Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Sandmaster, a River Dredging Vessel, Struck 13 Chicago Bridges on 44 Separate Occasions.

On May 2, 1929, as The Chicago Tribune railed against the sand companies of the city and the boats they employed to ship sand for concrete into the city, the result of an accident on April 30, 1929, that saw the 251-foot-long sand-boat Sandmaster which collided with the Clark Street Bridge (№ 7) so strongly that the 600-ton bridge was knocked off its foundation and had to be condemned and rebuilt. 
The Sandmaster, a sand dredging vessel, entered service on May 6, 1926, bound for Chicago.
“The city council and the sand companies agree that this expensive and aggravating business interruption is not unreasonable. They unite to reject less burdensome methods of bringing building sand into the city. It could be done by carriers that would not require bridge openings. It could be done at hours when a bridge opening would be of no consequence. A few sandboats have the right of way in the council, and thousands of trucks, cars, and pedestrians rate nothing,” the paper editorialized. [Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1929]

Mr. Ava Smith, the Captain of the Sandmaster, stated, “It wasn’t my fault. I had the port motor going full ahead and the starboard motor in reverse. There was plenty of room to pass through, but just before we got to the bridge, the tender must have swung it back about ten feet right into the ship.” [Chicago Tribune, May 2,1929]
This aerial view was taken immediately after the barge Sandmaster collided with the Clark Street bridge. April 30, 1929
In 1929, a large number of river bridges still sat on turntables that were located in the middle of the river. When boats approached, the bridges were swung so they paralleled the shore, leaving close quarters for ships that had to pass on either side of the opened bridge on a bustling river. 

All Clark Street traffic, including a major north-south trolley car line, had to be rerouted after the accident. If there was any positive to the situation, a new Clark Street bascule bridge had been started, and it had been the hope that the old bridge could be kept going until the new bridge was finished sometime later in the year. That was not to be. It was a mess, especially for the first couple of days when almost nothing could move up or down the main branch of the Chicago River.

On the same day that the editorial ran, the Sandmaster was freed from the wreckage of the bridge while the city council went to work. Alderman William A. Rowan introduced a resolution to mandate fixed bridges on the river. The Commissioner of Public Works was also ordered to pursue, pending completion of his investigation, court action against the Materials Construction Company, the owner of the boat, as a result of the $50,000 worth of damage to the bridge and the blockage of the Clark Street entrance to the Loop.

The investigation moved ahead with speed. By May 9, a survey of the records had revealed that the Sandmaster had hit 13 bridges on the river in three years in 44 separate incidents.

     Date, Locations, and Damage

May 21: Fullerton Avenue (damage to bridge ladder)
May 27: Fullerton Avenue (damage to beams under walk)
June 20: Diversey Boulevard (sidewalk)
August 10: Diversey Boulevard (beams under walk)
August 10: Fullerton Avenue (ladder to pier lights)
November 30: Lake Street (sidewalk)
December 22: State Street (sidewalk)
December 27: Diversey Boulevard (channel lights)
December 27: Kinzie Street (protection rails)

January 3: Diversey Boulevard (sidewalk)
January 9: Western Avenue (protection rails)
January 20: Cortland Street (bridge house – bridge tender hurt)
January 23: Fullerton Avenue (iron beam)
February 2: Diversey Boulevard (protection rails)
February 3: Western Avenue (cable)
March 9: Fullerton Avenue (iron walk support)
March 18: Halsted Street (bridge house door)
May 18: Diversey Boulevard (sidewalk)
June 2: Diversey Boulevard (pier light, ladder)

January 15: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk)
February 4: Diversey Boulevard (pier platform)
March 18: Erie Street (bridge house)
April 18: Fullerton Avenue (bracket stringer)
April 22: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk bracket)
June 12: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk)
June 15: Division Street (porch, pier lights)
July 13: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk)
July 16: Diversey Boulevard (platform, pier lights)
September 27: Diversey Boulevard (protection rails, platform)
September 28: Diversey Boulevard (protection rails, platform)
October 16: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk)
October 18: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk)
October 27: Fullerton Avenue (bracket, stringer)
November 5: Fullerton Avenue (rail posts)
December 2: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalks)
December 4: Michigan Avenue (cables)
December 5: La Salle Street (cables)
December 8: Fullerton Avenue (sidewalk brackets)
December 10: Diversey Boulevard (sidewalk)
December 31: Fullerton Avenue (two iron brackets)

The $250,000 bill for damages between 1926 and 1928 would be the same as owing $4,064,000 adjusting for inflation in 2024.

