Once Upon a Time

1919 Mississippi bridge fire disrupted vital travel route

This undated photo shows part of the span of the Mississippi River railroad bridge at Quincy. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By BETH LANE
Posted: Mar. 15, 2020 12:50 am Updated: Mar. 15, 2020 1:17 am

A fire on the Mississippi River bridge at Quincy on March 30, 1919, disrupted area lives. The cause of the blaze was a mystery, but it had begun well before anyone noticed. In fact, the former assistant fire department chief department Edwin Yates had noticed a thick cloud of smoke near the east end of the bridge a full 15 minutes before hearing fire alarms. At the time, Yates reported that he thought a car might have been on fire.

The timing of the blaze was unfortunate for the firemen. Fire alarms sounded a bit after 5 p.m., just when the firemen were on dinner break. This meant that half the four-man crews were away from the station headed home for their meal, leaving two men per station to hitch the teams and rush to the blaze.

The first alarm was answered by a two-man crew on the engine along with Fire Chief Marriotte, who went to the scene in his own car to organize and lead his force. Of the two men responding, one was required to stay with the machine doing the pumping, leaving only one fireman to hold the line. It was not possible for one man to lay the line and hold the nozzle under full pressure. The Daily Herald lamented the lack of manpower, which resulted in delays and damage. It reported, "…the chief was compelled to neglect his proper work of investigating and planning to fight the fire and help with the detail labor of setting the pumping engine, laying the hose and holding the nozzle, and besides all this it was up to him to at once hunt up a telephone -- and the nearest was some distance away of course -- and call for more apparatus. …"

Eventually four companies responded. It was determined that saving the center railroad track portion had priority, and the flanking wagon roads were sacrificed to gain access to the middle. The outer safety fencing was torn or chopped down, and the decking cut to allow a hose to spray the underside of the bridge.

Getting water to the conflagration was difficult. The No. 1 pump car was put within reach of the river between the railroad bridge and the bay bridge. The Mississippi was running high, so the distance to the water could have been more than the length of available hose. The No. 1 pump relayed water up to the No. 3 engine, which was stationed on the bridge itself. The Quincy Daily Herald of March 31, 1919, reported that from there, "two lines of hose, 3,000 feet in length, were laid."

By prioritizing the railroad tracks in the center of the bridge, the damage was confined to charred railroad ties. On the outer edges of the bridge, the lanes that had been added about 20 years before sustained damage that was nearly total. On the north side especially, girders had warped and twisted the brackets, and the decking was completely burned. The extent of the damage included five spans of the bridge and would have been worse except that the draw of the bridge was opened, creating a barrier to the spread of the blaze.

The opening of the bridge stranded several firemen on the island side of the fire. They had to follow the bridge west to Missouri and be rowed by skiff back to their positions on the east shore. One boat maintained a patrol below the burning bridge ready to perform a rescue if a fireman fell. Luckily, no one did.

The spectacle attracted huge numbers of people who crowded streetcars, packed the streets in automobiles and lined the viewpoints of Gardner, Riverview and Parker Heights parks. The Missouri shore also was lined with autos, many seeking to return home to Quincy. A similar problem happened in Quincy when day visitors from Missouri or Iowa realized they could not return home over the Quincy bridge. It meant for all of them, a long trip either south to Hannibal, Mo., or north to Keokuk, Iowa, as the ferries were still in winter dry dock.

It was about 3 a.m. before the final fireman left the scene. Crews were already waiting to begin repairs replacing ties and relaying rail. Less than 24 hours later, the first train after the fire would cross the bridge at 2:30 p.m., carrying freight to Kansas City. It was closely followed by a passenger train. The ferry B.B. was removed from its winter storage and readied to begin ferrying wagons and automobiles across the river as the wagon bridge repairs would take longer.

Five days later, the south lane of the wagon bridge was reopened for traffic. However, since the deck was narrow, it would allow only one-way traffic, and there was no room to turn around on the bridge.

A large work crew supervised by C.W. Hand laid new plank decking south of the rail tracks allowing passage. If two vehicles met in the middle, one would be forced to back up off the bridge.

A Missouri resident would eventually lodge a complaint with the Quincy Chamber of Commerce after being forced twice to back his team the length of the long bridge, which could be about a third of a mile. The crowning injustice was that the bridge tolls remained in place and as high as ever.

In June 1919, the steel to replace the girders on the northside traffic lane still had not been received. Work was estimated to take an additional month after these materials arrived.

In October 1919, The Daily Herald reported that a workforce was constructing the north side of the burned wagon bridge at last, and that work should be done by Dec. 1. It was an optimistic promise. But eventually, after weather delays, the bridge reopened to wagon and auto traffic just before the end of the year.

 

Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Ill.. She is former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.

 

 

Sources:

"$25,000 is Now Estimated Loss to River Bridge," Quincy Daily Journal, April 3, 1919.

 

"Bridge Repairs Slow," Quincy Daily Journal, June 13, 1919.

 

"Damage to River Bridge Fire is Set at $15,000." Quincy Daily Journal, March 31, 1919.

 

"Lessons of Bridge Fire," Quincy Daily Herald, March 31, 1919.

 

"Long Wagon Bridge is Being Rebuilt," Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 29, 1919.

 

"To Start Rebuilding River Bridge Soon," Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 24, 1919.

 

"Traffic is Resumed over Wagon Bridge Midnight Thursday," Quincy Daily Journal, April 4, 1919.

 

"Trains Cross River Bridge on Schedule," Quincy Daily Journal, April 1, 1919.

 

"Wagon Bridge and Lack of Train Sheds," Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 3, 1919.

 

"Wagon Way on Bridge is Destroyed," Quincy Daily Herald, March 31, 1919.