Constructed in 1928, the Silver Bridge connected the towns of Point Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio. The bridge's name comes from the appearance of the bridge after it was covered with aluminum paint. This was was the first eyebar suspension bridge of its type in the United States. It collapsed on the evening of December 15, 1967 due to corrosion and stress. The collapse came at a time when traffic was high and resulted in 31 vehicles falling into the river below killing 46 passengers and injuring 9 more. The federal government responded with the passage of national bridge inspection standards in 1968. A replacement bridge was constructed farther south down the river. This small memorial marks the location of the original bridge's on-ramp. It contains a historical marker, a small plaque, and a series of bricks listing the 46 victims.
The idea for a bridge
connecting Pt. Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio was said to have
originated with Charles Holzer, a doctor who claimed that the long time it took
to get across the Ohio River jeopardized the lives of his patients. During the
1920s Holzer began rallying support for a bridge, which resulted in the
creation of the West Virginia Ohio River Bridge Company. It soon commissioned
the American Bridge Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, to build the bridge. Construction
began in 1926 and was completed in 1928 at a cost of around $1.2 million. The
two-lane, 2,235 foot-long suspension bridge was one of the first in the United
States to utilize an eyebar design. Rather than using conventional wire cables
for its suspension, the bridge instead used chains of eyebars, which were more affordable.
The bridge was also reportedly the first in the nation to be built with heat-treated
steel, which made it more durable. The bridge officially opened to the public
on Memorial Day, May 30, 1928, in a ceremony attended by 10,000 people. It was
formally named the Pt. Pleasant Bridge, but immediately began being referred to
as the Silver Bridge due to its distinct aluminum-colored paint.
The Silver Bridge soon
became an economic lifeline for the communities of Pt. Pleasant and Gallipolis.
Large numbers of goods and travelers crossed the bridge between Ohio and West
Virginia every day, significantly reducing travel times. The bridge was
privately owned and supported by toll fees until 1941 when the State of West
Virginia purchased it for $1 million; the toll fees were removed a decade
later. The bridge underwent a series of renovations in 1941, including the
replacement of the original wood plank road with a new concrete road. Inspections
of the bridge’s structural integrity were infrequent, reportedly occurring only
in 1959, 1963, 1964, and twice in the summer of 1967. Over the decades the
bridge underwent increasing strain as the weight and number of cars crossing jumped
enormously beyond the standards of the 1920s.
At around 4:58 PM on
Friday, December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge abruptly collapsed. Eyewitnesses
reported a strong shake and a loud noise, and within twenty seconds the bridge
fell into the Ohio River. 31 vehicles were on the bridge when it fell. Rescue
efforts were hampered by the extreme cold and darkness; sunset occurred just
ten minutes after the collapse. In total 46 people were killed and nine
injured; of those who were on the bridge when it fell, only five survived. It was
the worst vehicular bridge collapse in American history. A federal
investigation later revealed that the collapse was caused by a single fractured
eyebar, exacerbated by corrosion and stress, which had broken.
The collapse of the
Silver Bridge was devastating to the local economy, costing the community $1
million a month in damages. Because of this, the federal government rushed the
construction of a new bridge one and a half miles south of the original. The
Silver Memorial Bridge opened just two years later in 1969. In addition to a
federal investigation, the collapse also pushed the government into passing
bridge safety legislation. The twin bridge in St. Marys, West Virginia, was built to a similar design of the Silver Bridge and as a result of the push for bridge saftey, it was closed to the public, and demolished by the state in 1971. The Presidential Task Force on Bridge Safety was
established, a national bridge inventory was created, and an amendment was added
to the Federal-Aid Highway bill of 1968 mandating that bridge inspections be
conducted at least every two years. It was also recommended that the Federal Bridge Saftey Standards be applied to all highway bridges in the country rather than just the federally built ones, this would total to around 400,000 bridges.
The investigation into
the cause of the collapse blamed no one for the tragedy, noting that under the
standards and knowledge of the 1920s, the conditions for the bridge’s collapse
were not known to occur in rural areas. In the years since, however, some
locals have cited paranormal reasons for the incident. Early theories suggested
that Chief Cornstalk, the Native American leader defeated at the Battle of Pt.
Pleasant in 1774, had placed a curse on the community as he died. A more well-known
idea has been that the local mythical creature Mothman was somehow behind the
collapse; Mothman sightings were reported and publicized multiple times in the year
leading up to the tragedy. The theory was later popularized by a 1975 novel The Mothman Prophecies, which was later
adapted into a 2002 film.
Today a small memorial
to the collapse exists where the Pt. Pleasant on-ramp entrance to the bridge
once stood. It consists of a small plaque noting the significance of the site,
as well as a series of paving bricks listing the names of the 46 victims. A
historical marker was erected beside the site in 2006. In 2018 a mural was
painted on the floodwall in front of the site depicting the Silver Bridge. The
painting features a 1928 model vehicle and a 1967 model, representing the years
of the bridge’s birth and death.