Foundations of Construction: Niagara Falls bridge collapse turned into a Rainbow

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“The collapsed Honeymoon Bridge, between Niagara Falls Canada and Niagara Falls New York, rests on an ice jam in the Niagara River, Winter 1938 (viewed from Canadian side),” submitted by WikiPedant/Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52063219

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Carrying a trolley line to Buffalo, New York, and a site for couples to share the beauty of Niagara Falls, the Honeymoon Bridge opened in 1898. The elements assaulted the structure at the international border for decades. The weakened bridge succumbed to the crush of winter ice in 1938, collapsing with a screeching, grinding roar into the Niagara gorge. Three years later, the Rainbow Bridge was opened to accommodate growing cross-border traffic.

The Upper Steel Arch Bridge, dubbed Honeymoon Bridge, replaced an older suspension bridge with a new link that could handle heavy streetcar traffic, pedestrians, plus horse and carriage teams, It was constructed by Philadelphia’s Pencoyd Bridge Company “under and around the existing Suspension Bridge which was dismantled after the new bridge was completed,” said Niagara Falls Museums. The steel bridge had a span of 260 metres.

On construction, the Honeymoon Bridge was the longest steel arch bridge in the world. The beautiful bridge attracted approximately 30 million visitors each year to view the three sets of spectacular falls.

Building the abutment on the American side about 4.25 metres closer to the Falls than the old bridge, both American and Canadian “abutments were located only a few feet above the water level of the River, and it is this proximity to the water level which would prove to be the downfall of the bridge some 40 years later.”

Challenges began almost immediately. Only months after opening, massive ice sheets smashed into the abutments on both sides, causing damage and threatening to knock the bridge off the foundations. Repairs were made “and a 24-foot wall was built around each abutment to protect it against future ice jams,” said Todd Hariaczyi in Buffalo News “Local History” column, May 10, 2017. The repairs held until the brutally icy winter of 1938.

Plunging over Niagara Falls in late January, enormous ice sheets slammed into the gorge near the Honeymoon Bridge. “The jams, some towering nearly 100 ft. tall (30 m.) battered the abutments and steel bridge,” described Hariaczyi. Creaking and protesting as the protective walls were breached, the heavy steel frame twisted under the relentless force. The bridge closed to all traffic on January 26. The next day, at about 4:10 pm, rock-hard ice shoved the bridge off the abutment.

“With a huge roar, it collapsed into the gorge, forming a twisted steel ‘W’ on the ice below,” described Niagara Falls Museums. The dramatic event was filmed and broadcast around the world. Settled onto ice, the mangled bridge was chopped into six sections. During spring thaw the tons of metal sank to the deep riverbed.

Recognizing dangers long before the collapse, another bridge was already in planning stages. The Parks Commission and the International Railway Company both sought permission to proceed. (IRC owned the Honeymoon Bridge and operated streetcar lines in New York, and the Niagara Falls line in Ontario.) State and provincial governments jointly convened a Bridge Commission to settle the 14-month dispute. On April 29, 1939, “the Commission awarded $615,000 to the International Railway Company.”

One year later, construction of the new steel arch bridge over the Niagara River proceeded, named the Rainbow Bridge. Architect Richard (Su Min) Lee designed the structure, with Waddell & Hardisty and the Edward P. Lupfer firm as engineers. The Bethlehem Steel Company provided fabrication and construction of the bridge, now set on more stable land, about 305 metres north of the American Falls.

“To avoid the same mishap from occurring, the abutments and approach spans rest on solid rock high enough on the sides of the gorge,” said “Rainbow Bridge: A History” at Clifton Hill Entertainment. “The abutments are located 50 ft. (15.24 m.) from the rivers’ edge and 50 feet (15.24 m.) above the surface of the water.”

Concrete arch approach spans provided foundational strength, and due to the method of construction, also added design interest. It appears the boards were placed with spaces, allowing concrete to seep between the pieces. The method presented “an unusually striking ribbed appearance and texture to it,” said HistoricBridges.org.

Completed on Nov. 1, 1941, the 440-m.-long Rainbow Bridge was designed as a metal hingeless solid ribbed deck arch. It had a width of 14.63 m. and accommodated four traffic lanes—two in each direction—plus a wide sidewalk. The main span was about 289.6 m.

“The deck of the Rainbow Bridge is approximately 202 ft. (61.57 m.) above the Niagara River,” noted “Celebrating Eight Decades of Award-winning bridges,” in Modern Steel Construction, November 2011. Well beyond the initial award launching the project, “the total cost of the bridge was $4 million.” Another record was set: until 1962, the Rainbow Bridge was the world’s largest hingeless arch bridge.

The bridge is gone but the “honeymoon” isn’t over. The Rainbow Bridge gives newlyweds heart-stopping scenic views of beautiful Niagara Falls.

© 2022 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

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