Buffalo Grain Elevator Preserve - Table of Contents   ............... Waterfront - Table of Contents..............  
Ohio Street and Michigan Avenue Vertical Lift Bridges,
including the Tewksbury Incident

By Dennis Galucki and Chuck LaChiusa
Center for the Study of Art, Architecture, History and Nature

On this page, below:

Ohio Street Vertical Lift Bridge

Michigan Avenue Vertical Lift Bridge

Tewksbury Incident

Ohio Street Bridge

This bridge was completed in 1962 and is "tower driven." The machinery to move the cables attached to the counterweights is located at the top of towers at either end, shrouded in a metal covering.

The first bridge: The first public Ohio St. Bridge was built in 1866 and was, like its downstream cousins, a swing bridge. The bridge swung about a turntable on a pier built in the middle of the stream.

The second bridge: With vessels getting wider and riverfront property getting more valuable, the city of Buffalo was forced to replace the old swing bridge to keep up with economic forces. In 1904 the city built the world's first bascule of the Brown design (bascule, French for seesaw, meaning a bridge so balanced that when one end is lowered, the other is raised).

The present bridge: After almost 60 years of use, the Brown bascule was replaced by the current vertical lift span. The vertical lift bridge offers significant advantages over bascules, the major one being cost.The counterweights merely have to equal the weight of the span, whereas bascule counterweights generally weigh two to three times the weight of the roadway to be lifted. Further, since the floor of the span always remains horizontal, any kind of pavement can be used (the Ohio St. Bridge's is steel deck). Lastly, should the grade level of the approaching roadways be changed, it is a relatively simple matter to adjust the draw to fit the new grades, without having to move any machinery or the towers themselves.

- Text source: Buffalo's Waterfront: A Guidebook, by Tim Tielman

Ohio Street Bridge

Ohio Street Bridge over the Buffalo River

Ohio Street Bridge

Ohio Street Bridge

Ohio Street Bridge

Ohio Street Bridge

Ohio Street Bridge

Ohio Street Bridge

Michigan Avenue Bridge

The first recorded bridge was built in 1873, while the current vertical lift bridge was opened in 1960., replicating a 1933 design that was destroyed in a shipping accident.

- Text source: Buffalo's Waterfront: A Guidebook, by Tim Tielman

Michigan Avenue Bridge

Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Buffalo River

Michigan Avenue Bridge ... Marine Midland Bank/HSBC Center

Michigan Avenue Bridge

Michigan Avenue Bridge


Tewksbury Incident to be remembered Saturday in South Buffalo’s River Fest Park
By Anne Neville
The Buffalo News, September 5, 2013

It isn’t mid-January, but the images of a solid wall of storm-powered ice that shoved a massive lake freighter into the Michigan Avenue lift bridge, destroying it and causing a huge flood of icy water into homes in South Buffalo, the Old First Ward and the Valley, will be on everyone’s minds Saturday.

A program of story, songs and displays called “Ghost Ships and the Flood: Remembering the Tewksbury Incident” will commemorate the community-wide crisis that happened on Jan. 21, 1959.

The Tewksbury Incident remains an unforgettable event to those who lived through it on Jan. 21, 1959. After days of extreme cold and heavy snow packed the Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek with ice, a sudden thaw and wind-driven rain on Jan. 21 broke up the ice, and about 10 p.m. the pressure of the shifting floes snapped the mooring lines of the freighter MacGilvray Shiras, which was tied up for the winter beside the Concrete Central Elevator [Continental Grain elevators] at the foot of Smith Street. The MacGilvray Shiras, the length of a football field, drifted downriver, somehow navigating the sharp turn opposite Smith Street before ramming the Michael K. Tewksbury, which was tied up at the Standard Elevator, near the foot of St. Clair Street.

Both boats passed beneath the Ohio Street bridge, which was raised for the winter, but the bridge crew, taking a break in the Swannie House, could not raise the Michigan Avenue bridge in time. The Tewksbury smashed into the bridge at 11:17 p.m., demolishing it, and wedging itself across the river. The flow of frigid water and ice spilled into the neighborhood, flooding an 18-block area.

