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October-ganza 3, Day 20: Hosea Keach’s Wild Ride

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October 20, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

Sometimes you read a story that you simply cannot improve upon, in which case, your duty is to repeat the tale as best you can…

From It’s An Old New England Custom by Edwin Valentine Mitchell (1946):

It is a pity that no poet seems to have written about Hosea Keach’s ride, which, though not so well-known an episode of New England history as Paul Revere’s ride, was in some ways more remarkable. Hosea was the last of the toll takers at the old covered wooden bridge which spanned the Connecticut River between Enfield and Suffield, Connecticut. When at the beginning of the century it was swept away by a freshet, Hosea went with it, gallantly riding the ancient ark-like structure on the raging ice-strewn flood, until he was rescued in a climax as thrilling as that of any melodrama of the horse and buggy days.

enfield_covered_bridge

During the last years of its existence business at the bridge became so bad that the income from tolls was insufficient to pay the keeper and make the necessary repairs. Always the keeper had been permitted to carry on his own trade at the bridge.  One was a weaver who had in the tollhouse a carpet loom on which he wove rugs for the farmers’ wives from materials which they brought him. Another was a cigar maker. Still another was a cobbler. But when more convenient crossings above and below the old bridge took all the carriage trade, the tollkeeper’s private business suffered with the decline of the public bridge business- It was a relief to the owner of the bridge, when, about three years before its destruction, it was, for reasons of public safety, ordered closed to traffic. A few pedestrians and cyclists made breaches in the barriers and still used it, while Hosea Keach continued to live in the tollkeeper’s house. Here he could keep an eye on the bridge and at the same time serve the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad as agent at the Enfield Bridge Station near the tollhouse.

Two and a half miles downstream, the main line of the New Haven Railroad crosses the Connecticut River at Windsor Locks. If the heavily-timbered Enfield Bridge should be washed away, the railroad bridge might be seriously endangered, so Hosea Keach was instructed to inspect the old bridge regularly and report on its condition. It was common knowledge that the seventy-year-old structure was pretty shaky.

During the high water of February, 1900, Hosea became unusually vigilant. On the afternoon of the fifteenth, shortly before the two-thirty southbound train from Springfield was due, he went out on the bridge to look at the central span, so he could report to the conductor of the train. He had gone only part way when he heard a great tearing and rending of timbers and, realizing that the bridge was going, turned and ran for his life. He had almost reached the end of the bridge when the floor suddenly buckled and heaved upward, and, the next thing Hosea knew, he was perched among the cobwebs on one of the crosspieces in the easterly gable of the bridge.

“The span shut up like a jackknife,” he said afterward. “Timbers of the bridge rose before me in the air. I thought they were going to fall on me.”

For a time Hosea’s mind seems to have been a blank, but when he came to himself he realized that the bridge was moving with the current, as the floor had dropped out and the surging waters of the river were slipping past below him; but he could not see outside to get his bearings. Trapped in the dim interior of the bridge, he tried unsuccessfully to beat out some of the roof and gable boards with his bare hands. Then by the flickering light that came through the cracks in the old structure
he discovered a loose piece of timber with which he managed to dislodge the signboard that read: WALK YOUR HORSES ACROSS THIS BRIDGE. By enlarging this
hole he was at length able to crawl out to the roof of the wreck. The river above the railroad bridge is divided into two channels by Terry Island. When Hosea got his bearings he found that he and his odd craft were heading down the easterly side of the island. He began to yell for help.

Meanwhile, the train from Springfield had reached the Enfield Bridge Station, and  since Hosea was not on hand to meet it, the crew looked at the space where the covered bridge had been with a wild surmise and beat the wreckage down to the lower bridge, where men with ropes were posted to watch for Hosea.

J. Warren Johnson was in his law office in Windsor Locks that afternoon, writing a letter to the owner of the bridge and the bridge franchise, William D. Marsh of Chicago, telling him that one of the old piers was very weak indeed, when someone in the office exclaimed, “Why, what’s this coming down the river?” Mr. Johnson looked out the window and saw a large section of his client’s property drifting downstream. He didn’t stop to write, he telegraphed.

It was shortly after three o’clock that the men at the railroad bridge sighted the span of the covered bridge with the toll taker astride it, bearing down on them. A rope with a loop in the end was let down near the place where Hosea was expected to pass. As he came within hailing distance, they shouted to him.

“Get into the loop!” they cried.

And as the old hulk passed safely under the railroad bridge, Hosea got into the loop and was drawn to safety. He didn’t suffer a scratch, but he did get his pants wet.

Curiously, accounts differ as to the date this bridge collapse occurred, some saying it was 1898, others saying 1900 (and on several dates different dates in February).  I’m going to trust the New York Times contemporary account of the disaster, which mentions Mr. Keach by name, and gives the date of the incident to be Feb 15, 1900.  That story also mentions a second man, name unknown, who was not as fortunate as Mr. Keach and who was believed to have died at some point after the collapse.  By my estimates, Mr. Keach traveled about three miles by Bridge down the river.

 

 

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