Bridge Tender’s Nightmare Made Worse?

PAN N158 - [View of the reclamation of False Creek Flats showing the reconstruction of Main Street at the bascule bridge] June 30, 1921 W J Moore-2

CVA: PAN N158 – View of the reclamation of False Creek Flats showing the reconstruction of Main Street at the bascule bridge. June 30, 1921. W J Moore photo. Also showing the GNR Trestle Swing Span Bridge. This was the scene of the GNR Trestle and environs about a decade after the accident related in this post. (Cropped, digitally exposure-adjusted, and annotated by MDM.) For a more detailed view, click on image.

Bridge Tenders

There were, once upon a time in early Vancouver, many bridge tenders. Who was a bridge tender? He (I’ve never heard of a female bridge tender in Greater Vancouver) was the person responsible for swinging the span on a swing span bridge or (less commonly in Vancouver), raising the draw on a draw bridge. In the first half of the 20th century, it was more typical than not for a bridge to be designed to accommodate both the traffic that crossed it (be that train, horse-and-buggy, automobile, and/or streetcar) and traffic which passed beneath it (boat craft of various sorts). In those days, bridge engineering technology had not advanced to the stage that allowed the span to be high enough that boats could proceed beneath it while not requiring its crossing traffic to wait.

This post isn’t about the lot of the bridge tender, however. Or, at least, only tangentially. It is about how the manner in which a non-fiction story is told can influence readers to think about an event. And about the people involved.

But more on that later.

The story that follows is a ‘ripping’ tale from the January 10, 1911 edition of the Vancouver Daily World and is reproduced here in its entirety.

Vancouver Daily World – January 10, 1911
(Note: Green Text inserted below is MDM’s; it is included to aid contemporary readers in understanding lingo that, presumably, was understood by typical 1911 readers.¹)

G. N. R. Engine Plunges Into False Creek

Engineer and Fireman of Freight Had Miraculous Escape from Death at Open Drawbridge

In a desperate, heroic effort to save his train this morning just as it struck the open draw on the False Creek Bridge, Great Northern Engineer Doris Baker in charge of engine No. 519 applied the air brakes and the next moment plunged with his engine to the water below and sank from sight.

The water at this point is twenty feet deep. The accident was witnessed by a crowd of people who were on their way to work. Bertram Carroll, on a Fraser avenue car [presumably the ‘car’ was a BCER car crossing on Main Street Bridge], saw the engine go over and yelled to the other passengers on board. Women in the car turned an agonizing glance at the awful sight and uttered up a fervent prayer.

As the engine struck the water with a terrific splash those who were held spellbound at the awful sight caught a last look at Engineer Baker. His jaws were set and he was seen exercising every ounce of muscle as he set the air [brakes] and tried to throw the reverse.

The accident occurred at a quarter to nine o’clock. As the ponderous freight locomotive hit the water a mountain of hot sizzling steam arose enveloping everything in sight as the water struck the fire box.

Human Chain Rescue

“My God, he’s been killed,” went up the cry from railroad men doing track duty. As the engine keeled over Fireman Frank Varrell who was on the other side of the cab leaped to the trestle in safety.

He jumped to his feet and ran to the edge of the draw where the engine had gone down. Suddenly he yelled in ecstasy “He’s alive, he’s alive. Get a rope.”

A score of men clambered to the draw. Baker was seen weakly swimming. A human ladder was formed and he was dragged to the bridge more dead than alive and then rushed to the caboose of his own train. There he was quickly undressed before the roaring fire in the stove in the caboose while oil begrimed “shacks” [slang term for occupants of the caboose] rushed to the nearest drug stores for restoratives.

“Go home,” said Baker faintly, “No, it’s just the chances we take. My back feels terribly wrenched but I’ll be all right tomorrow and I’m going to stay here.”

But a cab was called and he was sent to his home. His injuries are not as yet fully known and many believe he has been internally hurt.

Just how the accident occurred is still a disputed question. “I was on the other side of Engineer Baker,” said Fireman Varrell. “We had been working back and forth, cutting ‘in’ and ‘out’ cars and were bound for our daily run for Blaine [In other words, ‘shunting’ or ‘switching’ cars; selecting rail stock that was to go through to Blaine from that which wasn’t]. Suddenly I heard a whistle. I looked up and saw a boat coming down. I looked ahead and saw there were no flags out [which would have indicated whether the train had the right of way], and so I thought everything was all right.

“Just as the front of the engine struck the draw I felt the draw move. Then the bridge began to move. “Good God, Doris,” I said, “They’re moving the draw. Jump.” I turned a look at him “I’m going to stick and save her,” he muttered.

“Just then there was a crunch of steel, a sickening breaking of timber and I leaped. Just as I did so I was horrified to see the engine off the track, totter and apparently hesitate. Then she listed. It was all happening as fast as lightning plays. Then came a break of iron as the engine parted from the tender [the coal car which is immediately behind the locomotive; it carries the engine’s fuel], and the next second the engine, with Baker at his post, went down to the water and out of sight.

