After the railroad built its adjoining bridge on the same superstructure in 1842 and until the Memorial Bridge opened in 1923, terrified teams of horses and screeching steam locomotives crossed the 1,650-foot wooden Portsmouth Bridge side-by-side. Teamsters were required to pay for the dubious privilege.
The old bridge was closed to all but railroad traffic in 1923, and it was still being used by the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1936 when a committee consisting of residents from both Maine and New Hampshire agreed to build a new bridge — some 60 feet downstream, to address the growing traffic between Maine and New Hampshire. Construction of the new bridge progressed nicely through the summer of 1939 and the scheduled spring 1940 completion target seemed well within reach.
On Sunday evening, Sept. 10, 1939, local passenger train No. 2024 left North Berwick, on schedule for Boston. Only 12 passengers and a crew of five were onboard as engine No. 3666 pulled very slowly onto the wobbly wooden bridge — suspended 40 feet above the raging Piscataqua River tides. A speed limit of 3 mph had been imposed since the Norwegian freighter Lynghaug hit the bridge in 1937. Twenty pilings were torn away in the incident. Repairs were hurriedly made for $5,000, but the weakened bridge was never again the same.
According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald on Sept. 11, 1939, local No. 2024 was still on the eastern span when the locomotive, the tender and the empty first passenger car plunged into the river "as if thrown from a catapult."
Fireman Charles D. Towle, 49, of Exeter, N.H., who was probably standing to the rear of the cab when the bridge collapsed, could be heard screaming as an exceptionally strong Piscataqua tide carried him upstream and into the night. His lifeless body was recovered later that night near Dover Point.
Engineer, John Beattie, 68, of Somerville, Mass., was presumed dead as, based on the location of his post, he would likely have been trapped inside the submerged locomotive. After a sweep of the area by two Coast Guard vessels, the search for Beattie was called off for the night. His body was finally found 10 days later, floating near the black channel buoy, a half-mile downstream from the splintered bridge.
The passengers had all been saved from a similar fate when the coupling between the first and second passenger cars parted, causing the air-brake hoses to tear away and the brakes on the occupied cars to be automatically applied. The coaches jolted to a stop but remained upright on the tracks. In fact, most of the passengers had no idea of the gravity of the accident until they were loaded onto handcars and transferred to the Kittery side of the bridge.
Within an hour of the accident, 500 curious Portsmouth and Kittery residents had gathered along the river, but there wasn't much for them to see. The first three units of the train had been immediately swallowed up by the black, swirling river.
Everyone assumed the railroad bridge had collapsed because of its age and condition, but Boston & Maine Railroad representatives insisted the bridge had recently passed inspections. While there had been a bridge at that location for more than 100 years, they argued, the structure had been entirely rebuilt several times and all parts had been repeatedly renewed. Their investigation indicated the bridge failure was caused by equipment used for building the new bridge.
A $150,000 lawsuit was filed by the railroad company against the construction contractor, Frederick Snare Corp. Objective investigations confirmed that the bridge had been damaged when a large caisson used in the construction of the new bridge broke loose and cables attached on the caisson pulled a piling of the railroad structure out of place.
Plans were made to repair the railroad bridge, but this turned out to be far too expensive and impractical for a few months of use. Railroad traffic was diverted to the Western division until the new bridge opened to traffic with train tracks running below the road.
Projects to raise the 125-ton locomotive have been considered several times since the accident, most recently in 1995, but each time the costs were deemed prohibitive. Instead, the cars were twice moved farther out of the shipping channel to prevent them from impeding navigation.
Engine No. 3666, built in 1913 by the American Locomotive Company of Schenectady, N.Y., still rests in her watery grave, not far from where the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge spans the Piscataqua.
Old News columnist Sharon Cummins is a historical research professional in southern Maine. She can be contacted on the web at www.someoldnews.com.