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A Helping Hand And Old Horror

A reader of this blog – not in engineering or a related field, so I’m keeping them anonymous unless they request otherwise – followed up on my post about the truss bridge that was destroyed by fire in 1890 in Oil City, Pennsylvania. I had provided several guesses about what caused the fire, but my (lack of time | laziness) prevented me from researching further. Our helpful reader did, and found a newspaper article from The Evening Republican of Meadville, Pennsylvania, from November 4, 1890, that answered the question.

The article is written in the semi-sensational tone of a lot of reporting of that era, which I tend to distrust, but the basic story sounds plausible. A mistake at a switch led to a locomotive crashing into a freight train of oil tank cars, which caught fire. Ten minutes of the heat from that fire was enough to destroy the bridge. Since one of the possibilities I had mentioned was a fire on a tanker-car train, my after-the-fact musings have apparently been vindicated.

I took a fast look before writing today’s post as to whether the fire, on a branch of the Erie Railroad and therefore a matter of concern to the money interests in NYC, was mentioned in The New York Times. If it was, I didn’t find it. What I did find was story after story about collisions, fires, and deaths in railroad accidents in 1890 and 1891. It’s easy to forget how common such events were before modern workplace-safety laws. The fire at the bridge in Oil City was also pretty close to forgotten, overshadowed by a river flood two years later than burst storage tanks for various petroleum products, leading to the town, and several others, being inundated with floodwaters that were on fire on top, killing over 150 people.

Such safety from disaster as we have has been hard won. It’s worth remembering that.