This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Marching to the Sound of a Silent Drummer

05 September 2015

A fine of $50 to $100 will be
imposed for marching over this
bridge in rank and file, or to
music, or by keeping regular step
when passing over this bridge.
Bodies of men or troops must
be ordered and kept out of step
when passing over this bridge.
No musical band will be allowed
to play while crossing except
when seated in wagons or
$5 fine for every horse driven
over this bridge at a faster
rate than a walk.
$5 fine for allowing train
or horses to stop on the bridge
longer than absolutely

* * *

If this imposing sign did not attract your notice,
the uniformed guard with his musket would direct
your attention to the special rules for crossing this bridge. 

This was no ordinary type bridge.
It was the famous suspension bridge above the great Niagara River gorge.
But why would authorities prohibit marching soldiers and musical bands?

This sign is a small detail found in a stereoview card captioned 73 — Entrance of Suspension Bridge, produced by S. J. Mason, photographer of Niagara Falls, N.Y.  Besides the guard, there is a  young woman next to the toll booth (which was presumably also the customs and immigration service) for the New York side of a bridge that connected the United States and Canada. The mesmerizing center perspective shows another man standing 30 feet away for the photograph and another 20 feet further is a two horse carriage with driver. The bridge's box construction makes it look as if it is a covered bridge, which in a way it is, as this is the lower level of a double decker roadway. About 20 feet above this group are the steel rails for the train line that linked the two nations.  

The photographer was Samuel J. Mason (1849-1917) of Niagara Falls, NY. In the 1870 census he was 21 years old and listed his occupation as photographer. He shared the same name as his father who was a printer in Niagara Falls, but the elder Mason died in 1869. In the 1870s decade after the War between the States, S. J. Mason Jr. produced thousands of stereoview cards of Niagara Falls scenes for the tourist trade. When this photo card came up for sale on eBay, it caught my eye for the musical reference in the sign, as much for the fascinating perspective. 

My interest in the Niagara River came about when I was researching a story that I wrote earlier this year entitled – O Canada!, which was about a photograph of a happy musical family from Canada. The photographer was another S. J. – Samuel J. Dixon from Toronto, Ontario, who undoubtedly knew Mason as Dixon was a gregarious fellow and a member of the Canadian-American photographers guild that met in Buffalo. But S. J. Dixon also held membership in one of the most exclusive clubs in the 19th century world – people who had successfully walked across the Niagara River without using a bridge. Dixon was a very talented tight rope walker.

In 1890 and again in 1891, S. J. Dixon crossed the Niagara River gorge on a rope cable 7/8" in diameter strung hundreds of feet above the roar of the dramatic rapids next to the Niagara Cantilever Bridge. This bridge opened in 1883, and was constructed of steel girders in a cantilever design. Unlike the suspension bridge, it was used only for a railway crossing. Several stereo photos were made of Dixon's terrifying stunt, which today would no doubt be recorded on a GoPro video camera clipped to his hat. His first walk in 1890 was a no-return ticket beginning from the New York side. The second crossing the next summer was a round trip starting in Canada. Tragically, Dixon died only a few months later in October 1891 when he drowned while swimming in an Ontario lake. 

However Dixon was not the first person to venture their life on this extreme sport. (Nor the last fool for that matter) There were several others including a woman with the euphonious name, Maria Spelterini. She performed this feat several times in the summer of 1876.

The bridge in the background of her stereoview photo is the first Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, the same one with a double decker roadway as seen in S. J. Mason's photo. The bridge spans 825 feet and is 250 feet above the river. It was completed in 1855 using one of the earliest suspension type designs. But bridge engineering was more an art than an exact science in the 1850s. We can see that Mlle. Spelterini's rope cable is understandably steadied with guy ropes that angle down to lower slopes. There are even sand bags, seen on the right, to dampen any upward motion, as the uphill climb was considered more difficult for wire walkers.

But look closely and we can see that guy ropes or wires are also connected to the bridge. This next image of one of Spelterini's 1876 Niagara exploits, also from a stereoview card, shows the wires to better effect.

And yes, she is walking across the Niagara gorge on a tight rope with two fruit baskets on her feet.

Maria Spelterini crossing the Niagara River, July 1876
Source: Wikipedia

Notice the multitude of people watching her performance from the bridge. They paid good money for a ticket to see Spelterini from that vantage point. And for an hour or so during her walk, there were probably very few people on the other side of the bridge looking at the falls. I would venture that there is also a band or two playing music, while safely seated in a wagon of course, to enliven the thrill of the occasion. 

Niagara River Suspension Bridge, circa 1860
Source: Wikimedia
Even in this bucolic print of the great Niagara River Suspension Bridge from 1860, we can see guy wires. Very few people have the nerve of Dixon or Spelterini. When a bridge shakes, most people wish they had stayed home. The Niagara River area has some of the fiercest winter weather in North America, and wind gusts along the gorge can be incredibly strong. Two engineers worked on this bridge. The first one, Charles Ellet, Jr. (1810–1862), began the foundation work in 1845 by building a temporary bridge that used an ingenious idea of a kite to get the first cables across the chasm.
However Ellet had disputes with the Niagara bridge's investors and left in the project in 1848.  His successor was John A. Roebling (1806–1869), whose greatest project was the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. He had a better understanding of the effects of wind, rain, and snow on the span's roadway vibration, and added the guy wires to increase the structure's stability. When it was finished in 1855 it was the first railway suspension bridge in the world. Train speed was restricted to 5 mph.

The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge's wooden beams, trusses, and braces lasted until 1880 when they were replaced with steel and iron components. But there were too many limitations on the design to handle the increasingly heavier rail traffic, so it was dismantled in 1897 and replaced by the Lower Steel Arch Bridge, later renamed the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.

Sign on the Albert Bridge
across the River Thames, London, England
Source: Wikipedia

Years ago when I lived in London, I noted a similar sign that was attached to the Albert Bridge that crosses the River Thames

All troops
must break step
when marching
over this bridge.

This bridge has a modified cable-stayed design and was opened for traffic in 1873 as a way to alleviate the congestion on the other bridges in London. Its structure has not adapted well to the weight and quantity of modern vehicles, and it has needed numerous re-fitments. The sign however was a 19th century response to the growing public concern over the safety of bridges. As every small child knows, London bridges can fall down.

* *

One of these notable bridge failures occurred in 1831 with the collapse of the Broughton Suspension Bridge, an iron chain suspension design built in 1826, which crosses the River Irwell near Salford, Greater Manchester, England. On April 12, 1831 a troop of 74 soldiers returning to barracks were marching 4 abreast across the bridge. When they felt a rhythmic vibration in the road, they began to whistle a suitable marching song to follow the beat. Suddenly they heard a loud SNAP! like gunfire. A bolt holding the suspension chains together broke, and within seconds, an iron column supporting the chains toppled into the river. Over 40 men were thrown into the river, though fortunately no lives were lost as the river was quite shallow.

Public confidence in civil engineering began to diminish. 

Catastrophe of the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge
across the River Bure, Yarmouth, England - May 2, 1845
Source: Wikipedia
On May 2, 1845, thousands of people had gathered in Yarmouth, England to watch Nelson the Clown, a popular entertainer with William Cooke’s Circus, undertake to swim in a barrel drawn by four geese from Haven Bridge at Hall Quay to the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge at North Quay. I would bet there was a brass band performing too. As he neared the suspension bridge several hundred people crushed onto the bridge for a better view. The mass proved too much for one of the vertical rods that connected the roadway to the suspension chains. It snapped. Then another and another failed. One side of the bridge rolled over, spilling hundreds of people into the water. The accident killed 79 people, with many more injured. The fate of the clown or the geese is not recorded.

