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The Day The Bridge Fell
This article first appeared in issue 15, and was written by Ed Waggener.
Dr. Keith Gabehart, who survived the bridge collapse, died Sunday, October 19, 2014. See Dr. Keith Gabehart (1936-2014)
The scariest thing the 13-year-old survivor faced that day was being rowed back across Russell Creek to his father, waiting on the north side
The Campbellsville Street Bridge over Russell Creek collapsed at around noon that day. Miraculously, neither the driver of the truck which went down with the bridge nor the 13-year-old passenger needed medical treatment.
Another miracle that day is that the next vehicle headed north, a school bus with 40 passengers aboard, was not on the bridge at the time of the crash. And it was fortunate that the heavier Lewis Transport gasoline tanker which had just come across the bridge headed south, didn't crash either.
It happened April 21, 1948. Heavy rains had caused flooding in the area, bad enough that Highway 55 between Columbia and Campbellsville had been closed at the Green River bridge because water was over the road there.
Dr. Keith Gabehart, who teaches accounting at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green remembers the day quite well. He was the 13-year-old passenger.
"I was in the seventh grade at Campbellsville Grade School," he remembers.
"We had just moved from Jamestown, where my father, Del Gabehart, had operated G & Y Transport-which hauled much of the material for Wolf Creek Dam.
"It had rained heavily. There was a lot of flooding. One of Dad's drivers, Pete Hamm, came back from Louisville. He stopped at our house and Dad told him that he wouldn't be able to get back to Jamestown by way of Columbia, because of the flooding at the Green River Bridge. Mr. Hamm spent the night with us, and the next day I rode with him to Liberty and then to Jamestown, where he unloaded, and we headed back to Campbellsville by Columbia-to get me home and for him to be on his way back to Louisville."
THE CAMPBELLSVILLE STREET WAS 72 YEARS OLD at the time it collapsed.. It had been built in 1876. It was condemned in 1935, according to a faded newspaper photo owned by Haskin Rowe. The photo shows Russell Creek going over the bridge, a narrow, single lane affair. The caption said that the bridge had been so severely weakened by the floods which had ravaged southern Kentucky that year that state engineers had condemned it.
The country was just coming out of the Depression then. Highway and bridge funds weren't available, and then World War II came in 1940. Replacing the bridge took a lower priority. In the hectic months after the war, it was just put on the back burner. So the condemned bridge stayed in place.
It was inconvenient. Drivers pulled up to the bridge, which was situated to the left, as one drives north today, from the present structure, and the road bed went up what is now Shady Lane, past the late (W.L) Curry's Hardware store, now William and Rose Burton's furniture store; past what is now Merchandise Outlet, past the Leighton Smythe home, and back into the path of today's Campbellsville Road at the Joe Barbee place. Only one-way traffic was possible. Cars going in one direction held the right-of-way until all went through, then the other direction held it in a like manner. Sometimes the wait was for a single car, sometimes for a dozen or more.
KEITH GABEHART WAS HALF ASLEEP and didn't see the gasoline tanker coming across in front of him. And the driver of that vehicle was not alarmed enough about the "pop"! the bridge made as he crossed over to warn the approaching G & Y semi of the possible danger. He wouldn't mention it until a few minutes later, when he stopped at a service station and said, "You know, I think I heard a 'pop'! when I came over the bridge."
It was a "pop"! that Pete Hamm heard, and it was the same "pop"! which roused young Keith Gabehart from his dozing. "The tractor had cleared the bridge," Dr. Gabehart remembers, "when the bridge broke. The trailer fell in and drug the tractor with it. The whole thing jackknifed, leaving the tractor on top of the trailer. The waters were high and swift. We both floated up. He got out on his side and pulled me up through his door.
"WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CREEK. In a little while they came out and got us in a little boat." According to the Adair County News account, the "they" were three young men in a boat: Charles Sandusky, Jack Williams, and W.H. Sandusky, Jr.
"They took us to the house near the creek. I don't remember much about being there, but the people there were very kind to us." Prompted, he said he did believe that the people who took them in were Mr. and Mrs. Sandusky-Henry and Bedelia Sandusky-the owners of the Sandusky mill which stretched then from Campbellsville Street almost to Wain Street of today.
"They called my parents," Dr. Gabehart remembers, "and Dad came to the north side of the bridge to get me. That was the most afraid I was during the whole incident. I remember being afraid of going back across the creek in that little boat."
WHEN THE BRIDGE FELL, it created unusual problems. "We were in the second vehicle in line to cross the bridge behind the school bus," Eddie Shively, then five years old, remembers. "I remember that to get home (then as now on the right just beyond Betty's OK Country Kitchen) we had to go out Fairground Street to Bull Run, then out to and across Pelly Lane, and then take the Knifley Road to Campbellsville Road before we got back on our usual route."
