"Sand, sand, All that is built by the hand of man!” - the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879

28 December 1879, during a storm blowing across the Firth of Tay, the Tay Rail Bridge collapsed while a train was passing over it. All of its 75 passengers and crew died during the Tay Bridge disaster.
“… denn wütender wurde der Winde Spiel, / und jetzt, als ob Feuer vom Himmel fiel, erglüht es in niederschießender Pracht / überm Wasser unten... Und wieder ist Nacht. … Tand, Tand ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand"

(“For with greater violence the winds did lash, / And now, as if fire from the heavens did crash, / A-glow in glory and wedded to hell, / O’er the waters below…..And again darkness fell. … Sand, sand, All that is built by the hand of man!”, Theodor Fontane, "Die Brück' am Tay")

A contemporary illustration showing the first attempt to salvage the wrecked train on the day following the disaster

With steel, steam and speed everything seemed possible by the end of the 19th century and the triumph of mankind over nature seemed evident. A profound belief in steady progress dictated that everything becoming faster, higher and stronger was not only possible but necessary and the Brunels, Stephensons and Telfords, the elite of Victorian engineering, creating unheard of technological wonders, were the heroes and sometimes the high priests of the day. The railroad and railway bridges played a decisive role in this belief system and the twenty years between the opening of the first British intercity railway from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830 and the 7,000 miles of railway laid in the early 1850s had changed the country forever. Replacing the train ferry across the Firth-of-Tay with a railway bridge to shorten travelling time from Edinburgh to the northeast of Scotland considerably was planned during these years and finally proceeded with in 1871. However, with all the spirit of progress, profits played a decisive role and for the new railway wonder-bridge, the concept of a man was chosen by the prime contractor, the Northern British Railway, whose forte was, first and foremost, constructing cheap with an early profitability, one engineer named Thomas Bouch. Over the next six years, the apparent technical masterpiece, a bridge spanning the Firth over a length of almost two miles, the longest railway bridge ever, was constructed and finally brought into service in 1877, in time and budget. Thomas Bouch received a knighthood while the rest of the world marvelled at the feat.

J.M.W. Turner: "Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway" (1844)

The express train, the “Mail”, left Edinburgh’s Waverly Station to Dundee on schedule at 4:15 pm on December 28th 1879 and reached the southern end of the bridge at 7:00 pm with its six passenger cars and 75 people on board, among them Bouch’s son-in-law. And while the train proceeded the first 200 yards across the bridge, a storm blew across the Firth with wind speeds of at least 70 mph, nothing very unusual along the North Sea coast, even though one witness compared it to a typhoon he had once experienced in the China Sea. However, sparks were already seen flying from the wheels of the train while it steamed further across the bridge and when it reached the high girders after three minutes, “there was a sudden bright flash of light, and in an instant there was total darkness, the tail lamps of the train, the sparks and the flash of light all ... disappearing at the same instant”. The telegraph connection between the southern and northern signal cabin was lost, the bridge was obviously disconnected and indeed, a short time later it became clear that not only the train was at the bottom of the river Tay but the bridge’s high girders as well as much of the ironwork of the supporting piers. There were no survivors.

Contemporary photograph, taken shortly after the disaster - fallen girders of the Tay Bridge

An inquiry was set up immediately and found enough evidence of sloppiness of a scale that would have been sufficient for at least three railway disasters. Not only was the material used faulty to an almost unbelievable extent and the following maintenance of the bridge superficial – Bouch’s initial design did not allow for the increasing speed of trains from 25 to 70 mph during the time of planning and construction and was based on obsolete weather data to begin with. On top of it, it was built to withstand wind loadings of 20 pounds per square foot only, while a minimum standard of 50 psf already was used elsewhere in France and the US for much shorter but admittedly more expensive bridges. It soon became clear that the train did not jump the rails but a whole section of the bridge was torn off by the storm. Bouch died shortly after the public inquiry was finished and the blame for the disaster was largely put on him. The belief in progress and feasibility was taken down a peg for a while and safety standards were stepped up everywhere. A second bridge spanning the Firth was commissioned in 1883, finished four years later and is still in use today. The stumps of the piers of Bouch’s original construction can be seen right beside it to this day.

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Theodor Fontane’s poem in English translation quoted above, published only ten days after the event, can be found here: