Bridge Collapses: Tragedy Narrowly Averted

TOLL OF THE FLOOD: FREMANTLE BRIDGE COLLAPSES.

TRAGEDY NARROWLY AVERTED. DISLOCATION OF TRAFFIC.

1926 rail bridge collapse GA7477

The North Fremantle railway bridge was sagging yesterday as a train passed over it. Shortly afterwards, when it was only by a miraculous piece of good fortune that there was no passenger train on it, the structure began to collapse, and the effect of the swirling flood waters soon put it hopelessly out of commission. This is by far the most serious result of the recent floods, as it means that the ordinary Fremantle train service will be disorganised for at least a month.

Reports from farther afield tell of the use of boats for the relief of marooned people, and while the flood waters are subsiding in the Avon, they are still swelling in the Swan, and Guildford was even more deeply inundated yesterday than during the previous days. One serious feature of the floods is that Upper Swan bridge has been demolished, which means that all road communication with Geraldton is blocked.

1926 Flood - Marooned people going by boat at Mends St South Perth low res

Heralded by the rumble of loose sand and rocks falling into swirling water and the creaking and groaning of strained timbers, a considerable portion of the northern end of the railway bridge which spans the Swan River at Fremantle collapsed yesterday afternoon and was washed at a tremendous speed down the harbour and into the ocean by the flood waters of the river. That the disaster occurred without loss of life can be regarded as miraculous for, a few short minutes before the general collapse of the bridge took place a passenger train from Fremantle, bearing a human freight which included several children thundered over the weakened structure.

1924 Rail bridge pre flood looking south with freight train on it low res

After the train had passed, the condition of the abutments of the bridge was noticed and the alarm raised. Instantly railway officials at North Fremantle and Fremantle acted and all traffic between North Fremantle and the central station was suspended. This was done only just in time for a train from Perth was stopped as it entered the North Fremantle station a few minutes after the disruption of the bridge had commenced and a goods train out of Fremantle was signalled to stop at the junction on to the bridge on the south side.

Apart from the aspect that the collapse of the bridge might have been attended by great loss of life, the disaster will have far reaching effects on the shipping and commerce of the Port. Within a few hours of the happening, commercial and shipping men were viewing the scene and discussing its probabilities. That the occurrence would prove a severe blow to the Port was generally recognised. It would mean, it was stated, that the southern side of the harbour was practically isolated as far as cargoes coming from Perth were concerned, at any rate, until the railways in the country districts were reorganised and goods trains could be frequently sent to Fremantle via Armadale. Although, yesterday, no announcement was made, it would appear that the majority of the vessels using the harbour in the near future will be berthed at the North Fremantle quay, the railway facilities of which have not been affected by the breakage of the bridge.

Protecting Sightseers

Photographers who, lured by the attraction of a fine view of swirling waters as the flooded river met the currents from the ocean near the railway bridge, shortly before 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon, stood with their cameras on the first span of the bridge, could not have realised the danger of their position. Forty minutes later the timbers on which they had been standing were being whirled far down the harbour, only to be brought back as the river, meeting the sea, formed a whirlpool of muddy water and white foam. When it became known that the bridge had given way, there was a rush to the scene of the happening. Motor cars, lorries and tram cars all carried loads of sightseers to the river bank and the rails of the North Fremantle traffic bridge were lined with people watching events on the other structure, a few hundred yards away.

1904 map with rail and swan river

The sight was an awe-inspiring one. Between the two bridges at Fremantle the river opens out into a broad expanse of water but, before reaching the railway bridge, closes again into a fairly narrow channel. Through the bottleneck so formed all the fury of the river, rendered doubly dangerous by the flood waters pouring into it at its upper reaches, raced in its dash to the ocean. Once through the bridge the currents of sea swirled up the harbour by the heavy swell “outside” were met with and the result of the meeting was that the combination of currents concentrated on the bridge. There were those who viewed the scene at the bridge yesterday who shuddered when they looked at the turbulent river and realised the tragedy which undoubtedly would have happened had not the railway officials been warned in time.

The wrath of the river, which for the past week has been concentrated on the rock and earth foundations of the embankment which formed the first support of the bridge, increased yesterday. The first sign that anything untoward was happening was a crack which appeared in the embankment. When was noticed the damage had been done, for, as each wave lapped the stones the embankment was weakened more. Within a few minutes the bridge was damaged to such an extent that repair appeared impossible. A heavy mass of masonry gave way, and, taking with it protecting timber, crashed into the water, and was closely followed by beams from the bridge from the bridge, which were left without support at one end. Through the gap thus created the torrent raged and it was only a matter of time before a gap of nearly 100ft. yawned between the bank and shattered end of the bridge. Throughout the afternoon pieces of timber cracked and fell, and, in falling, weakened other timbers, which, in turn soon became the playthings of the river. Not only were the timbers of the bridge continually falling but the embankment, too, was eaten away.

With resounding crashes two iron sheds used for housing the tools of railway workmen, fell into the water as the foundations were washed from beneath them. Prompt action on behalf of a gang of workmen saved a valuable signal post and semaphore from going the same way. Showing a daring which drew admiring comments from the crowd, a man climbed to the top of the post and fastened on two ropes. These were made secure in a place of safety, and, when at last the foundations of the post were washed away, the ropes held the signal in such a way as to prevent it falling into the river. On the shattered end of the bridge, which hung at a dangerous angle over the water, a workman risked his life to save certain wires from being severed. His position was the subject of much comment and his daring greatly appreciated.

Freo Bridge collapse 1926 - a train had just gone over and there were floods low res

As soon as a report was received at the North Fremantle police station, constables were sent to the bridge. With the assistance of railway gangers, a barrier was erected to prevent the crowd from stepping on loose ground. Several times, as the earth beneath was washed away, it was found necessary to remove the barrier and put it in a place of greater safety.

Excessive Road Traffic

Traffic across the North Fremantle road bridge increased tremendously during the afternoon, as cars from Fremantle and other districts passed across it, taking sightseers to the broken bridge and conveying passengers to suburban stations who otherwise would have travelled by train. Cars which catered for passengers to North Fremantle station, there to join trains, were in great demand as the afternoon wore on, and business people went to their homes. Realising that the traffic would present a difficulty and that the public would have to be protected at the bridge end, the Commissioner for Police (Mr R Connell) drove to North Fremantle and arranged for the police there to be reinforced by men from Perth. Throughout the afternoon policemen were on duty on the main road to North Fremantle, and a police guard was placed at both ends of the bridge. This guard remained on duty throughout the night. Considering the scramble which took place at the bridge for points of vantage, it was surprising that no injuries to persons resulted. A boy and a young man received slight injuries in accidents caused by the amount of traffic in the main street of North Fremantle.

First Warning of the Disaster

That an appalling disaster was narrowly averted is shown by the fact that the first intimation of the approaching collapse of the bridge was given a few minutes after the 1.12 pm train from Fremantle had thundered over it. The first person to notice that anything was seriously wrong was Mr George Henderson, master of the harbour tender Reliance. Mr Henderson stated to a Pressman yesterday afternoon that he had noticed a slight crack in the northern abutment on the previous day. At the time he did not regard the matter as serious, but when he inspected the spot early yesterday afternoon he was perturbed to find that the crack had opened slightly. Whilst he was inspecting the fissure the 1.12 pm train passed over the bridge, and a few moments later he was horrified to see the gap open to a width of five or six inches. Conscious of the exceptional pressure of flood waters that were swirling against the embankment and the bridge supports, he realised that it would be only a matter of minutes before the aperture would be considerably widened, and a large portion of the abutment swept away. Instantly he clambered up the railway embankment and conveyed his startling tidings to a party of fettlers who were working on the permanent way.

