Pieces of the Past
Artifacts, Documents, and Primary Sources
from Letchworth Park History

The Burning of the Portage Bridge

In the early morning hours of Thursday, May 6th, 1875, the great wooden railroad bridge at Portage was destroyed in a tremendous fire. Although the news of the disaster spread throughout Western New York, it wasn't until Saturday morning that an eyewitness report was printed in the Buffalo Courier. The report was written William Pryor Letchworth, who arose to watch the spectacle from the porch of the Glen Iris. (Please note that the articlestates that the episode began on Tuesday, but it was actually Wednesday, May 5th. It was discovered after midnight on what was Thursday, May 6th.)

The following is Mr Letchworth's account, as it appeared in the Buffalo Courier on May 8, 1875. The image shows the actual headlines as they appeared in the Courier.


 

Portage Bridge.

Its destruction as Described by an Eye-witness

A Brilliant Conflagration and a

Realistic Account of it

Correspondence of the Buffalo Courier
Portageville, May 7, 1875

You have already chronicled the destruction of the Portage Bridge, but a few facts not reported may be read with interest.

The last train that crossed Portage Bridge on Tuesday night last going west was a passenger train and passed over at 10.40. The watchman, William T. Davis, followed the train over to the west end of the bridge, as was customary, and returned, finding everything all right. A few minutes after midnight he left the bridge, his time of watch having expired, and went down to Portage village to the house of Mr. Abbott a relative of his. Before entering the house he was able to take in a view of all the west end of the bridge, and looking in that direction he saw no lights but those of the usual signals. He thinks his last look at the bridge was about a quarter to one o'clock. The next train that crossed was also a passenger train going east, and passed over at 12.50 A M. The watchman, Pardon Earle, states that he was at the east end of the bridge when the rain passed; that he crossed the bridge to the west end immediately thereafter, and returned nearly to the east end, when looking west, he

SAW A SMALL BLAZE

In the decking of the bridge, not far from the west end. He returned to it and endeavoring to stamp it out with his feet broke a hole through the deck of the bridge. The floor broke through so easily that he concluded the fire must have come from under the deck or uppermost covering of the bridge. He immediately ran to the west end to get in the truss work under the deck where a quantity of hose was kept as a protection against fire. A quantity of hose was likewise kept at the east end. He found the

FIRE HAD ATTAINED SUCH HEADWAY

That he could not pass by it from the western extremity and he accordingly came back across the bridge to the east end. Here he connected the hose to the water pipe, but was unable to turn o the water, from some defects in the cocks or in consequence of their having become rusted from disuse during the winter. Nothing remain for him to do but to

ALARM THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Meantime leaving the doomed structure to its fate. He thinks the precise time the fire was discovered by him was 1 o'clock. A farmer living in full view of the bridge on one of the hills near by was up during the whole night attending a sick member of his family. At the house last named, or a little earlier, he observed the two signal lights at each end of the bridge as usual and what appeared to him to be

ANOTHER AND LARGER LIGHT?

A little below the line of the other two, which are placed on top of the bridge at each end. This light grew larger as he looked and he soon realized that

THE BRIDGE WAS ON FIRE

and the flames rapidly spreading. The water which was supplied as a safeguard was brought from a copious and never failing stream on the west side in a four-inch cast-iron pipe, and was carried across the bridge amid the truss-work supporting the track a few feet underneath the decking. At intervals faucets were placed or attaching the hose, of which a liberal supply has always been provided. This water also supplies the water tanks at Portage Station, on the east side of the Genesee, and fountains at the Cascade House. The fire, left to itself,

EXTENDED RAPIDLY

through the upper truss-work and along a wooden box surrounding the water-pipe and the light work under the main deck, the flame being fanned by a gentle breeze blowing down the river. The light material thus fired soon fell in heavy fragments on the frame work below. I was aroused from sleep at ten minutes to four o'clock, and in a few minutes was standing

UPON THE LAWN AT GLEN IRIS,

from which point every portion of the bridge was visible, as well as the Upper Falls, river and Middle Falls. The spectacle presented at precisely four o'clock was

FEARFULLY GRAND

every timber in the bridge seemed then to be ignited, and an open net-work of fire was stretched across the upper end of the valley. Above the bridge, and touching its upper line a black curtain hung down from the sky, its lower edge belted with a murky fringe of fire. The hoarse growl of the flames and crackling of the timbers sounded like a hurricane approaching through the forest. At this time, the Upper falls seemed dancing in a silver light. The water in the river was glistening with the bright flare thrown upon it, and the whole valley of the Glen Iris was illuminated in

TRAGIC SPLENDOR.

