POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Earlier this month, on the 52nd anniversary of the collapse of the Silver Bridge, the structure was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) with a ceremony and bronze plaque presentation.
The plaque dedication was held in conjunction with the annual memorial observance held in downtown Point Pleasant at 6th and Main streets, where the former bridge rested.
According to Robert Cagle III, PE, ASCE Region 4 director, who spoke at the dedication, the Silver Bridge joins only around 200 projects worldwide which have earned this “prominent designation” from the ASCE. It is only the third in West Virginia to earn the distinction, joining the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad & Shop Complex and the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.
“This elite group includes famous landmarks such as the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building,” Cagle said. “In this ongoing program, the ASCE History and Heritage Committee nominates historically significant civil engineering projects for recognition…. ASCE is proud to recognize the Silver Bridge as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Completed in 1928, the historic bridge was, as you know, given its name for its color. It served as a link between West Virginia and Ohio, carrying U.S. Route 35 over the Ohio River but it was its tragic collapse on Dec. 15, 1967 that marked its significance in the history of civil engineering. That devastating event emphasized the importance of inspection to public highway safety, ultimately leading to the creation of the National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS).
As civil engineers we take great pride in designing and constructing structures and sites that become legacies of our communities. However, we also overcome adversity. While the history of the Silver Bridge is regrettable and saddening, it taught us important engineering lessons…it paved the way for ongoing improvement in our profession. Most importantly, it serves as a solemn reminder of the significant responsibilities civil engineers have to ensure the public’s safety.”
Cagle and the ASCE were presented a proclamation from West Virginia Department of Highways (WVDOH) Deputy Secretary of Transportation Jimmy Wriston, PE, on behalf of Gov. Jim Justice. Wriston said as bridge engineers, his profession would “never forget” what happened regarding the tragedy. The proclamation read, in part, “Fifty two years ago tragedy struck the Point Pleasant area and touched this community forever. Each year we honor the 46 lives that were lost during the collapse of the Silver Bridge and commend the initiatives to implement the National Bridge Inspection Standards… Let me take this opportunity to thank the American Society of Civil Engineers for their dedication and commitment to public safety, without the efforts of this organization, we would not be able to partake in our daily activities.”
Carol Stevens, PE, from ASCE’s History and Heritage Committees at both the state and national levels, was then introduced as someone who was “instrumental” in moving the landmark designation forward.
“For a landmark to be approved, it has to be 50 years old…our next one will probably be the New River Gorge Bridge…but it must have regional or national significance to the civil engineering profession,” she said. “This one definitely qualifies.”
Stevens also spoke about the lessons learned from the collapse and the “rigorous” national bridge inspection program that came as a result of the tragedy. Stevens also announced a “sister plaque” would be presented to the Ohio Council of Local Sections of the ASCE and the Ohio Department of Transportation to be placed on the Ohio side of the river at a later date.
Stevens also read a proclamation from Congresswoman Carol Miller, noting the solemn anniversary and landmark designation.
Tracy Brown, PE, WVDOH State Bridge Engineer then spoke, referencing the Silver Bridge as a sort of touchstone of reference for all bridge engineers.
“My hope is that this landmark status serves three purposes,” Brown said. “First…in some small way, I hope it gives comfort to the family, friends and loved ones that these 46 people leave behind. Second purpose – I would like it to illustrate to this community that the West Virginia Department of Transportation, and bridge professionals in general, have not forgotten what happened here and we’re not going to forget. Third thing – we need to ensure these future generations do not forget this. This is what happens when you don’t have a bridge safety inspection program. We owe it to future generations to put reminders out there to let them know. If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it. And we do not want to repeat what happened here 52 years ago.”
Those gathered then walked a few steps behind the Silver Bridge Memorial to the area in front of the memorial mural which depicts the bridge. The mural is painted on a section of flood wall where the bridge used to enter Point Pleasant. Now resting in front of the mural is a concrete base which also houses pieces of the actual decking from the Silver Bridge which was found on private property in Gallia County along the Ohio River. The property owner, Terry Burnett, was recognized by Brown for allowing WVDOH to recover the pieces; Brown added those visiting the plaque will literally be “walking on history.” The actual bronze plaque rests on a concrete platform above the bridge decking pieces.
Also speaking at the unveiling was Michael Bashore, PE and president of the Ohio Council of Local Sections of the ASCE. Bashore talked about being a child when the bridge fell and studying engineering and the collapse at Ohio Northern University. He thanked those involved with the designation and ceremony, including the West Virginia Department of Highways, Ohio Department of Transportation, West Virginia ASCE Region 4, the City of Point Pleasant and Mason County Commission for hosting the event and participation from officials from Gallia County, Gallipolis and ODOT District 10.
Moments before the unveiling, Brown then spoke about those he knew who worked at WVDOH when the bridge collapsed and how one of them had shared with him a photo of the debris and damage, telling him to “hang that picture on your wall” to “remember there’s no short cuts” when it comes to their jobs.
Brown also introduced Garland Steele, who worked with WVDOH when the bridge collapsed and was part of the forensics team who took the bridge pieces from the river and reassembled it to find what caused it fail.
“I asked him (Steele) to help unveil this plaque..it’s like history coming full circle and I think that is a very special thing,” Brown said.
As previously reported, Mason County Commissioner Tracy Doolittle delivered the welcome at the memorial service with Commissioners Rick Handley and Sam Nibert also in attendance. The county commission also opened up their offices inside the Mason County Courthouse for a reception following the gathering.
In addition, from Gallia County, County Commissioners David Smith and Harold Montgomery were in attendance for the ceremonies in Point Pleasant.
“This is part of our history…it’s important that we work together and make sure that it’s not forgotten,” Smith said. “We take that and learn from it and take the lessons forward, we are a shared community that way.”
“Only the water divides us,” Montgomery said. “We’re one community here.”
Smith and Montgomery said they were looking forward to the sister plaque finding a home on the Ohio side of the river. Both said they hoped, if possible, it could be placed near where the bridge approach actually was located.
ASCE represents more than 150,000 members of the civil engineering profession worldwide. According to a news release from the organization concerning the landmark designation, “The Silver Bridge also provided important lessons on fatigue and failure modes in similar structures, helping engineers improve their understanding of how these events occur. The bridge’s failure has helped improve bridge safety and methods for construction and repair in future structures, in addition to the resulting NBIS.”
“The structures we design as civil engineers have lasting impacts on the communities they serve,” said Kancheepuram “Guna” Gunalan, Ph.D., PE, D.GE, F.ASCE, president, American Society of Civil Engineers. “In the case of the Silver Bridge’s devastating collapse, numerous families were impacted by the tragedy, losing their loved ones. But in the years to follow, the inspection standards established as a result of this tragedy may have saved thousands of lives and the impact of this tragic event has been felt on a national level.”
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.