1905 rail bridge looking south from northern embankment low res

Ganger Hogan, who was in charge of the party, acted without loss of time. He instructed a flagman to carry the news to the officials at the Fremantle station, and then set off to warn the stationmaster at North Fremantle. Prompt as was the action of Henderson, Hogan, and the workmen, their warning was not given a moment too soon. A goods train had actually left the Fremantle yards and was approaching the bridge when a flagman arrived with the tidings that held it up and saved it from almost certain disaster.

At North Fremantle the 1.5 pm passenger train from Perth about 15 to 20 minutes after the alarm had been given. Several of the passengers from that train, who would undoubtedly have been hurled to death amidst the confusion of swirling waters and twisted timbers beneath the bridge, had not the warning been given, hurried along to join the throng of spectators who were surveying the awe-inspiring spectacle from various points of vantage at the northern approach to the bridge. Only when the alarming nature of the accident was unfolded before their eyes did they realise how closely tragedy had passed them by. All of them were loud in the praises of the men whose promptness has certainly averted a terrible disaster.

– The West Australian, Friday 23 July 1926.


 

I wanted to write my own description of the disaster, but I found my writing skill surpassed by this anonymous journalist, whose descriptive prose sounds suspiciously like an eyewitness account. The article continues to quote anyone who’d speak on the subject, from experts and government officials to bystanders, all of whom were described as at the scene. Given the article is more than 88 years old and in the public domain, I chose to reproduce it here instead.

Now, what I do best – the background details that aren’t in the article:

The Bridge

The Fremantle railway bridge wasn’t one, but two timber bridges, built fifteen years apart. The first was constructed in 1880 as part of the Guildford to Fremantle line. The bridge was 198m long, with nine timber spans of 9m on the southern side, with the final four northern spans at 15m long.

Single rail bridge viewed from Tuckfield St, 1880

Single bridge viewed from Tuckfield St, 1880

The second, downstream bridge was built in 1895 during the construction of Fremantle Port under engineer CY O’Connor. Its initial purpose was to carry stone from the Rocky Bay quarry to Arthur head for construction of the new South Mole before it was used as a second rail bridge for freight and passenger traffic.

Double rail bridge in 1923 at sunset

Double rail bridge in 1923 at sunset

The Flood

Heavy winter downpours in Western Australia in July 1926 resulted in flooding in the Avon, Swan and Helena River catchments and washed away a total of 35 sections of railway and left many bridges underwater. It was so bad that on the 20 July 1926, all country trains were cancelled except for those to and from Bunbury.

1926 flood - Guildford bridge and swan river flooding low res

Guildford Bridge under water

Canning Bridge under water

Canning Bridge under water

On Thursday 22 July, the westerly winds died down and the tide headed out, taking with it the floodwaters that had swollen the Swan River estuary. Thirty metres of the northern embankment were washed away, followed by the collapse of both 15m spans at the northern end of the rail bridge.

The Aftermath

Immediate repairs were begun and less than twelve weeks later, on 17 October, the older bridge was repaired. It took nine months – until 22 April 1927 – before repairs on the second bridge were complete, as it used steel beams in place of the original timber ones.Aerial Photograph of Fremantle Port 1930s low res

Both bridges were replaced in 1964 by one made of steel girders on concrete piers.

Ocean’s Widow

Merry and Maria’s house was on the hill overlooking this bridge. When I realised Ocean’s Widow would include the time when the bridge collapsed, it had to be part of the story, for Merry and Maria would have watched the sightseers photographing the floodwaters as the river rose, and the spectacular collapse itself, from their front veranda.

View to Fremantle Rail Bridge from Tuckfield Street, Fremantle

View to Fremantle Rail Bridge from Tuckfield Street, Fremantle

Yes, I did go to great lengths to research my Siren of War series – but that’s the point of historical fiction and historical romance. Getting the details right so the story flows effortlessly.