GREAT BARRINGTON >> It started as a pleasant day for the group, Somers Benjamin and his sister, Mary C. Benjamin, of South Egremont. They and friends were on their way to Stockbridge. They'd dropped their mother off in Great Barrington to visit with her friend Mrs. Robert Girling and would pick her up on the way back. It was August 1879,
They passed the Water Street Cemetery and made the turn north at the Bung Hill intersection with the Monterey road. They passed a few houses on Stockbridge Road, then the entrance to Benjamin Gilmore's shingle mill on the right. Gilmore's powered its saw from the flow of Pixley Brook. Years later, with the Pixley population diminished and the sawmill in new hands, the waterway became known as Thomas & Palmer Brook, taking the name of new sawmill owners. Elmwood Cemetery is on some of the site today.
Then came the unexpected as the carriagers went across the stream on the Bung Hill bridge. It was a wooden bridge about 15 feet long, by newspaper descriptions, and of the king post design. "The bridge gave way, hurling the team into the stream below," the Berkshire Courier reported in its Aug. 21, 1879, issue. "Somers Benjamin, who occupied the front seat, was thrown under the horses and instantly killed. Miss Aggie Ronald, a teacher in one of the schools of Meriden, Ct., who was on the same seat with Mr. Benjamin, was also thrown out, and received injuries in one of her shoulders, and Miss Fannie Millard, of Thompsonville, Ct., a niece of Miss Ronald's, sustained a severe sprain of her wrist.
Two men in the party quickly got the women to the stream bank then excavated for young Benjamin, age 20. After 10 minutes, they found him, face down in the water, and took him to the nearby Mark Humphrey home. Dr. Samuel Camp responded to a call, and pronounced death due to a broken neck.
The women were treated for minor injuries. Miss Ronald was particularly distressed, the Berkshire Eagle said Aug. 21, 1879, "and it is feared Miss Ronald may lose her reason, if not her life, as she was engaged to young Benjamin."
Why did the bridge fail? The Courier observed, "The cause of the accident was a rotten condition of the center timber of the bridge which permitted the truss bolt on the west side to pull through."
"Large crowds of people thronged the scene of the accident during the day," the Courier said.
Almost immediately, finger-pointing began. Why hadn't the Selectmen been aware of the bridge's condition? Why hadn't they had it repaired?
Actually, as town reports would later remind people, the bridge was 20 years old but had been overhauled four years previous and had been replanked only that summer.
Costly to town
Great Barrington Selectmen N.D. Van Deusen, Charles Watson and W.W. Langdon immediately hired Alexander Kennedy and Thomas Nolan as watchmen at the bridge, so no one would try to pass over the damaged structure. William Walker provided timber and labor to rebuild the bridge ($27.56) and George H. Wheeler provided labor ($31.12).
The bridge was soon passable again. But it took another two years for townspeople to learn, in the annual report, the rest of the cost — beyond human suffering — of that bridge accident.
Mother and daughter Benjamin received a $2,600 settlement, Aggie Ronald and Fannie Millard $2,500. David Dalzell & Sons of South Egremont received $43 for repairs to the wagon, Mark Humphrey $85 for "care, board and expenses of the injured parties, at his house." Was it mentioned? Fairview Hospital wouldn't be built until 1913. The town had no hospital. The injured were given private care.
Dr. Richard Beebe was paid $25 to visit the Misses Ronald and Millard in Connecticut. Dr. Camp was paid $45 for medical attendance. Justin Dewey provided professional services in three lawsuits ($135.70), Henry C. Joyner the same. Total hit on the town budget: $5,569.40.
There may not have been a connection, but two of the three Selectmen were replaced in the 1881 election.
This was neither the first nor the last dramatic bridge disintegration in the Berkshires. Not all of the collapses included fatalities. Wooden bridges were gradually replaced with iron bridges. The most recent similar tragedy was in the Glendale section of Stockbridge in 1974 when a sports car ran into the side of the 117-foot, all-metal parabolic bridge over the Housatonic River. The bridge collapsed.
Iron gave way to concrete and steel and the number of bridge failure diminished. But the need for regular maintenance has not gone away.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.