Friday, May 2, 2014

Clark Street Bridge Smash-Up -- May 2, 1929

Clark Street Sandmaster-Blasted (Chicago Daily News archive)
Indignation aplenty on this date, May 2, in 1929 as The Chicago Tribune railed against the sand companies of the city and the boats they employed to ship sand for concrete into the city, the result of an accident two days earlier that saw the 251-foot-long sandboat Sandmaster smashing the heck out of the Clark Street bridge.

“The city council and the sand companies agree that this expensive and aggravating interruption of business is not unreasonable.  They unite in rejecting less burdensome methods of bringing building sand into the city.  It could be done by carriers which would not require bridge openings.  It could be done at hours when a bridge opening would be of no consequence.  A few sandboats have the right of way in the council and thousands of trucks, cars, and pedestrians rate nothing,” the paper editorialized.  [Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1929]

Captain Ava Smith, the skipper of the Sandmaster, stated, “It wasn’t my fault.  I had the port motor going full ahead and the starboard motor in reverse.  There was plenty of room to pass through but just before we got to the bridge, the tender must have swung it back about ten feet right into the ship.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 2,1929]

In 1929 a large number of river bridges still sat on turntables that were located in the middle of the river.  When boats approached, the bridges were swung so that they paralleled the shore, leaving close quarters for ships that had to pass on either side of the opened bridge on a very busy river.  

All Clark Street traffic, including a major north-south trolley car line, had to be rerouted after the accident.  If there was any positive to the situation, a new Clark Street bascule bridge had been started, and it had been the hope that the old bridge could be kept going until the new bridge was finished sometime later in the year.  That was not to be.  It was a mess, especially for the first couple of days when almost nothing could move up or down the main stem of the river.

Streetcar traffic on the Clark Street bridge, 1906 (Chicago Daily News archive)
On the same day that the editorial ran, the Sandmaster was freed from the wreckage of the bridge while the city council went to work.  Alderman William A. Rowan introduced a resolution to mandate fixed bridges on the river.  The Commissioner of Public Works was also ordered to pursue, pending a completion of his investigation, court action against the Materials Construction Company, the owner of the boat, as a result of the $50,000 worth of damage to the bridge and the blockage of the Clark Street entrance to the Loop.

The investigation moved ahead with speed. By May 9 a survey of the records had revealed that the Sandmaster had hit 13 bridges on the river in three years in 44 separate incidents.  “The Sandmaster’s bridge-ramming career began on May 21, 1926,” The Tribune reported, “when it struck a ladder at the Fullerton avenue bridge and ended, so far as the present records are concerned when it knocked the 600 ton Clark street bridge seven feet from its foundation last week.  [Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1929]

The Fullerton Avenue and the Diversey Boulevard spans were particularly unlucky.  The ship had rammed the former bridge 18 times and the latter 13 times.  The investigation also revealed that another six inches would have thrown the Clark Street Bridge, along with the six pedestrians standing on its turntable, into the river.

On the following day, May 10, the president of the Construction Materials company, J. R. Sensibar, responded to all of the criticism.  “The injuries to bridges were, in the main, trifling damages to wooden planks and ladders,” he said.  “They were caused by the carelessness of the city, not the carelessness of the boat’s captain.  The Sandmaster has made 1,300 trips on the river. The only two serious accidents were those at the Cortland Street bridge in January, 1927, and present damage to the Clark street bridge.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1929].
 
On May 12 Mr. Sensibar (I love the name – a cross between “sense” and “sand bar”) went into more detail, more lucid and far more illustrative of his legitimate cause for outrage at the fingers that were being pointed in his direction.

“The depth [of the river] is the cause of many of the accidents,” he began, “such as boats colliding with bridges and other boats.  We load the Sandmaster so it will draw 15 feet, and it goes along throwing up a ridge of mud on each side of it, thus keeping the river dredged to 14 or 15 feet . . . Because of the present depth, we load the Sandmaster with only 1,500 tons, whereas its capacity is 3,500 tons . . . if we were able to load to capacity, the number of bridge openings would be reduced by one-half.”

Originally, the United States government had dredged the river to a depth of 22 feet, but when the Chicago Sanitary District took over the operation, things gradually changed.  Over time the sewage that was dumped into the river had decreased its depth to 14 feet.

“It would be a saving of money to the city in the long run to restore the river to its proper depth and turn it back to the government,” Mr. Sensibar concluded.

A week later things had begun to grow really tense.  Traffic across the bridge, of course, was non-existent . . . because the bridge was non-existent.  Many businesses along the busy Clark Street corridor were facing extinction, store vacancies were occurring, and an appeal was made to the Commissioner of Public Works to ask the City Council for an additional $125,000 “to pay for overtime and other items necessary to place the new bridge in service for street cars and pedestrians by July 1.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1929]

A day later Captain Smith was placed on trial for reckless navigation before United States Steam Vessel Inspectors.  Electricians testified that one of the cables carrying power to the bridge had been broken for three hours before the accident.  The bridge tender said that the other cable failed when the bridge was opening.  Still, the city asserted that Captain Smith and the Sandmaster were far enough from the bridge to have reversed engines and avoided the crash.  [Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1929]

Well, you can guess how that worked out.  Captain Smith was found guilty of reckless navigation on May 29 and his master’s license was revoked for 30 days.  The verdict stated that the accident that knocked the 600-ton bridge turntable seven feet from its foundation “might have been avoided” and that Captain Smith’s statement that he was proceeding at four miles an hour against a two mile an hour current was “not to be taken seriously.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1929]

In an amazing display of engineering the new trunnion bascule bridge at Clark Street was opened in a formal dedication ceremony on July 10 of that same year.  The river kept on flowing, the bridge started going up and down, and all was well . . . for awhile.


Clark Street bridge house today (JWB Photo)
A lot of oversimplification takes place today about the Chicago River – not surprising since it has never looked as good as it does right now.  A lot of folks assume that the river was reversed in 1900, and everything was right and just.  But the love-hate relationship with the river continued through much of the twentieth century as cars, buses, elevated trains, and pedestrians were delayed by random bridge raisings and those who made their livelihood on the river cursed a city that had grown because of their efforts and yet always seemed ready to make things as difficult for them as it could.  And boats continued to crash into bridges and into each other.

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