Posted by: Burlington Public Library (WA) | June 4, 2013

Skagit Bridge Collapse… then and now.

While the I-5 bridge collapse has certainly caused unprecedented frustration as drivers struggle to find their own alternate routes, it was not the first Skagit River bridge to collapse.  I was digging around in our old newspaper clippings, and found a piece from the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times about a deadly railroad bridge collapse in 1903.

A grainy, black and white newspaper photograph showing the Skagit River strewn with debris.  In the corner of the photograph, a steam locomotive is half submerged in the river. A crowd of people is gathered, watching the scene.

A photograph that accompanied the Courier-Times article, showing the locomotive (right) being fished out of the Skagit River after the railroad bridge collapse.

According to Jack Healey, whose two cousins were eyewitnesses of the disaster:

The bridge at that time was a wooden truss span.  Built of timbers but thoroughly supported by long and heavy iron bolts set vertically in iron plates alow and aloft to give the whole structure necessary tension and structural strength.  A short time before the wreck […] a log car was derailed on the bridge and the moving logs displaced some of these important bolts and footings.  A repair crew was sent out to put things in order and keep traffic moving.

[Bridge watchman] Dan Healy didn’t like the looks of things since it was his job to signal the trains across.  After the north-bound passenger train had crossed, Dan […] said he could see that the bridge was now definitely out of line.  Then [engineer] Hetherington came down from the north and stopped his freight train at the north approach to the bridge.  He blew four evenly spaced blasts on his whistle, asking for a crossing signal.

According to the paper, this led to an argument between Dan Healey and a railroad official (other accounts say that the argument was with a “construction man”) about whether the bridge was safe to cross.  At the end of the argument, Healey had lost his job, and the other man swung the lantern, telling Hetherington that the bridge would hold [1].

The Burlington Journal reported:

The engine had barely reached the south end of the bridge when the crash came, and the entire south bent of the bridge went down carrying with it four cars and the engine.  Besides the engineer and fireman in the cab of the engine was the head-breakman, Pat McConnehaugn, who managed to escape through the cab window.

The engineer and the fireman were not so lucky, both losing their lives in the collapse. The Journal also noted that the railroad bridge was not down long:

The work of reconstruction has been going forward as rapidly as possible, and by Monday [January 26, 9 days after the collapse,] it is claimed that the bridge will be safe for all trains [2].

Moving back to more modern times,  WSDOT has released a video of the temporary I-5 bridge construction process.  Check it out:


[1]  Healey, J. (1963, January 25). Local man tells of tragic train wreck of 60 years ago. Courier Times [Sedro-Woolley], p. 1?.  Ask for help finding it in our Burlington Local History File; its call number is LHF030.
[2] (1903, January 23). Terrible disaster. Burlington Journal, p. 1. You can find this in the library’s microfilm collection; ask at the desk if you want to see it.


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