Last year a producer from the HISTORY Channel emailed me to ask if I’d be guest on a series called “Engineering Projects that Built America.” For those unaware, the ‘That Built’ franchise is one of HISTORY’s most successful; installments include “The Machines That Built America,”; “The Toys That Built America”; “The Titans Who Built America;” and even “The Food That Built America.”
In my call with the producer, she explained which engineering projects were in consideration for the series: the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the New York City subway, the Statue of Liberty, etc. She then asked if I had other ideas, to which I responded generally without giving specifics. (I’ve learned from experience not to give the HISTORY Channel your ideas for free; they will turn them into shows without giving you credit. That’s a story for another time.)
The project changed producers and ultimately aired in fall 2021 as “The Engineering That Built the World.” I never received a formal invitation to be on the show, and I largely put the conversation out of my mind. I was reminded of it this past week, however, when two things occurred: an interview on the Piers Morgan show about the World Cup in Qatar and my wife and mine’s Thanksgiving road trip through the Rust Belt and Appalachia. All have been converging in my head for the past few days, so permit me to ponder aloud with you on how the three connect.
During the Thanksgiving holiday, my wife and I took a road trip through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, while also passing through southwestern Virginia and western Pennsylvania. We stopped at several historic sites and saw many fascinating places, more of which will be described in future newsletters. For now, I want to focus on two sites: The Big Four Bridge and Hawks Nest State Park.
The Big Four Railroad Bridge is in Louisville, Kentucky. It spans the Ohio River, connecting Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana. The name Big Four derives from the four cities of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad Company whose trains ran across the bridge. When constructed between 1889 and 1895 it was an impressive engineering feat, its steel truss spans allowing the bridge to cross a one-mile-wide portion of the river that previously could only be traversed by ferry. Counting its approaches, the bridge was 9,000 feet long and, upon completion, allowed for efficient commerce between Kentucky, Indiana, and further points west and south. One can make a convincing case that the Big Four Bridge was an engineering project that helped to build America.
But the Big Four bridge was also a site of tragedy. In the first year of its construction, the foundations on the south side of the bridge, called caissons, were flooded, drowning several workers alive in a horrifying fashion. Four years later, two of the spans collapsed, killing more workers. A Louisville newspaper in 1893 described the scene:
The bridge which is being built across the Ohio River between this city and Jeffersonville has added another long list of victims to the fatalities which have marked every step of its progress. Forty-five men were carried down by the giving way of the second channel span at 10:20 o’clock a.m. The night at 6 o’clock another span fell, being blown down by a sharp wind storm. The night watchman and several workmen were on the span.
Some of the men survived. But as was noted by the newspaper and other sources, the deaths and injuries were not simply unfortunate accidents. They resulted from negligence by the company, overlooking safety for the purposes of completing the project as quickly as possible and maximizing profits. The same newspaper wrote:
There seems little doubt that the bridge builders were guilty of taking terrible risk. Workmen say the false work under the span had been settled for three days and that the company was straining every nerve to complete the span before it should fail… A great deal has been said about the false work being poorly constructed.”
Eventually, the Big Four Bridge became unsuitable for rail traffic as trains became heavier. The last rail car passed over it in 1968, and the bridge was decommissioned the following year. After languishing for decades, it became part of a downtown revitalization project. Today, it is a pedestrian-only walkway at the heart of the beautiful Louisville waterfront, illuminated at night by glowing LEDs. Walking across the bridge at sunset offers a glorious view of the Ohio River. A plaque on the bridge mentions that 42 workers perished during its construction. Their names are not listed.