The Sandmaster’s bridge-ramming career began on May 21, 1926,” The Tribune reported when it struck a ladder at the Fullerton Avenue bridge and ended, so far as the present records are concerned when it knocked the 600-ton Clark Street bridge seven feet from its foundation last week. [Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1929]

The Fullerton Avenue and the Diversey Boulevard spans were particularly unlucky. The ship had rammed the former bridge 18 times and the latter 13 times. The investigation also revealed that another six inches would have thrown the Clark Street Bridge and the six pedestrians standing on its turntable into the river.

On the following day, May 10, the President of the Construction Materials company, J. R. Sensibar, responded to all of the criticism. “The injuries to bridges were, in the main, trifling damages to wooden planks and ladders,” he said. “They were caused by the carelessness of the city, not the carelessness of the boat’s captain. The Sandmaster has made 1,300 trips on the river. The only two serious accidents were those at the Cortland Street bridge in January of 1927 and present damage to the Clark Street bridge.” [Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1929].

On May 12, Mr. Sensibar went into more detail, more lucid and far more illustrative of his legitimate cause for outrage at the fingers that were being pointed in his direction.

“The depth [of the river] is the cause of many of the accidents,” he began, “such as boats colliding with bridges and other boats. We load the Sandmaster so it will draw 15 feet, and it goes along, throwing up a ridge of mud on each side, thus keeping the river dredged to 14 or 15 feet... Because of the present depth, we load the Sandmaster with only 1,500 tons, whereas its capacity is 3,500 tons... if we could load to capacity, the number of bridge openings would be reduced by one-half.”

Initially, the United States government had dredged the river to a depth of 22 feet, but things gradually changed when the Chicago Sanitary District took over the operation. Over time, the sewage dumped into the river had decreased its depth to 14 feet.

“It would save the city money, in the long run, to restore the river to its proper depth and turn it back to the government,” Mr. Sensibar concluded.

A week later, things had begun to grow really tense. Traffic across the bridge, of course, was non-existent... because the bridge was non-existent. Many businesses along the busy Clark Street corridor were facing extinction, store vacancies were occurring, and an appeal was made to the Commissioner of Public Works to ask the City Council for an additional $125,000 “to pay for overtime and other items necessary to place the new bridge in service for streetcars and pedestrians by July 1.” [Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1929]

Captain Smith was placed on trial for reckless navigation a day later before United States Steam Vessel Inspectors. Electricians testified that one of the cables carrying power to the bridge had been broken for three hours before the accident. The bridge tender said that the other cable failed when the bridge was opening. Still, the city asserted that Captain Smith and the Sandmaster were far enough from the bridge to have reversed engines and avoided the crash. [Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1929]

Well, you can guess how that worked out. Captain Smith was found guilty of reckless navigation on May 29, and his master’s license was revoked for 30 days. The verdict stated that the accident that knocked the 600-ton bridge turntable seven feet from its foundation “might have been avoided” and that Captain Smith’s statement that he was proceeding at four miles an hour against a two-mile-an-hour current was “not to be taken seriously.” [Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1929]

In an amazing display of engineering, the new trunnion bascule bridge at Clark Street was opened in a formal dedication ceremony on July 10 of that same year. 

Clark № 1
Wood, Pontoon Swing
Clark № 2
Wood, Pontoon Swing
Clark № 3
Wood, Pivot
Clark № 4
Wood, Swing
Clark № 5
Wood & Iron, Swing
Clark № 6
Wood & Iron, Swing
Clark № 7
Steal, Swing
Clark № 8
Steel, Chicago Double-Leaf Bascule


Clark Street Bridge № 1 was destroyed in the Chicago River Calamity of 1849, which took out all the bridges over the Chicago River.
Clark Street Bridge № 4 looking North in 1865
Clark Street Bridge № 5 c.1870
Clark Street Bridge Remains № 5. (October 1871)
Clark Street Bridge № 7 1893
Clark Street Bridge № 7 1927
Clark Street Bridge № 8 c.1930

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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