Yes, we'll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river;
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God.
It was a beautiful Thursday morning when a large crowd began to gather on the banks of the Rock River to watch their friends and loved ones experience the ordinance of baptism. The town’s Baptist minister, Rev. J.H. Pratt, was welcoming nine new parishioners, including his own young daughter, into Christian fellowship by fully immersing them in the river water, still cold on this early May date.
As the crowd of onlookers grew, many chose to get a better view from the nearby Truesdell Bridge, an impressive structure that was the pride of the city’s business community. The bridge had been dedicated less than five years earlier. The entire structure, other than the floor beams and the heavy mason supports, was made of iron. In fact, it was the first iron bridge to span the Rock River. It was built to withstand many, many tons of weight, and was intended to last a hundred years or more.
About 250 people gathered on the bridge to observe the baptism ceremony. While Rev. Pratt baptized the third celebrant of the day, the bridge tender warned the onlookers not to lean on the side railing. Some heeded the warning, others did not. In a few minutes, according to The Chicago Tribune, “There was a sharp snap between the north end and the first pier, apparently of the cord near the end. This part of the bridge then commenced to drop as fast as iron and wood could.”
The mayhem that followed lasted only a minute or two. Heavy iron beams and stone masonry quickly collapsed into the cold, watery depths, trapping anyone unfortunate enough to fall in the way. Some who managed to escape the falling beams still succumbed to the cold. Several were young, too young to have learned how to swim. When it was over, 45 citizens of Dixon, Illinois, were dead. Of that number, 35 were women and children, and many young mothers accompanied their children as they, like the lyrics of the song proclaim, gathered with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God. It was the worst disaster ever to befall the small city of Dixon, and the worst disaster that has ever occurred along the entire length of the Rock River.
I learned about the Truesdell Bridge disaster in a recent article in my local newspaper. A new memorial had just been dedicated to the victims of that day. Reading about this disaster, it occurred to me just how infrequently disasters of this magnitude happen anymore, at least in modern, developed societies. Of course, we still suffer from terrible natural disasters. There is little we can do to prevent the kind of devastation wrought by a Japanese tsunami or a Missouri tornado. But man-made disasters like the Truesdell Bridge collapse rarely occur anymore. Why is that?
Terrible disasters were once common. In 1915, 845 men, women, and children died in Lake Michigan when an over-crowded ferry running from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana, sank in the lake’s cold water. Four years later in Boston, a large storage tank containing over two million gallons of molasses burst, creating an eight-foot tall river of the heavy, sticky sweetener moving at 35 miles per hour. When it was over, 21 people had been crushed or drowned, and 150 more injured. In 1917, 163 men were killed by a fire that erupted inside a copper mine in Granite City, Montana. Also in 1917, 200 were killed outside of Pittsburgh in a chemical plant explosion. The next year, more than a hundred were killed in Morgan, New Jersey, in another chemical explosion. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York killed 146, virtually all of them women working in sweat shop conditions
Notice a commonality among these disasters? First, these catastrophes were all man-made, and could have been avoided had proper safety procedures been in place and enforced. Secondly, all of the ones I listed in the paragraph above occurred in a single decade. And that doesn’t even include the most famous disaster of that era, the sinking of the Titanic, or the most catastrophic, the Halifax harbor explosion that killed over 2000 in 1917.
Terrible disasters of this sort continued to occur in America with regularity into the mid-20th century. In 1947, nearly 600 were killed in the port of Texas City, Texas, when an explosion occurred on a ship docked there. Until the terrorist attacks of 9-11, more fire fighters died fighting the resulting Texas City blaze than in any other fire in American history. In 1972, 125 were killed and 4,000 left homeless when a coal slurry dam burst in West Virginia. It was the deadliest mining-related disaster since 1917, and none has occurred since then that comes close to the death count of that terrible tragedy.
What stands out to me is that, in North America and the developed world, these types of catastrophic man-made disasters are now extremely rare. That’s not to downplay what still occurs with frightening regularity in less developed parts of the world. We aren’t terribly surprised to hear of a bridge collapse or ferry sinking or chemical explosion in places like Bangladesh or Indonesia or Nigeria. But when they happen in the United States or Great Britain, we’re shocked. We’re outraged.
What was once common is now rare. Safety regulations exist now that did not exist a hundred years ago. Of course, enforcement is just as important.
As we enter a new election cycle, I think it is a worthy exercise to remember a time when disasters struck with regularity. I think it is good to ask why such events occur so rarely now. When we hear presidential candidates heap scorn on the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), we need to remember what life was like before such regulatory bodies existed. We need to appreciate the progress we have made, and understand why, exactly, we have these laws and regulations that some unfortunately choose to demagogue and slander.
When a presidential candidate calls for a moratorium on all regulations, like Rick Perry did last week, does that mean going back to a time when bridge collapses like the one that occurred in Dixon, Illinois, were fairly common? Does that mean going back to a time when harbor explosions killed hundreds, or even thousands? Does that mean going back to a time when fatal fires and explosions inside factories occurred every couple of months? Does that mean refusing to monitor or enforce existing laws that have protected the United States from the kind of disasters that still occur regularly in the Third World?
If that is not what these politicians mean, then what, exactly, is their point? How many avoidable deaths do they consider acceptable?