Pont de la Basse-Chaîne, Angers Bridge
across the Maine River, Angers, France - view circa 1839
Source: Wikipedia

In Angers, France a chain suspension bridge was built to cross the Maine River in 1839.  The bridge did unremarkable service for over a decade until April 16, 1850 when a battalion of soldiers marched across it during a thunderstorm. The high winds caused the bridge roadway to violently oscillate, making the soldiers step to "feel like they were drunk". This time, an anchor point for a suspension cable broke, producing a a noise like "a badly done volley from a firing squad". About 487 soldiers and civilians were on the bridge at that time and most were suddenly pitched into the river. Unlike the rivers of England, the Maine River is deep and tragically 226 men perished in the collapse. 

Collapse of Pont de la Basse-Chaîne, Angers Bridge
across Maine River, Angers, France - April 16, 1850
Source: Wikipedia

So when the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was constructed in 1855, the possibility of a bridge suddenly collapsing due to the vibration and dynamic load of marching soldiers or bandsmen was not an irrational or preposterous concern. Most recently the Millennium Bridge in London, a 144 metres (472 ft) pedestrian bridge between Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, startled the first walkers when the roadway exhibited a pronounced if not terrifying sway. The design had not accounted for the collective energy of foot steps. I was able to experience this myself that year, and it was nothing like the comforting vibration of the trains running next to the Hungerford foot bridge that is upstream on the Thames.   

Today's engineers have the science and technology to measure and test their plans. In the 19th century, civil engineers needed guts as much as brain powered calculations to justify their designs. When you read the life story of John Augustus Roebling, you begin to understand the full effects of real stress, in both human and engineering terms.

There is a very clever video on YouTube of a physics effect called harmonic resonance. The Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan has produced several of these in different configurations, but their demonstration explains how marching footsteps develop synchronicity. On a square platform, suspended by cables at the corners, are 100 windup metronomes. They are a common musician's tool for measuring tempo and I have a similar model under the Tik-Tok brand. Moving  a weight on the inverted pendulum changes the tempo, but all of these metronomes are set at the same rate. However they are started at random times. If you wait for at least a minute in the 6 minute video, you will see the way the cacophony of ticks gradually corrects itself until all the metronomes are swinging along in perfect military precision.

* * *

* * *

This next video is of a pedestrian bridge in Grantham, PA near or on the campus of Messiah College. It records the various types of vibration that unstable bridges are susceptible to.
The bridge could almost be a ride at an amusement park.

Does it have a sign prohibiting marching bands and requiring soldiers to break step?

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no one crosses a bridge until they get there.


Alex Daw said...

Oh my Lord. I think I deserve a prize for watching that last video all the way through. Yikes! So scary.

Tattered and Lost said...

Okay, that last video looks like so much fun! Makes me think of the rope bridge on Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland. It was always fun to wait to get on it after others had just walked on. Then you'd run and jump on it and watch them bounce. It wasn't any fun to just walk across. You had to get the thing bouncing and swaying. I'm betting it's not there anymore.

Little Nell said...

Better than going to the gym! Fascinating stuff, but seriously, crossing with fruit-baskets on her feet? I do hope the risks were worth it.

Anonymous said...

So many goodies it's hard to know what to say. But being reminded of harmonic resonance is fascinating. It's spooky how an inanimate object like a bridge appears to get a mind of its own.

Karen S. said...

Oh my goodness such dare-devils! I couldn't imagine doing that ever! Great shots, all your photos and incredible information so very interesting.

Jo Featherston said...

Interesting that both you and Alan looked at bridges at Yarmouth. That second video clip showing the effects of sonic resonance gives me the horrors, and I would hate to think of anyone doing that kind of thing on any of the suspension or swing bridges shown in my own post!

Alan Burnett said...

As always Mike, a post to be savoured over a cup of tea - to be read and read again and then saved so it can be read in the future. I must have passed over Albert Bridge numerous times and never seen that sign and Salford is only a energetic stone's throw away - but it takes someone from far away to tell me things I don't know about my own back yard. And that is not to mention Yarmouth!


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