Now and then could be seen an outstanding brace dislodged and sailing flaming downward. These huge brands would fall on the river below with a great splash. At fifteen minutes past four the superstructure of the west end of the bridge sank downward and the depression rolled throughout its length to the east end like the sinking of an ocean wave.

THE WHOLE UPPER STRUCTURE,

Including the heavy T rails, went down with a crashing sound so terrible as it came to our ears on the wind that it surpassed the prolonged roar of the falling avalanches one may hear at times in spring upon the declivities of the Wengern Alps. Timber, rails, bolts, abrading and dislodging burning coals as they fell, crashed downward into

INDISTINGUISHABLE RUIN.

As the stupendous mass fell a dark red cloud intermingled with crimson flame usurped the place of the brilliant fire lace work, and a darkened shadow lay over the glen. The silver light reflected from the Upper Falls was done and the foaming current

CHANGED ITS APPEARANCE

to that of rosy wool. Out of the huge cloud that then filled the end of the Glen, there arose a vast and beautiful canopy of seeming gold dust. This was lifted upward and extended from hill to hill on the right and left, shutting out ever glimpse of the sky. The breeze wafted the seeming sparking dust nearer to us, and as it came it grew brighter and the particles larger and still larger, until the whole heavens in every quarter seemed filled with falling stars. These coals, many as large as hen's eggs, fell in the pine grove at the Indian council house, at the further end of the Glen. They seemed innumerable and filled the sky with inconceivable splendor.

BURNING FRAGMENTS OF THE BRIDGE

fell all about the upper end of the valley, covering the hillsides apparently with steadily burning signals. At this time

A STRANGE WEIRD LIGHT

illuminated the river and brightened in an unearthly glare all the surroundings. Although the main upper structure of the bridge fell at fifteen minutes past four o'clock, lighter portions of the frame work still remained. Through the lurid smoke glimpses of fragmentary sections of the bridge might be seen. Forked crimson flames shot up all along the ground line of the gulf and river bed. At the left still brighter flames illuminated like a vast beacon the summit of the cliff on the Livingston County side. Blazing timber still continued to fall uninterruptedly, and the rocks, becoming heated, exploded in loud and almost continuous bursts of sound. These might be compared to a

RATTLING FIRE OF MUSKETRY

except they were much louder, sometimes resembling the discharge of artillery. The falling and burning timers lodge between the piers, and the water setting back on the burning mass produced strange sounds. At twenty minutes past four the explosions of the heated rocks blend into an almost continuous roar. At half past four o'clock, the shower of golden sparks passing over the glen, as well as the smoke from the burning timbers, had perceptibly diminished. A mass of burning timber on the canal bank threw an intense glare on the Genesee River below. A bit of blue sky was discernible on the western side, and the wind partially lifting the curtain of smoke revealed a blazing tower dazzling with fire. This was the central pier of the bridge, the top still wreathed in crimson smoke. A few minutes later it is again obscured ­ a little later still the curtain of smoke is once more lifted,

THE TOWER STAGGERS,

Another roar and crash, now commingled with the explosion of bursting rocks, and the tower sinks down into the burning mass among the stone piers, and Portage bridge is

A THING OF THE PAST.

Ten minutes later might be seen the bare rock cliffs upon the west side. The whole outline of the valley stood in a black line against the smoke and flame. Nature in this fearful struggle had asserted herself and this vaunted achievement of man had been melted into ashes. Daylight revealed an inky basin at the base of the upper falls which had been discolored by the coals. The fall itself was amber tinted, and the river below flowed dark from discoloration of the burning masses that it had swept down. The chasm after the fire seems broader and deeper than before and, had we never seen the bridge, what now remains would appear an incomprehensible ruin.

In the Erie Railway Guide Book will be found a particular description of the bridge. It was commenced in the spring of 1851. The first engine passed over it on the 16th of August, 1852. The great barbecue commemorating the completion of the bridge took place on the 24th of the same month.

At four o'clock on the morning of the fire a slight rain was descending, owing to which we are spared the recording of other disasters, as probably the pine groves and every building in the Glen Iris Valley would have been destroyed had the leaves of the woods and shingles of the buildings been dry.

W.P.L

 

Sources

Buffalo Courier, Buffalo NY May 8, 1875

 

For more information see

A Glimpse of the Portage Bridge

Photograph of the Ruins of the Portage Bridge

 


 

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all rights reserved by Tom Cook and Tom Breslin June 2002