April 12, 1831: The Broughton Suspension Bridge collapses. In 1826, John Fitzgerald, owner of Castle Irwell House, built the 144 foot suspension bridge at his own expense. It is believed that Samuel Brown was responsible for the design but it may have been Thomas Cheek Hewes, a Manchester millwright and textile machinery manufacturer. The bridge spanned the River Irwell between Broughton and Pendleton in Greater Manchester, England. It was one of the first suspension bridges in Europe. Tibetans had been using a similar design for crossing chasms or rivers using a chain linked bridge. They had the suspended deck bridge in their much older design. The new bridge was a both source of pride and a source of income as anyone crossing the bridge had to pay a toll.
The “new wonder of the age” had been in operation for about five years when the 60th Rifle Corps returned from an exercise out on the Kersal Moor. They were under the command of Lt. Percy Fitzgerald, son of John. The 74 men were returning to their barracks in Salford and to do, needed to cross the bridge. They were marching four abreast and as they crossed and stepped in unison, the bridge began to vibrate. It was a cause of merriment and the men began to whistle a marching tune and to “humour it by the manner in which they stepped” which caused the bridge to vibrate even more. As the head of the column neared the edge of the Pendleton side, a loud sound resembling a gunshot was heard.
One of the iron columns supporting the chain which held the bridge aloft on the Broughton side of the river began to fall towards the bridge. Large pieces of stone and the iron chain came free from where it had been bolted. With one corner no longer supporting the bridge, it collapsed into the river 16-18 feet below. There were about 40 soldiers thrown into the water, but since it was only a couple feet deep, no one was killed. Twenty men were injured, six of them severely. An investigation into the accident found the single bolt holding the iron chain was badly forged. There should have been two bolts which would have mitigated the problem. Several other bolts had bent but were not broken. While the vibration from the marching triggered the event, the bridge would have eventually collapsed anyway.
The collapse of the bridge put all suspension bridges into doubt but the design was not abandoned. The British Army issued the order to “break step” when crossing bridges. The French also issued a similar order and still the Angers Bridge in France collapsed when soldiers were crossing and over 200 were killed. After the collapse in England, the bridge was rebuilt and strengthened. Even so, it was propped up with extra piles whenever a large crowd was expected to be using it. The bridge was replaced by a Pratt truss footbridge which formally opened on April 2, 1924 and remains in use today.
It has always seemed to me that the most difficult part of building a bridge would be the start. – Robert Benchley
I was one of those children who always thought the bridge would fall in if you walked across it…. I thought about the atomic bomb a lot … after there was one. – Joan Didion
The hardest thing in life is to learn which bridge to cross and which to burn. – Laurence J. Peter or David Russell
People are so helpful. People will stop what they’re doing to show you something, to walk with you through a section of the town, or explain how a suspension bridge really works. – David McCullough
Also on this day: Jerry Did Good – In 1996, Yahoo! goes public.
Polio Vaccine – In 1955, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was approved.
Union Jack – In 1606, Great Britain adopted a new flag.
The Columbus of the Cosmos – In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first human to go into space.
Safety in Sports – In 1877, a catcher’s mask was first worn.