Without a doubt, folks from the Alexandria/Petersburg area know their local history.
That became obvious after receiving several dozen phone calls about the mystery photo appearing with this column on Jan. 2. In addition to telephone calls, numerous folks stopped me on the street, in the Huntingdon Walmart and via email, responding to my request for information about the Alexandria Bridge collapse.
And now, the rest of the story!
The date was Saturday afternoon, July 22, 1939. U.S. Route 22 still traversed through the Borough of Alexandria and America was just a few short years away from its entrance into World War II. President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and slow recovery from the Great Depression were still having an arguable impact on central Pennsylvania as several local railroad branches faced potential abandonment.
On that fateful day, the aged Alexandria Bridge was about to make the headlines of local newspapers and the United Press wire service. The narrow bridge which spanned the Juniata River was one of two main viaducts used by motorists, both local and long distance via the well-traveled William Penn Highway.
Thanks to several newspaper clippings and photos (some appearing with today’s column) provided by Mount Union historian Bryan Donaldson and information appearing in “1887-1978 Second Century-A Huntingdon County Bicentennial Album,” prepared by Nancy Shedd and Jean Harshbarger, with additional data by Paul Blaum, I was able to piece together data about the tragic bridge collapse which claimed the lives of a family of three.
One newspaper headline from the Altoona Mirror proclaimed, “Tragedy Climaxes Collapse of Bridge Spanning Juniata Waters at Alexandria.” Other local newspapers, including The Daily News, wrote about the event which attracted thousands of onlookers over the days that followed.
Briefly, here’s a description of the event.
A Monarch Motor Freight truck, based out of Chicago and Kansas City, was traveling westbound as it approached the bridge while a smaller automobile was eastbound as it traveled over the bridge. The truck was occupied by Harry Tull of Westmont, N.J., the driver, and Joseph Cassell of Turtle Creek, Pa. (who had apparently hitched a ride with Tull after his own truck broke down).
Occupying the smaller automobile, which year and model was not listed, was the family of Edwin Kaufman, 32, of Sunnyside, Long Island, his wife, Sophia Kaufman and their son, Bobby, 3, all victims in the accident.
Initial observations from several witnesses and information gathered by the Pennsylvania State Police (then referred to as the “Motor Police”) along with assistance from Huntingdon County authorities, including county coroner Dr. W.B. West, determined that the family instantly died when their vehicle was crushed by the much larger tractor-trailer which “landed in the river bed, directly on top of the automobile.”
The bridge, two-thirds of which collapsed into the river bed, towered roughly 25-feet above the river and measured about 100-feet in length, according to the police report. The span served as an important overpass for the old William Penn Highway into the Borough of Alexandria.
The newspaper story reported that Alexandria area poultry man Martin Mickey was one of several eye-witnesses to the event. Mickey was operating a truck to the rear of the Kaufman car when he saw the truck approaching from the opposite direction. According to Mickey “he saw the truck near the bridge and saw that, it would not make the bridge ... I believe that Kaufman applied the brakes on his car to avert the crash, but it was too late.”
Mickey went on to explain that he “felt the bridge collapsing ... I backed my car on to the second span and jumped out (and) went to the aid of Dick Chenoweth of Alexandria who was pinned under a steel girder ... Dick and the other boys, Mark Learner, 10, Benny and Robert Jones, 10 and 11, respectively, were walking across the bridge when it gave way.” (The young Chenoweth suffered lacerations of the head as a result of the accident).
The news account also noted that Sergeant R.E. Sprenkle, a state Motor Policeman, “had just crossed the bridge in an automobile when he heard the noise of the bridge falling ... he halted his car and returned to the scene, taking charge of the situation.”
Follow-up information suggested that the Kaufman’s apparently were enroute home from a vacation while the bulky truck was loaded with cigarettes which had to be removed so that rescuers could reach the three victims pinned in the small car.
Witnesses reported that many cigarettes were scattered in the area of the bridge debris which provider locals with a dependable source of “cigs” for weeks to come. (Several sources report the brand of cigarettes was “Marvel”).
Known as the “Alexandria Bridge Disaster,” the 1939 event apparently resulted when the tractor-trailer “missed the sharp turn onto the south end of the bridge ... knocking the end of the bridge off its pier.”
The newspaper account of the event stated that automobile traffic was forced to detour one mile east of the collapsed bridge while trucks were rerouted over the highway through Petersburg and McAlevys Fort.
In the caption with a photo of the crumpled bridge (appearing in the Huntingdon County Bicentennial publication) it was noted, “a wooden footbridge constructed slightly upstream allowed pedestrian to cross the (Frankstown Branch of the Junita River) during repairs to the bridge, but vehicular traffic had to detour over the old turnpike bridge from the River Road.”
The publication also noted that “the replacement span lacked the superstructure of the old bridge, and the halves remain mismatched today.”
A special thanks to Polly Smith and Garette Czmor for alerting me about the photo and caption appearing in the Huntingdon County Bicentennial publication and Bryan Donaldson for emailing me the additional photos and news clippings.
As a footnote, PennDOT’s Hollidaysburg district engineer D.C. Stackpole was contacted by department Secretary I. Lamont Hughes to perform an official investigation into the “Alexandria Bridge Disaster” while Huntingdon County Coroner West scheduled an inquest into the tragedy that took place on the afternoon of July 24, 1939, in the county courthouse. I will provide an update on the event later after I visit the library at Juniata College.
In conclusion, I’d like to share some comments about the photo from the many readers–mostly from the Alexandria/Petersburg area. There were many, but here’s a sampling:
— Dale and Martha Schirm of Alexandria telephoned me over the past weekend and quickly identified the location of the photo. Martha said that she was only three or four years of age when the incident happened but remembers of other townsfolks talking about the bridge collapse. Martha’s father, James “Chick” Lynn, Marklesburg, worked for many years on the Huntingdon and Broad Top Mountain Railroad as a track maintenance man. During the early 1940s he suffered a back injury while trying to release a brake on a flatbed railroad car at Saxton and was hospitalized for many weeks in the J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital. Dale Schirm remembers his two brothers, Richard and David, talking about the event, having seen the bridge after the accident.
— Roy Shipp of McConnellstown was quick to notify me that last week’s Old Time Photo was of the collapsed bridge at Alexandria, saying that he had often heard folks talk about the event. That phone call was followed by a conversation with Joan Irvin of Petersburg who correctly identified the scene of the mishap.
— Bill Porter and Carol Black of Alexandria also called and shared the same information. (Bill retired from PennDOT in 1996 as a foreman with 25 years employment and told me he was at the Huntingdon office where my mother, the late Betty Morgan, worked for many years.)
— Dan Hawn, Huntingdon, also confirmed the information, telling me he is a manager at the Huntingdon County Fairgrounds and enjoyed learning about the area’s history.
— Another reader called saying that he was one of the young people crossing the bridge as it collapsed and fell into the river. He said he was returning to Alexandria with several friends from swimming adventure. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced the name of the caller. If you’re reading this, please call me at 814-907-1788.
Several other readers telephoned saying that they had seen some of the photos of the bridge accident which their parents showed them. Last week’s photo and one of the pictures appearing with today’s column showed up in my files without any identification. I’m not sure where the pictures originated or the name of the photographer.
The readers may recall that I’m still searching through some old file cabinets which were moved several times. Some of the files were misplaced during while transporting them from Saxton to several locations in Robertsdale. That search (and filing) continues. Hopefully, I’ll be able to identify photos and other documents mislaid over the past five decades.
Please have patience with me!