New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Saint John Bridge Collapse of 1837

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The Saint John Bridge Collapse of 1837

The St. John Bridge Company was incorporated in 1835 with the objective of bridging the river in Saint John. This was the Company that was eventually responsible for the suspension bridge over the Reversing Falls, but there were two earlier attempts to cross the river and this is a description of the first of them.

Upon incorporation, a builder’s proposal was soon accepted and construction began in the spring of 1836. Records from that first attempt are now gone and we are left only with later accounts based on memories which were incomplete and contradictory. The description in this post is about all that is known, but it will not be the whole truth either.

The bridge was to be located about a quarter mile below the narrowest point of the gorge; that is about a quarter mile below the present bridge. Merritt Street was built as a bridge approach on the Portland side.


 A crossing at Merritt Street would be about at the black line

Construction commenced on the Portland side of the river. There were probably short land-spans to bring the roadway up to a level of 100 feet above the river but, at some point, the main span began. The main span consisted of two 15 foot high wooden trusses that extended from the approach spans until it rested upon a timber pier. The top of the pier was 80 feet above the water level and 40 feet square.

Having built as far as the pier on the Portland side, the main span was then extended over the river as a cantilever. The main span on the landward side of the pier then acted as a counterbalance to the cantilever so that it did not fall. The idea was that the bridge would be advanced in this manner from each side of the river until the two halves met in the middle.

The distance between the main piers on the embankments was 430 feet, and 15 foot trusses would have been too shallow for that length of span. If the loads in those days were so light as not to overstress such trusses, then they would still have sagged so much that no one would want to cross the bridge. The towers which supported the bridge span at the 80 foot level were therefore extended an additional 50 feet upward and chains were draped over them to provide additional support to the weak spans from above. It would have looked something like a suspension bridge, or a cable-stayed bridge. The use of chains instead of cables was not unusual in those days. The chains were therefore to be part of the bridge but, during construction, they also served to support staging for the workers.

The crews were on their breakfast break at nine o’clock on Tuesday morning, August 8, 1837 when (from the Remembrancer) …

“On Tuesday morning, the 8th instant, about nine o’clock, the Scaffolding erected for the purpose of carrying over the Bridge from Portland to Carleton, together with the Iron Chains on which the same rested, and a great body of materials, fell with a most tremendous crash into the River. About thirty of the workmen were on various parts of it at the time, sixteen of whom, including the Engineer and the three Superintendents, were fortunate enough to be either on the part of the work which stood, or retreated thereto on the first alarm of danger. The remaining number were precipitated with the mass of timber, chains, and materials, into the water below; seven were either killed or drowned, and the remainder more or less seriously injured. — The following is a list of sufferers:


  • Michael Watts, of Portland, who has left a wife and three children.
  • George Buckley, a widower, who has left three children.
  • Daniel Lehay, single man, a native of Ireland.
  • David Mailman, of Carleton, a young man, who was on the eve of marriage with a young woman of excellent qualities.
  • Henry Lord of Carleton, who has left a wife and four children.
  • John Farris, a native of England, who has left a family.
  • John Maberry.

(The bodies of the four last have not been found.)


  • William M’Intyre, dangerously, both legs broken, and otherwise seriously injured.
  • Dennis Morrison, several ribs broken.
  • James Buckley, (son of the deceased George Buckley,) shoulder broken, and otherwise injured.
  • John Parks, seriously hurt.
  • Robert M’Intyre, William Cummins, and Robert M’Farlane, slightly hurt.

“While such universal sympathy is so justly excited for the widows, children and relatives who have been deprived of their supporters and friends by this melancholy catastrophe, no enlightened and feeling mind can avoid deeply regretting the failure of this magnificent undertaking, and at the same time lamenting the heavy loss to which the public spirited stockholders have become subjected.

“About the same hour at which the above accident occurred, the Common Council had assembled to make arrangements for Proclaiming Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, that day having been officially appointed for the purpose. Before they arose from their seats, they were informed of the occurrence, and requested that some place might be immediately appointed for the reception of the dead and wounded. This was promptly attended to, – and while the unfortunate sufferers were being conveyed to the places pointed out, attended by Medical gentlemen, Minute Guns commenced firing, commemorative of the death of His late Majesty William the Fourth, and the colours on the telegraph stations and the different vessels in port were waving half mast high, – altogether one of the most heart-rending scenes the City has ever witnessed. The Supreme Court was sitting at the time, and His Honor Judge Parker, who presided, very properly adjourned it.

“At two o’clock, agreeably to the arrangements made by the Common Council, that Body, together with the Chief Justice and Members of Council and Assembly, Magistrates, Sheriff and Coroner, Members of the Bar, Military, and a large concourse of the Inhabitants, assembled at the Court House and its vicinity, where the Proclamation of Her Majesty’s accession was read by the Herald appointed for the purpose. It was again read in King’s, Queen’s, and the Market Squares on both sides of the harbour, and in the Parish of Portland. – May Her Majesty’s Reign over the vast dominions of the British Empire, be as beneficial to the nation as that of her ancestors.

“Saint John, New-Brunswick, 17th August, 1837.                      D. A. CAMERON, Printer.”


  1. Jack, David R., Centennial Prize Essay on the History of the City and County of St. John, St. John, N.B., 1883, pages 119-120.
  2. McFarlane, H.W., and K.H. Lawson, The Reversing Falls Bridges, 1987, pages 2 to 4.
  3. Murdoch, William, The Saint John Suspension Bridge, in the Collections of the New Brunswick Historical Society, Vol. 4, No. 10, Saint John, N.B., 1919.
  4. The Remembrancer, Saint John, N.B. August 17, 1937.

Written by johnwood1946

December 12, 2012 at 10:22 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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