1879 - Tay Bridge Disaster

The Tay Bridge Disaster

The fall of the Tay Bridge was a terrible blow to the self-confidence of Scottish engineering. Calculations for the bridge had failed to take into account the fierce wind speeds which could be reached in the Firth of Tay. sub-standard materials had also been used in key parts of the construction. On the night of 28 December 1879, the bridge came down in a storm. All on board the Dundee-bound train on the bridge at the time were killed - a total of 75 persons, not 300, which was the erroneous total telegraphed out of Dundee in the first hours of the disaster. One of the first with the news in Edinburgh was the Courant. Its information came down the wire from Dundee via Perth.


Edinburgh, Monday, 8 A.M.

We have this morning to record one of the most dreadful disasters that have ever occurred in this country, through the falling of part of the Tay Bridge, and the sweeping away of a passenger train, involving great loss of life. The first intimation of the catastrophe which reached Edinburgh was a telegram received at the Waverley Station about eleven o'clock last night, stating that some of the high girders of the Tay Bridge had been blown down, and expressing a fear that they had carried with them the 4.15 p.m. passenger train from Edinburgh, due at Dundee at 7.10.

A special train was at once prepared, and it started about half-past twelve for the scene of the disaster, with Mr Walker, the manager; Mr McLaren, passenger superintendent; Sir Thomas Bouch, C.E. [the engineer who built the bridge]; and Mr Bell, engineer. Owing to the bad state of the telegraph wired, little or no information regarding the disaster was received till a late hour this morning.

Our Dundee correspondent telegraphs this morning:-

Yesterday afternoon Dundee was visited by one of the most fearful hurricanes which has ever been experienced, and has been accompanied with unparalleled destruction of property, the large centre portion of the Tay Bridge having been blown down during a fearful blast, and it is also feared that the passenger train from the south, which was seen entering on the bridge at the Newport side a few minutes before the accident, and which has not since been heard of, has, with its passengers, been carried away with the fallen girders, and with these now lies in the bed of the river. From the time the gale began it continued to increase in fury until it became a perfect hurricane from the south-south-west. The property in the western suburbs and the Tay Bridge were exposed to the full fury of the blast. The streets, especially in the West End, were literally covered with debris of chimney-cans and slates which had been blown from the roofs of houses. Every moment the slates might have been seen flying off the roofs, whirling in the air and then falling in the street below in pieces. The danger to foot-passengers was exceedingly great, and many persons narrowly escaped from being struck by the toppling masses of masonry which formed the chimneys, or by the falling slates and chimney-cans. Palings and walls in a great many places have been demolished. Trees have been uprooted, and the shrubbery in gardens terribly destroyed. Indeed, so dreadful was the gale about seven o'clock that very few people were to be seen on the streets, and those who were then seen, and who had to walk against the wind, found it almost impossible to make headway. Each one appeared to be in terror of being injured by the missiles carried about in the air by the gale from the roofs of the houses, and appeared only anxious about getting home. About half-past seven the rumour spread that a large part of the Tay Bridge had been blown down, and that a passenger train crossing at the time had fallen into the river with the structure. As this rumour passed from mouth to mouth, it was thought so incredible that very few believed it. The bridge, since its completion, has withstood many a terrific blast, and remarks were made to the effect that it could hardly be possible that such a structure, in whose stability against both tide and wind its engineers and constructors had always had the most decided confidence, could have been demolished. The news conveyed by rumour, however, was so appalling and so startling that although it was generally received with reservation, everyone who heard it made off at once, almost with bated breath to the Magdalen Yard Point, and to the Tay Bridge Station, with the view of ascertaining what foundation there was for it. In the course of a very short time the persons in quest of information could be counted by hundreds. At the Tay Bridge Station, however, the officials were unable to give any information, beyond the fact that since a few minutes after seven o'clock communication between the signal cabins at each end of the bridge had been cut off. From the station enquiries proceeded by the Perth Road and the Esplanade to the Magdalen Yard Point, where the signal cabin is situated, in order to pick up whatever particle of information could be obtained. A good many persons entered the cabin box and enquired at the signalman as to the extent of the supposed calamity, but he could throw no further light on what was a very painful mystery. The railway officials, who had naturally become alarmed, especially since they were aware that there was no communication with the south end of the bridge, resolved to satisfy themselves whether the superstructure was safe or not. Accordingly Mr Roberts, superintendent of the locomotive department, determined to go along the bridge. This he did at considerable risk, for the force of the hurricane was such that at times he was almost completely lifted off his feet, and was in great danger of being blown into the river; but urged by the anxiety within his breast to learn in what condition the bridge was, fear for the time being comparatively banished, and he with considerable courage and daring continued the prosecution of his dangerous task. Having walked along the bridge as far as he could, he then crawled on his hands and knees as far as the point where the high girders begin. Here his course was arrested; horror stricken, he found that the rumour in circulation was too true, the whole of the thirteen girders, each 245 feet in width and 250 tons in weight, and which, as it were, had formed a tunnel in the middle of the bridge, were gone and nothing remained but the bare iron piers which had supported them. Mr Smith, the stationmaster, also made a similar journey along the bridge from the other end, and found that what Mr Roberts reported as to the destruction of the middle of the bridge was absolutely true.

Four o'clock a.m.

A message just received estimates the number of passengers in the fated train at not less than 200. The man in the signal cabin at the north end of the bridge states that at about ten minutes past seven the Edinburgh train was signalled as having entered on the bridge at the south end, and that, in signalling a reply a moment or two afterwards, no communication with the south end was found to exist.

About an hour after the catastrophe had happened, several gentlemen, who reside at the West End of Dundee, and others who had been walking along the Perth Road at points commanding a view of the bridge, proceeded to the Tay Bridge station, and reported to Mr Smith the stationmaster, what they had seen of the calamity. Their testimony concurred us to the time at which the fearful accident had occurred. The evening was very clear, a full moon shedding bright light over all the town, and clearly revealing the outline of the Tay Bridge.

4.30 a.m.

Mr Walker, manager of the North British Railway, telegraphing from Leuchars, at four o'clock this morning, has communicated the following to the newspapers: - 'From reports made to us here of the terrible calamity at the Tay Bridge, it appears that several of the large girders of the bridge, along with the last train from Edinburgh, were precipitated into the river about half-past seven last night. There were, I deeply deplore to say, nearly 300 passengers, besides company's servants in the train, all of whom are believed to have perished. The cause of the accident has not yet been ascertained.'

The train was timed to arrive at the bridge at 7.08 p.m., and was signalled at 7.14, only six minutes behind time. Accounts are contradictory as to whether the bridge had given way before the arrival of the train, or whether it had succumbed under the combined pressure of the engine and carriages and the hurricane. There can be no doubt, however, as to the fate of the train and its human freight, however many or few were in it.

The centre portion of the bridge was constructed on piers of greater strength than those which supported the parts of the bridge nearer the land on either side. Here it was necessary to provide stronger columns to support the weight of the superincumbent girders, which at the navigable portion of the river have a span of 245 feet, and weigh 190 tons each. The cylinders employed for the bridge were made round, and on them were deposited great masses of brickwork up to high-water mark. From this point each pier was composed of six iron columns, constructed in 10 feet lengths, and of a proportionate thickness. Thirteen pieces of this kind carried the bridge over the navigable channel of the river, which on an average is about 45 feet in depth.

During a violent gale in February 1877, while the bridge was in process of construction, two of the largest girders, which had been raised to the top of the piers prepared for them, but had not been put in their places, were blown down from the hanging gear. About the same part the bridge has now given way under the strain of the elements, and led to a disaster the terrible magnitude of which it is impossible at the present moment to estimate.

As we have said, the water in the centre is over forty feet deep, the height of the bridge is eighty-eight feet above, and nothing is conceivable but that the train and its passengers must be lying in the bed of the Tay.

As the news did not reach Edinburgh till very late, there was of course little excitement in the city. Some of those who did hear the news would not credit it, and seeing that only private messages were received, conviction was not then forced upon any save those who were known to have friends in the train. These, by enquiries at the Waverley Station, learned that two railway officials at the Dundee station, anxious about the train, attempted to cross over the bridge, but they were driven back by a deluge of water which was escaping from the pipes employed to convey the water supply of Newport across the bridge.

Edinburgh Courant, 29 December 1879.

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