Point Ellice Bridge Disaster

On May 26, 1896 in Victoria, British Columbia, a streetcar crowded with 143 holidaymakers on their way to attend celebrations of Queen Victoria’s birthday, crashed through Point Ellice Bridge into the Gorge Waterway.

55 men, women and children were killed in the accident, making this one of the worst disasters in British Columbia history and the worst accident in Canadian transit history.

On June 12, 1896, a coroner’s jury concluded that the tramway operator, the Consolidated Electric Railway Company, was responsible for the disaster because it allowed its streetcar to be loaded with a much greater weight of passengers than the bridge was designed to support. The city council of Victoria was found to be guilty of contributory negligence because the bridge had not been well maintained, and because council failed to take steps to restrict the traffic on the bridge to within safe limits. The design and construction of the bridge was also found to have been poor, especially in that the specifications called for weldless iron to be used but that the ironwork was almost all welded.

Victoria's Queen's Birthday carnival, so auspiciously inaugurated with unalloyed enjoyment for citizens and visitors, was abruptly terminated yesterday afternoon by a catastrophe so sudden, so awful and so appalling in the loss of life entailed by it that no thought was left for aught besides. Electric car number 16, in charge of Conductor Talbot and Motorman Farr, was hurrying to the scene of the sham battle, freighted to its capacity and beyond with holiday makers when in an instant mirth was turned into mourning and between fifty and sixty souls were hurried into eternity. The central span of Point Ellice bridge had again given way, precipitating the car into the waters of the Arm, where a majority of the imprisoned passengers – men, women and little children—to whom the world had a moment before been all sunshine were drowned before aid could reach them. The crashing timbers and ironwork of the bridge piled upon the ill-fated car as the waters received it, and doubling up, pierced it also from below, so that many were killed even before the water was reached, while the others were less mercifully held below the muddy waters – the tide was at the flood and running high – by the rapidly accumulating debris. News of the calamity spread quickly and by 3 o'clock – the heavily freighted car plunged through the bridge at exactly ten minutes to 2 – a crowd of thousand filled the streets at the approaches to the death-trap bridge – eager to be helpful, frantic with anxiety as to the fate of loved ones who might have been on the car, or dazed, almost stupefied for the time, by the magnitude of the disaster which had come upon the city. The hour was not without its heroes who were quick to think and act, and to these heroes, women and men, the salvation of many lives from the waters is due, as well as the winning back from death of many who had to all appearances passed into the shadowland. The work of the rescuers lasted through all the afternoon, and by evening the greater number of the bodies had been recovered, although it is practically certain that yet others are still to be removed from the fatal waters. The jury empanelled by Coroner Crompton in the evening viewed in all forty-seven bodies, and their inquiry has been adjourned so that the work of recovery may be completed. The calamity is without precedent in the history of the Pacific Coast – without parallel in the loss of life involved since the memorable Pacific disaster. So many victims has it claimed that there is scarcely a home in Victoria that has not lost some relative or friend. Ours is a city of desolation and of sadness and in its mourning Seattle, Tacoma, New Whatcom, Port Townsend and the other cities of the Sound are joining , for each has contributed among the holiday makers who formed the burden of the submerged car some of its well-known citizens.