As I was driving down Main Street in downtown Point Pleasant on Thursday night, there wasn’t a parking space to be found. It was the night of the Christmas gala at Gallery at 409, which was also a stop on the French Art Colony’s Annual Holiday Home Tour, taking place this weekend. The trees on Main Street were wrapped with lights and light balls hung from their limbs, all decorated by the Main Street Merchants. Gunn Park was aglow with the city’s Christmas tree and the trees from the “Light of Christmas” tree project. It was an idyllic sight. My first thought, was, “So, this must’ve been what it was like.”
Growing up, I heard stories about how “busy” downtown Point Pleasant was and how there were frequently no available parking spots on Main Street, but, then something happened.
My Nannie (you remember her and her ham from last week), was working at Franklin’s shoe store on Main Street the night it happened, only about a block from where it happened. She said there was a loud “boom!” Then, the lights went out. Her first thought was, someone had blown up the bank across the street – a far-fetched deduction, yes, but in that disorienting moment, what else could it be? She had nothing to compare it to, other than something from a movie or a story, certainly nothing from real life. Moments later, she was told “the bridge fell” and she walked up to the where it had sat since 1928. She simply said it was gone and described the Ohio River erupting in these unnatural waves from the chaos. That is the part of her story I remember most. Can you imagine waves in the Ohio River beyond the ones created by barges passing by? Then, there were the birds circling the bridge in confusion, according to some eyewitness accounts. Birds often nested on the structure and when it went down, they didn’t understand. It was, again, “unnatural.”
On Dec. 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge collapsed, killing 46 people and in addition to taking lives, it dealt a blow to the area that still reverberates today. In Point Pleasant, from an economic standpoint, the direct route between Columbus, Ohio and Charleston, W.Va. went from going through the heart of Point Pleasant, to going around it. There are some people out there who don’t know the Silver Memorial Bridge was not placed in the exact spot of its predecessor – far from it. I don’t pretend to know why this decision was made, though I’m sure there were reasons and arguments that ultimately settled on its spot. The Silver Memorial Bridge opened two years to the day of the collapse in 1967, after a promise from then President Lyndon B. Johnson to get a bridge rebuilt as soon as possible.
Of course, there are no words which will do justice to the impact the collapse had in terms of the human element and loss of loved ones, neighbors, friends, even strangers who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ruth Fout and her sister Martha Fout, work at the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center. The sisters have amassed arguably one of the most comprehensive archives on the tragedy. To put the tragedy in perspective, in terms of numbers, Ruth said there were 15 victims who died from Point Pleasant, 11 from Gallipolis, four from Gallipolis Ferry, one from Middleport, two from Kanagua, three from Bidwell, one from Cheshire, one from South Point, two from Vinton, one from Westerville, one a piece from Walnut Cove, Winston-Salem and Jamestown in North Carolina, one from Richmond, Va., one from Cana, Va.
Though numbers tell part of the story, it cannot tell the whole truth. As Ruth poignantly put it, when it comes to this tragedy, “We are like one community with a river in-between it.”
Though several memorial ceremonies have been held over the years to observe the anniversary of the tragedy, last year was the first year a remembrance event was held at the site where the actual bridge used to rest at 6th Street in Point Pleasant. At that inaugural event, a large crowd turned out and they heard Jack Fowler, also of the river museum, tell those gathered: “We had what the people of Paris and what the people of San Bernadino experienced. In less than one minute, we lost 46 people.”
This year’s ceremony will incorporate members of the communities of both Point Pleasant and Gallipolis and will be held on Dec. 15 at 6th Street in Point Pleasant at the bridge memorial. Music begins at 5:45 p.m. with the ceremony starting at 6 p.m. The event will include singing by the Point Pleasant Intermediate School Choir, Grace Sydnor of the Gallia Academy High School Madrigals and a performance by the Hannan High School Bell Choir. The names of the victims will be read by Dr. Clyde M. Evans, former Ohio state representative. Holdyn Keefer of Point Pleasant, will throw the honorary “switch” on the lights which will decorate the trees around the bridge memorial.
As for downtown Point Pleasant, the fact there was a night where there was nowhere to park, is a sign of resilience. It’s s sign people are working to make things better in their own way. Though “the road” no longer goes through Point Pleasant, others still do.
Beth Sergent is the editor at Ohio Valley Publishing which includes the Point Pleasant Register, The Daily Sentinel, Gallipolis Daily Tribune and Sunday Times-Sentinel. She can be reached by calling 304-675-1333, ext. 1992, 740-446-2342, ext. 2102 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.