By Jody Brumage
This Friday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, a historic city along the Ohio River in West Virginia. On December 15, 1967, in the middle of the evening rush, the forty-year-old bridge suffered a catastrophic fracture in one of its steel suspension chain links, causing the full length of the roadway to collapse into the Ohio River in a matter of 20 seconds, taking with it 46 victims who lost their lives. The horrible accident struck hard at the close community of Point Pleasant, but it also had vital ramifications for the entire country.
On Capitol Hill, Congress had been constructing the Federal-Aid Highway bill for several months prior to the collapse of the Silver Bridge. The bill was initially conceived to provide funding for expansion of the U.S. Interstate Highway System and to extend regulations passed in the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, including environmental and eminent domain policies, to all federal highway projects. The tragedy in Point Pleasant introduced a new element to the legislation, the need for stricter safety assessment of aging bridges around the United States.
Apart from the local recovery effort, the collapse of the Silver Bridge prompted a national response as well. Four days after the disaster, Senator Jennings Randolph, Chairman of the Senate Committee of Public Works, initiated hearings which resulted in the inclusion of the first federal bridge inspection program in the Federal-Aid Highway bill. Signed into law by President Johnson on August 24, 1968, the legislation required the Department of Transportation to carry out safety inspections for all federally-funded bridges every two-years. A National Bridge Inventory was also created to provide a central database where all inspection information and safety ratings could be stored and reviewed.
In the fifty years since December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge disaster has loomed large in the memory and history of West Virginia and the United States. In Point Pleasant, the story of the disaster lives on in the local river historical museum and in a memorial at the former bridge site. The disaster also fueled folklore surrounding the “Mothman,” a creature alleged to have been seen in the vicinity of bridge in the year leading up to its collapse, a story which has subsequently been featured in literature and film. The national inspection program inspired by the Silver Bridge accident led to an increase in identifying structurally-deficient bridges and the allocation of resources to upgrade or replace them. However, subsequent disasters such as the 1983 Mianus River Bridge collapse in Connecticut and the 2007 I-35W Mississippi River Bridge failure in Minnesota have led to continued questions over the effectiveness of bridge safety monitoring and increased calls for a large-scale program for replacing aging infrastructure.
“Hechler and Miller Move for U.S. Aid.” The Herald-Dispatch: Huntington (December 16, 1967).
Wallace, Terry. “25 Years Later, Bridge Collapse Still Haunts West Virginia Town.” West Virginia Archives and History (1992). https://goo.gl/7DyQPq
West Virginia Department of Transportation. “Silver Bridge.” (2017) https://goo.gl/7trsqZ