1879: An iron railway bridge over Scotland’s River Tay collapses in a severe storm as a passenger train rolls across. The train plunges into the roiling river, killing everyone on board.
The lattice-girder bridge, designed by highly regarded railway engineer Sir Thomas Bouch, crossed the Firth of Tay between Dundee and Leuchars. It was built on the cheap, which turned out to be a hallmark (and a selling point) of Bouch’s work. The North British Railway, which commissioned the 2-mile-long bridge, was hewing to a tight budget, and Bouch was considered a master of the form.
Since buying prefabricated sections from established foundries was out of the question, the resourceful Bouch used iron produced in his own hastily constructed foundry. The quality was poor and the casting uneven. Additionally, Bouch didn’t bother calculating wind loads, even after altering his original design to include girders longer than 200 feet.
The underlying shoddiness, however, was lost in the sheer magnitude of the project. Former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant visited Scotland to admire this feat of engineering.
The bridge opened June 1, 1878, to great fanfare: Queen Victoria took a ride across the mammoth structure not long after opening day, and Bouch was knighted for his efforts. The euphoria didn’t last long.
Even by Caledonian standards, the storm that hit the night of Dec. 28, 1879, was a rough one. The winds were so severe that the high tower at Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe also fell, and hundreds of Scots had the roofs torn off their homes.
As the train thundered across the Tay, the high girders at the span’s midpoint gave way, sending the six-car train and the entire central section of the bridge crashing into the river. Based on the passenger manifest, it was determined that 75 people were on board. Fewer than 50 bodies were recovered, and there were no survivors. Well, there was one: The locomotive was later fished from the Tay and, after a refitting, returned to service. It became known to the railwaymen, ghoulishly and unofficially, as “The Diver.”
The official inquiry into the disaster destroyed Bouch’s professional reputation, concluding that the bridge was “badly designed, badly built and badly maintained, and that its downfall was due to inherent defects in the structure, which must sooner or later have brought it down.”
The final verdict: “For these defects … Sir Thomas Bouch is, in our opinion, mainly to blame. For the faults of design he is entirely responsible.” Disgraced, Bouch retired to the spa town of Moffat and died within the year.
A second bridge was built across the Tay and opened in 1887, just to the west of the original. That one is still standing.
There was a final indignity to bear, however. William Topaz McGonagall, a Dundee bard occasionally described as the worst poet in British history, was inspired to pen “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Yikes!
Photo: The new Tay Rail Bridge replaced the poorly built original. It stands next to the piers of the old bridge.