The Bridge

by Mike Peters

Mom is very proud of her heritage.  She wears the colors of WVU, even though she never attended.  A blue and gold Starter jacket, sweatshirts and pennants are proof of her loyalty. She cheers for the Mountaineers and Marshall's Thundering Herd when either play on TV.  Those boys are from the hills!  We've got to support our own!

She also sings the West Virginia State Song every time she crosses the border into her beloved state.  I suspect that this particular day was no different.  "West Virginia Hills" was written by Ellen King and H. E. Engle.  I know the first verse and the chorus by heart, not because I learned it in school, but because Mom sang it every time we drove into West Virginia.

Mom left Columbus, Ohio, a little after noon on 15 December 1967.  It was a Friday and she was bound for Jackson County, West Virginia, to spend a weekend with her family.  She had packed the night before.  Her son was living with grandparents at the time.  Her husband had died in July and she was in Columbus, preparing to be the bread winner.

Mike attended Jackson County's Sayre School, located on old Route 21 between Goldtown and Sissonville.  The school has since been torn down.  A church was built on the site and still stands today.  It was his fifth grade year and Mr. Skeen was the teacher.

Mom was dismissed from nursing school early that day.  At about 3 p.m., she drove across the Ohio River into West Virginia.  US 35 from Gallia County, Ohio, over into Mason County, West Virginia, was the route she always took.  She enjoyed the scenery.  As usual, she crossed the bridge at Kanauga and drove over into Point Pleasant.  The Silver Bridge was an eye-bar suspension bridge that had gotten its name from the shiny silver paint that covered it.  It had been built in 1928 and was originally a toll bridge.

As she drove, her thoughts were probably on Christmas, her first in 11 years without a husband.  It was less than two weeks away and would be a lonely one.  She was also thinking of getting her own apartment.  She was living with her uncle and aunt, Charles and Frances Walker, while she attended nursing school.  Her son would live with her soon.  His sixth grade year would be spent attending Kingswood Elementary, located at the corner of King and Kenny Roads on the Northwest side of Columbus.  The family unit would be together again.

My grandpa Obert Coleman stared at the TV.  He spit the amber aftermath of Mail Pouch into a jar that once held instant coffee.  He twisted the metal lid shut on the glass spittoon and placed it on the floor, holding it between his feet.  That way, nine-month old grandson, Bobby O'Dell Casto, could not knock it over.  Grandpa only watched a few shows on TV -- Jeopardy, boxing, wrestling and the news.  But on this day, he seemed a little more attentive, as he sat and watched the nightly news from his usual place on the couch.  Mom stood to his right, in the doorway between the living room and dining room.  She held a hand over her mouth.

There were 37 vehicles on the Silver Bridge when it collapsed at 5:04 p.m.  Thirty-one of those vehicles, containing 64 people, fell into the Ohio River or onto the Ohio Shore.  Of the 64, 46 died.  Two of the bodies were never found.  Nine others were seriously injured.  There were people on the bridge that day from Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia.

I tried to think optimistically.  Cars could float for a while.  People could swim to shore.  Grandpa Coleman then reminded me of the water temperature and about the weight of the steel that fell from above.  I considered it a miracle that 18 survived.  I remember one lady, who was interviewed a short time after she saw the tragedy unfold in her rearview mirror.  She had just made it across. She said it looked like the cars behind her were all driving in reverse.  She thought it was a dream, but instead witnessed a nightmare--cars falling from the sky and plunging into the cold December waters of the Ohio River.

I recently scanned the list of dead for people whose surnames I research.  I found Melvinn Cantrell of Gallipolis Ferry, West Virginia, and Thomas A. Cantrell of Gallipolis, Ohio.  There was also Frederick Miller of Gallipolis.  None of the names rang a bell.  I also noticed Maxine Sturgeon of Kanauga, Ohio.  That is one of my wife's family names.

One name grabbed me by the lapels and would not let me go.  It caught my attention and kept it.  His was not a surname that I study.  James Hawkins lived in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.  He may have been a trucker, may have drove the big rigs.  But in my mind, he was in a car and had left work or school in Columbus to visit family in West Virginia, like my mother.   They drove from the same area on the same day.  They traveled the same route.  Whatever the scenario, she made it across the bridge.  He didn't.  Timing is everything.

Mom could have been on that bridge when it fell, had she left Columbus at her usual time or stayed around to run a few errands.  I was very fortunate.  I had lost Dad earlier in the year. The year 1967 could have been known as the year that orphaned me.  Many other families weren't as lucky.

After the collapse of the Silver Bridge, we were forced to find alternate routes into West Virginia. I-70 east out of Columbus took us to I-77 south where we crossed from Marietta, Ohio, over into Williamstown, West Virginia.  Route 33 south out of Lancaster, Ohio, took us to Pomeroy, Ohio, where we crossed over into Mason, West Virginia.

It was a couple of years before they built a new bridge in the Point Pleasant area.  When they did, we stopped and looked at the rusting skeletal remains of a bridge once so bright with aluminum paint.  There was a short silence, a brief prelude to Mom's boastful rendition of the state song.  She is proud to be called a hillbilly or a ridge runner and is most grateful for a second chance to roam her "West Virginia Hills."

    Oh, the West Virginia hills!  How majestic and how grand,
    With their summits bathed in glory, like our Prince Immanuel's Land!
    Is it any wonder then, that my heart with rapture thrills,
    As I stand once more with loved ones on those West Virginia hills?

    Oh, the hills, beautiful hills.  How I love the West Virginia hills!
    If o'er sea o'er land I roam, still I think of happy home,
    and my friends among the West Virginia hills.

You tell 'em Mom!

Sincerely,

Mike Peters
npeters102@aol.com

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