It took years for the Tewksbury case to work its way through the courts, with plenty of lawsuits filed and finger-pointing. Besides the two bridge-keepers who had to scramble from the Swannie House to the bridge in an attempt to raise it, investigators found that the Tewksbury’s watchman was away from his post and on shore with a lady friend when the freighter broke free.

At the event in 2009, Overdorf said, a “little lady came in and told her, “‘You know the guy who was supposed to be tending the boat that broke loose? That was my husband! He was up on land with the girlfriend!’ It was 50 years later, and she was as bitter as she must have been when she found out. She said she couldn’t stay, and she walked out. I never got her name, and I have no idea who she was.”


Ghost Ships and The Flood
 Buffalo Rising, September 6, 2013

On the brisk night of January 21st, 1959, members of the Michigan Avenue bridge crew also came to find out how the end of an ordinary work day could turn into anything but ordinary in a matter of seconds.

The MacGilvray Shiras, one of many great lakes freighters routinely moored up for the winter, patiently waited the annual thawing of the waterways. Owned by The Kinsman Marine Transit Company (which is, yes, owned by the Steinbrenner family), Shiras sat in the Buffalo River by the Continental Grain elevators at the base of Smith Street just like any other night.

The clock approached 11 P.M. as the Michigan Avenue bridge crew allegedly finished up their drinks at the nearby Swannie House, one of the oldest taverns in Buffalo (Est. 1886 and still serving). There was a staff shift to take place on the hour. Whether it be a significant other, an entire family, or even something as humble as a bed to rest their backs on after a long day’s work, it can be assumed that these men were looking forward to getting off work and going home.

The roots of St. Clair Street moored another freight, named The Michael K. Tewksbury. For the owner of the ship, as well as the men about to get off work, it was just like any other night: the freights were unmanned, the river was tranquil, and anyone with a financial stake in the freighting industry could not ask for the ice to melt any quicker.

Three miles from the Shiras, five miles from the Tewksbury, six miles from the bridge, an ice jam in Cazenovia Creek broke loose, literally dumping excess water and fragmented ice right out into the Buffalo River.

First, the Shiras. This massive influx of everything cold had its way with the freight upon impact, causing the ship to “dead-man.” In old Irish sea terminology, this commonly refers to the wires and cables securing anything from the masts to, in this case, the vessel itself coming undone. Back when thick ropes where implored, you could picture the ensuing chaos of one of the main masts starting to collapse, giving the term “dead-man” some validity (because if the crew did survive, whoever’s poor skills where behind the lazily secured ropes and cables were as good as dead). Alas, this is not the time of the explorers such as Columbus; we use extremely high-tension cables. And, just like those ropes that held up those masts, these came undone. They flailed through the cold Buffalo night air by no one’s will other than physics, one after another. Each powerful whiplash of freshly snapped high-tension wire allowed the monster to descend that much faster down the river.

Next was the Tewksbury. Shiras hit her just right, merely uprooting her and taking her with him. The sound of the collision was the gunshot that commenced the head-to-head race between the two freights to the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

Word finally began to spread about these unmanned ships careening down the Buffalo River and local authorities were notified. Naturally, Mother Nature already plotted the ship’s trajectory; the only thing anyone could do was make sure that nothing was in its path.

The Buffalo Fire Department called the bridge station to inform them that they needed to raise it. The phone rang but to no avail as the staff was finishing up their drinks across the street.

When efforts were finally made to try to raise the bridge it was just too late. Shortly after 11 P.M. the two freights collided head on with the structure, causing a pile up of gargantuan proportions.

Two banged up ships, both over 400 feet long, and the remains of a bridge now sat in a channel roughly 175 feet long. The water and ice quickly overcame this accidental dam and proceeded to flood out the entire historic “Old First Ward District.” Thankfully there were no casualties.

After the Tewksbury disaster ... Details below:
Photo courtesy of the Swannie House restaurant

Note mangled bridge remains next to the Tewksbury

Note mangled bridge remains next to the Tewksbury ... The Shiras  is next to the "Tewksbury"

See also:

Photos and their arrangement 2004 Chuck LaChiusa
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