The Point Ellice Bridge disaster
By Danda Humphreys
The Point Ellice Bridge is the site of a tragic event in Canada’s history
Car No 16 at a low tide following the accident, the collapsed bridge behind it.
Over the decades, South Park School has seen its share of triumphs and tragedies. But the first and most shocking tragedy of all happened 112 years ago this month, when two South Park students died in a freak disaster on the Gorge Waterway.
It was May 26, 1896. The city was honouring the seventy-seventh birthday of its namesake, British monarch Queen Victoria. The highlight of this day was a sham battle, to be staged off Esquimalt’s Macaulay Point. All popular modes of transport would be pressed into service—boats, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, ponies-and-traps—and of course there was always the streetcar. Victoria was justifiably proud of its public transportation system. Just six years old, it was the first streetcar service in BC and only the third in the whole of Canada.
Excited at the prospect of an outing, young Sophie Smith and her sisters Alice and Inis joined Ethel Bowness, her sister May, and a large group of excited people at the Douglas and Yates streetcar stop. Car No. 6 came first, and quickly filled to capacity. Fortunately, car No. 16 was right behind, and the girls boarded it just before 2 p.m. Ethel and May squeezed into the passenger compartment, as did Sophie and Alice. Inis couldn’t find a seat; she ended up standing with several others on the rear platform.
By the time car No. 16 stopped at the foot of Store Street to change drivers, the passenger compartment was already full, but that didn’t stop people piling onto both front and back platforms because no one wanted to arrive late at Macaulay Point. Inside the car, bodies were jammed so close together that several complained about the stuffy air. Conductor Talbot, forcing his way along the crowded aisle as he collected fares, obligingly opened windows as he went.
Car No. 16 followed car No. 6 through the high-class Rock Bay neighbourhood, with its magnificent waterfront mansions, and they were right behind each other by the time they reached the east end of the Point Ellice bridge.
Not wanting to crowd his colleague, Motorman Farr slowed down before crossing. Car No. 6 had started to climb the slope at the bridge’s western end by the time car No. 16 reach the centre span.
Suddenly there was a loud and ominous CRAAA-ACK!!! In a few shocking seconds of ear-shattering noise, the flooring of the bridge rose like the blades of a jack-knife…the bridge collapsed…and the car plunged downwards. Broken timbers and ironwork doubled up and pierced the car from below even as the cold waters of the Gorge rushed in through its open windows. Seconds later, only the roof remained above water.
Anguished screams filled the air as those who had been flung clear flailed desperately among the debris. Then—amazingly—heads appeared from beneath the surface one after the other, crying out, coughing, gasping for air. The same windows that let water rush into the crippled car had miraculously allowed some of its occupants to escape from it!
Shocked eyewitnesses and shipyard workers rushed to their rescue, plucking people from the water and ferrying them to the closest shore—the grassy slope in front of Captain William Grant’s house.
The Grants, alerted by the awful sound of the collapsing structure, rushed out with blankets, towels, curtains. Their neighbours, the O’Reillys and the Tyrwhitt-Drakes, ran over to help. The garden was a sea of motion and emotion as doctors worked on each body that was pulled ashore, husbands and wives were reunited, grateful parents hugged their children.
In the midst of it all, one young woman stood anguished and alone. Like others on car No. 16’s rear platform, Inis Smith had been flung off it and into the water. Somehow, she managed to swim ashore, then shocked and shivering, watched as limp bodies were brought from the boats one by one and laid on the grass. Horrified, she realized that her sisters, Sophie and Alice, were not among them. Ethel and May Bowness were missing too. In fact, those destined to survive had been pulled from the water within the first few minutes; the rest had drowned.
Conductor Talbot’s ticket dispenser, recovered later at the scene, revealed that close to 100 people had crowded onto a car designed to carry half that number. Fifty-five people, including the crew, lost their lives. Twelve of them were children.
In her report for that year, South Park principal Agnes Deans Cameron mourned “the loss of two of our most promising pupils.” Sophie Smith and Ethel Bowness, she declared, were destined for great things. But May 26, 1896, the day of the worst streetcar disaster in Canada’s history, ensured that those destinies would remain unfulfilled.
Danda Humphreys is the author of several books about Victoria’s early history. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the May 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.