The Shelby Bridge: A Requiem

People cry at weddings, they cry when folks die.  Tears accompany bookmarks in time: events consequential enough that we mark chapters in our lives as happening before or after them.  Two significant bookmarks we see in our communities are weddings and deaths.  They are not supposed to happen at the same time.

Follow me for a moment, and let me place you into one bookmarked page of Shelby history that proved to be unforgettable and pivotal in the story of the town.

The Setting:

It was the Fourth of July and everybody was excited to begin with, eager for that American festival atmosphere.  On top of that there was to be a wedding taking place that day—right downtown in the open, and everybody was going to be there. 

As the day dawned the town was already deeply stirred and filled with all those moving primal emotions that get evoked for societal human rites.  Everyone had been anticipating this for weeks, and it was a day to remember even before it began.

The Fourth

In many ways it was a Fourth of July like many others—Main Street was hung in bunting, and there was a parade.  There were games and contests: a highly publicized running race; also food, entertainment, lots of speeches.  Later there would be fireworks.

The planning committee had something really special in mind that year though, and they went to great lengths to arrange an event that might strike a unique tone of solemnity and joy: a wedding on Main Street.

As it happened, no one rushed forward to be the happy bride and groom so incentives were published while the committee shook the limbs farther and farther out the family tree to find a pre-nuptial couple willing to bear the scrutiny of the entire town.  Finally a young pair of lovers, who were too broke to manage much of a wedding on their own, stepped timidly forward and agreed to take all the fancy clothes and shining gifts in exchange for an embarrassing moment of glaring attention.

This 1875 photo of Main Street in Shelby shows how little the Fire Station has changed through the years. Next to the station is the ill-fated bridge across the Black Fork. The farther building is gone today.

A crush of people crowd in to witness the solemnities at the very public wedding on Main Street during the Fourth of July celebration of 1898.

The Ceremony

At 4:30 officials wrapped up the Three-Legged races, closed down the Ring-Toss.  Mothers put a lid on the potato salad, and sunburned children were laid on quilts in the shade.  The brass band from Mansfield changed the timbre of their music from popular quicksteps to a slower more hymn-like pace, and the town gathered close.

A platform had been built on Main Street near the fire station where the ceremony was to take place—centered on the bridge that spanned the Black Fork.

The Mayor of Shelby mounted the stage to act as Justice of the Peace, and the young couple—Will Bistle and Cecelia Hieronymus—joined their hands and then their lives.  A few thousand people crowded in to stand witness, and somewhere around 1000 of them—as many as would fit—stood right on the bridge.

A little after 5:00 the Mayor pronounced the couple married, handed the bride a bouquet; the band struck up a tender rendition of Home, Sweet Home.

Most people who were there didn’t really know what was going on when it happened.  With no warning at all the bridge suddenly snapped and dropped into the riverbed.

A Shelby photographer captured the scene in the late afternoon sun from the top of a nearby building.

The Scramble

For those who had a chance to clamber there was a mad clawing up the steep wooden walls and folks above grabbed whoever they could reach. The rest—hundreds of them—suffered untold indignities and injuries in the pileup.  Some of the ones on the bottom were gone quickly and never knew what hit them.

The river was quite low at the time—only about a foot deep—so there was no cushion for the fall.  Firemen ran for ladders and with painfully slow efforts hundreds of broken people were lifted up out of the 15-foot deep riverbed.

The cry for help went out quickly and within a short time doctors began arriving in town on trains and streetcars from Plymouth, Shiloh, Mansfield, Crestline.  In short order a field headquarter triage was established in the town Clerk’s office, and within a couple hours it was necessary to post committees at the train stations, Interurban station, the telegraph office and the civic telephone line to meet the panicked onrush of relatives from neighboring towns whose loved ones were in Shelby that day.

That evening Main Street looked like a battle zone with stretchers and blankets and 10,000 people desperately searching for their kin or else wandering in a daze.

By midnight the host of 30 doctors had the last splints in place, and the crisis was quieting down so newsmen could start counting.  Four people had perished in the fall, but in the next week that number would increase to a total of seven.  The numbers of wounded varied at the time and the first lists printed in newspaper accounts had 157 names.  Folks generally agreed that when the tally included all those not hospitalized the count was well over 300.

The Shadow

Checking the lists of casualties there is, fortunately, no mention of the newlyweds.  Wherever it was that they lived their lives together after that day it wasn’t around here, and it’s not unreasonable to think they wouldn’t want to see Main Street again.

The town went through a series of heartbreaking memorial services.  The oldest of the fallen was 60 years old, the youngest only 11.

For generations afterward that hole in Main Street loomed dark as an abyss in folks’ minds even long after the bridge was replaced with steel trestles.

In our time hundreds or thousands of people drive Main Street in Shelby every day, and unless you’re looking closely you don’t even notice that you’re crossing a bridge by the fire station.  You certainly wouldn’t be aware of all the unbelievable horror and grief that took place there once. 

If you’re on foot you might hear the immemorial cry of a mourning dove to remind you of the tears shed there, but time, like the river underneath the bridge, bears away all those memories, all those tears.

Fortunately for the folks who wound up in the riverbed that day the water level was unusually low. Only one person actually drowned in the disaster, and it was from a burst water line, not the river.

Strolling across the bridge today you might not imagine the news it made in 1898. These newspaper accounts are from Sandusky, Washington DC, and San Francisco.

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