For others on the north side of the bridge, a trip to and from Columbia might be first north on Hwy 55 to Cane Valley, west to the crossroads, then south down Pelham Road past Pigtail across the Pelham Bridge on Russell Creek, continuing on what was then the Old Greensburg Road to Greensburg Street, and then town.
For still others, the temporary outage of the bridge presented a rare business opportunity. "We operated a ferry," Ralph Shearer remembers. "William Cabbell and I had a boat. We'd charge 10 cents a head to row people across the creek. The rules were simple: No dime, no ride." Which may have been exactly the way it happened.
THE BUS CARRYING THE 40 PASSENGERS, some recall, was the only school bus in the Columbia School system. It was a private bus which charged a dime to carry Cane Valley area students to and from Columbia High School. It also made a trip to the Glens Fork area. The reason it was there at noon that day, some surmise, was that school may have been let out early that day because of the flooding.
MANY PEOPLE REMEMBER THE EXCITEMENT THAT DAY. Effie Heskamp, her late husband, David, and their little daughter were living in the house next to the creek, the one later owned by Henry and Bedelia Sandusky. It is now the home of Sam and Sue Sandusky. Henry and Bedelia, sons Charles, Henry Edward, and Sam, lived in the house at the corner of Campbellsville and Oak Streets. When the Heskamps built the two story brick on the NW corner of Jamestown and what is now Heskamp Street, the Henry Sanduskys moved to the house next to the river; and Bob and Daisy White Sandusky moved into the house on the corner. "Ann Sutton (now Ann Curtis of Escondido, California) was in a high chair," Mrs. Heskamp remembers, adding, " I had just prepared her lunch, when I heard a bang, and ran out, and saw the excitement around the bridge."
Hartzell Hodges, his wife Mildred, and their oldest son, Terry (the late Terry Hodges, a prominent lawyer in Columbia and City Attorney until his death), were living at the Charlie Kelsay house on Campbellsville, just a block off the Square. They heard the noise of the bridge fall there. "It sounded like a terrible explosion," Hodges remembers.
The explosion brought out the disaster response team of the day. Howard Cheatham was on the Columbia Fire Department and remembers making the call to the accident scene. They had feared a vehicle fire from the crash, but that hadn't happened.
The brief article in the Adair County News of April 21, 1948, by News publisher Edward Hamlett, ended with an editorial comment, "The time has come when something will have to be done and citizens of Adair County are looking to the State Highway Department for speeding action with the hopes that the Department will 'do right by 'em.'" In the same article, it was announced that a Bailey Bridge, surplus from World War II, would temporarily span the creek. The article said that it was hoped that the Bailey Bridge would be in 10 days.
The State Highway Department did buy a Bailey Bridge from the War Assets Administration. A May 19 edition of the News noted that the Bailey bridge was nearing completion. The following week, the bridge, made of steel with a timber floor, was open to traffic.
It was almost exactly one year later, on May 25, 1949, that a news article announced the award of a contract for $101,491.90 to the George H. Creek Construction Co. of Frankfort to build the bridge. The bridge was dedicated approximately one year later.
It had been an exciting year the bridge fell and the one which followed. Adair Countians were following the exploits of Junior Bunch, who had been signed to the Boston Braves in February of 1948, and Charlie Cliff was writing regularly in the News of his exploits. In June of that year, A young doctor, J.C. Salato, M.D., had opened a practice over Paull Drugs on the Square. And, in November, 1949, the county approved the first hospital bond issue for the construction of a building at a cost of $240,000.
YOUNG KEITH GABE-HART, the 13-year-old passengerwent on to graduate from Campbellsville High in 1954, the first year John Burr took Adair County's basketball team to the State Tournament semi-finals. He attended Western Kentucky State College after that, and he remembers that, almost the very first day he was there, he went to Scottsville and met the fellow who played for Hartzell Hodges in his gospel group and they drove to Columbia for him to audition with the group-and was accepted.
After Western, Gabehart taught three years at Taylor County High School, then taught two years at Campbellsville College, then two years Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi. Dr. Gabehart earned a masters at Peabody and his doctorate at Georgia State University.
He has spent the last 32 years at Western, teaching accounting.
To this day, when he comes through Columbia-which he does each time he returns to Taylor County-and crosses the bridge, he remembers the day the old one fell, the heroism of the three men who rescued them from the raging creek, the kindness of the Sanduskys, and being so scared to recross the perilous waters to get to his father, who had come for him and was waiting on the north side.
This story was posted on 1997-07-30 12:01:01
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