Escape Miraculous

“As I struck the bridge, I slid on the heavy bank of snow and narrowly escaped going into the water myself. A terrific gust of steam arose as the hot coals struck the water. I have never known of such a miraculous escape in my life, and too much credit cannot be given to Baker. His act in sticking by the engine and doing his best to stop the accident is the most heroic act I have ever known of. If he hadn’t put on the air the whole train would have gone into the water. He is the bravest man I know, and I have known a good many. But one thing is sure, it was all the fault of the bridge tender. He evidently didn’t see us and his whole attention was taken up by the boat that was whistling for the open draw.

The bridge was in charge of Sidney Woods, a young tender who is regarded as very careful. His version is that he had two red flags set [in other words, signalling “stop” to the train] and that the engineer and fireman may not have seen them owing to the storm. He asserts the flags will be found in the water. But this the engine crew stoutly deny.

The entire line was blocked and a wrecking crew sent for from Blaine to open up the line. A great crowd congregated and the excitement was intense as the rumor had gotten about that a whole trainload of passengers had been killed.

Contrast: the Province’s Account

The World reporter who wrote the account above seems to me to have focused on composing a good drama – and he has done a great job of that – while being less concerned with having a balanced account of events. The story seems to be tilted to favour the railwaymen and against the bridge tender.²

This becomes more apparent when the World article is contrasted with a report (excerpted below) by a reporter for the Province. While the Province, like the World, acknowledged that the cause of the accident wasn’t wholly clear, the ‘theory’ advanced in the Province seems to me far more balanced than that in the World:

The Daily Province – January 10, 1911

(An excerpt of a Province article about the same accident…)

The freight train which started south at about 8.30 o’clock . . . had been shunting on the trestle for an hour or more. Several times it came almost up to the draw span and on each occasion backed again. About [9.30, I think; the text isn’t clear] a tug was seen approaching the bridge through the haze and in answer to his whistle the [bridge] tender turned his attention to the boat, to give it passage through the draw. At the same time the train approached again but, evidently thinking it was only shunting, the man in charge of the swinging machinery of the span threw it open to allow the tug to pass. When he saw the draw moving out and the break in the tracks looming ahead, Engineer Baker jammed on his air, but, though the wheels responded, the track was too slippery to hold the heavy train of cars and they slid forward, shoving the engine over the brink and dropping it into twenty feet or more of water.

The impression created in the Province report is quite different from that in the World’s account, don’t you think?

In my judgement, this wasn’t a case of one reporter telling ‘the truth’ while another told ‘porkies’.³ The facts seem to be present in both accounts. I suspect that it was a case of the World reporter being perhaps younger, and less-experienced than was the reporter with the Province.

The World reporter directed the blame at the bridge tender by:

  • directly quoting Frank Varrell extensively (including his claim that the accident was “all the fault of the bridge tender”);
  • naming the bridge tender in his report (“The bridge was in charge of Sidney Woods, a young tender . . .”), thus, effectively, publicly shaming the tender.
  • Not giving the bridge tender’s perspective on the accident much ‘time’ in his report (aside from a single brief paragraph at the end of the article).

A Moment of Terror

It seems to me that the oft-cited quote attributed to an anonymous wag about the Great War — that life in the trenches was “boredom punctuated by moments of terror” — would be an apt description, also, of the occupation of bridge tender. And, although no lives were lost in this accident, such an outcome was certainly not out of the question.

I imagine the bridge tender’s heart must have stopped briefly as he saw the engine tipping over the swing span. The account of the accident presented in the World may well have added insult to injury, making the bridge tender’s nightmare that much worse.

This strikes me as an instructive case for the virtue of exercising care before we as consumers of various media reach hasty conclusions about what ‘obviously’ happened during a reported event. Furthermore, this demonstrates the danger of accepting well-told dramatic accounts of events as being ‘true’ while the more ‘boring’ report is assumed to be, somehow, less so.

New Westminster Swingspan Trestle Open (looking beneath the Patullo Bridge)

Recent view of one of the last of the Swingspan Trestles in Vancouver area – New Westminster/Surrey rail crossing of the Fraser – Viewed from beneath the Pattullo and Skytrain Bridges. December 2017 (MDM photo).


¹Most of the railway lingo definitions were sourced from this useful site.

²Mention was made in subsequent World articles on the accident of a forthcoming ‘investigation’ by the G.N.R. into the affair, but I couldn’t find a report pertaining to it nor conclusions reached. There was certainly no indication that there would be an inquiry by any sort of quasi-governmental or independent body. None of the later World articles touched on the question of who (if anyone) was at fault in the accident. Instead all articles I found dealt with the mechanics of the protracted raising of the locomotive from the bottom of False Creek.

³Neither the reporter of the World article nor that of the Province piece was identified.

This entry was posted in bridges/viaducts, railways, W J Moore, water scene and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bridge Tender’s Nightmare Made Worse?

  1. BevAnn says:

    Another wonderful read. Thank you!

  2. Tim Kuepfer says:

    In this our new age of not only mass (and social) media consumption but also everyman’s quick and ready participation in it both the World and Province’s accounts seem to me wondrously circumspect. Still, I will admit to liking the more exciting accounts (which is, no doubt, why social media is now the primary source of many people’s “news”). To quote (completely out of context) one of the contemporary culprits of the current demise in fair reporting, “Sad.”

    Thanks, Murray, for your wonderful blog. Enjoyed every (measured) word!

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