis, the signalman tried desperately to get into touch by telegraph with the box on the south side of the river. In vain: after futile attempts on wire after wire, he realised at last, like his colleague, that communication was completely broken.

Other eyes, too, had witnessed that stupefying spectacle. Above the Dundee esplanade a man and wife, watching from their windows the havoc wrought by the gale on roofs and chimney-pots, observed with incredulous astonishment the lights of the train approaching the southern bridgehead.

"Thank God no friends of ours have to cross to-night," the man said solemnly to his wife, and she echoed the thanksgiving.

The children, however, could hardly be expected to realise the vague fears which filled the hearts of their elders. "There she comes!" they called out delightedly, seeing the string of tiny fairy-lights creep out over the dark chasm of the estuary, and they clapped their hands with glee when the train entered the high girders and its illuminated windows began to wink and scintillate through the trellis-work.

For a few moments the family stood watching in silence the crawling progression of the distant caterpillar of light, and then with dramatic suddenness the thing happened. A startled cry went up from them as they saw the comet-like spray of fire leap from the bridge and curve down to be as abruptly quenched in the inky blackness below. White-faced, the shocked beholders stared at one another with a mute question in their eyes. Then they turned to the window again, hoping against hope to see the headlights of the engine emerge from the near bridge-head. But no lights came, and at last they realised with sickening certainty the ghastly calamity they had witnessed.

"My God, she's in the river!" the man whispered with lips gone suddenly dry.

As has been told, few folk were out of doors in that fearful storm. But a few others there were who glimpsed the tragedy from the Dundee side, and some of these rushed at once to Tay-bridge Station to acquaint the authorities with what they had seen. Their incoherent statements left the stationmaster at first incredulous; they insisted, however, that they had in sober reality witnessed the train leave the rails and plunge from the bridge into the estuary.

"It looked like a cartload of burning coals tumbling into the river," was the graphic description one of them gave, "dense and compact at first, and spreading out like the tail of a comet.... What else could it have been but the train?"

Fearing now that a terrible disaster really might have occurred, Smith, the stationmaster, lost no time in getting into communication with the man in charge of the signal-cabin at the north end of the bridge, but only to learn from him that the telegraph wires leading to the other side were broken. Hastily summoning to his assistance Roberts, the locomotive-superintendent, he thereupon set forth in person to try to ascertain exactly what had befallen.

Then began for two gallant men a fierce battle against the elements, for, once out on the bridge, they were exposed to the full battering force of the gale, which threatened at every step to hurl them into the abyss. Grimly they fought their way along the track on hands and knees, foot by foot, their perilous path lit only by the occasional gleams of a moon obscured for the most part of the time by the scudding cloud-wrack, their hands lacerated cruelly by the rails, to which they had to cling with all their might.

The first intimation they received of having reached the scene of the catastrophe was when they suddenly found themselves drenched in clouds of spray from a pipe laid across the bridge to supply Newport from Dundee reservoir, broken off short now and spouting its contents into space The great spray-cloud and the fitfulness of the moonlight combined to make it difficult to see much, but by dint of struggling on a little farther and straining their eyes the two men were presently able to detect a large gap in the bridge, caused, so far as they could discern, by the fall of two or three of the largest spans.

It might well be thought that with this evidence of disaster before their eyes, and with the accounts of their informants still ringing in their ears, any last lingering doubt as to the fate of the train would now have left them. Yet, almost incredibly, it did not. Because these two men wished so desperately for the tidings to be untrue, they actually persuaded themselves into the belief that untrue they were.

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