The Big Four Bridge in Sidney. Although disputed, many people believe there is a man buried in one of the bridge's columns near Miami Street. This tale explores the truth of the matter.
(Photos by Matt Bayman)
An Old Mystery: Is there a Man Inside Sidney Railroad Bridge?
By Judy Deeter
SIDNEY - I remember the day I drove from Piqua to Sidney on County Road 25-A and first saw the Big Four Railroad Bridge on Sidney’s southern border. It took my breath away. I soon learned that while the bridge is outwardly beautiful, it is inwardly mysterious. Within the body of the bridge, there is believed to be the body of a man!
Railroad Havoc in Sidney
From 1853 to 1913, a railroad line ran through downtown Sidney... and it was a continual source of trouble for the community. Traffic accidents between trains and automobiles, buggies and pedestrians were common and several people were injured or killed, including several "influential" Sidney family members.
In the book Voices from the Past, author Rich Wallace writes: "The influential business community was particularly hard-hit. Within a two-year period of time, Robert Given, the owner of R. Given and Sons Tannery, and his sister, Isabella, were both killed by trains on the Big Four line. Charles Benjamin, the founder of Benjamin ‘D’ Handle Company, was also struck and seriously hurt a short time later.” (The Big Four Railroad was the name for the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis line that passed through this region).
The Flood of 1913 disrupted just about everything in Southwest Ohio, including downtown Sidney and the Big Four. Flood damage all but washed away the railroad tracks.
No Ordinary Bridge
Rather than re-build the railroad tracks in the center of town, Big Four officials decided to build a railroad bridge on the south end of town.
NOTE: Keep in mind that the Great Miami River creates a natural valley in Sidney, and there were many obstacles to building such a structure.
Rich Wallace writes in his book: "The Big Four officials did not have in mind an ordinary bridge. To effectively span the entire width of the valley required almost 14 miles of embankment. The project was slated to take two years and cost over five million dollars. There was to be a cost in human lives as well.”
The company chosen to construct the bridge was the Walsh Construction Company of Davenport, Iowa. Patrick Thomas Walsh was the company founder. He died in about 1916. It is thought that his son, Thomas, who diversified the company to build canals, tunnels and railroad terminals, was in charge of the company during the Sidney bridge was construction. The company was known for its railroad-related construction throughout the United States and hundreds of men were hired to work in Sidney on the Big Four Bridge project.
In 1918, Professor Duff Abrams of the Structural Materials Research Laboratory, Lewis Institute in Chicago published his theories about the composition and properties in concrete. According to Wikipedia, he had discovered the “relationship between the water-cement ratio and the compressive strength of concrete.” (Concrete can be made stronger or weaker by varying the amount of water in the mixture.) According the October 11, 1923 edition of the publication Engineering News Record, the Big Four Railroad Bridge was the first large project where Professor Duff’s mix design method was used. Today, the method is commonly used by concrete industry.
No Exception to the Rule
There always seems to be risks - and sometimes death - involved with building large architectural projects and the Big Four Railroad Bridge was no exception.
In June 1923, a trestle collapsed and a man named Henry Snyder of Lima was killed. His co-worker, Patrick Fitzgerald, was badly injured. The trestle was re-built and construction continued. A few months later, in January 1924, tragedy struck again when Thomas Schmidt of Sidney fell to his death from high atop a bridge abutments. According to a November 1998 story by Rich Wallace on the Shelby County Ohio Historical Society website: "In an eerie coincidence, almost a year after Henry Snyder was killed by collapsing trestle to the east of the bridge, tragedy struck the work area on the west side of the structure. On May 12, 1924, witnesses heard the shattering of wooden support braces, followed by the collapse of 125 feet of trestle. Ten loaded gondola cars tumbled to the ground carrying workers Verdit Williams and George Bennet to their deaths. Neither man was from the area. The death toll was now four."
Around midnight of June 23, 1924, someone tried to blow up the bridge. Police and company officials found that dynamite had been placed on the center span above County Road 25-A. Almost everyone in town heard the explosion and windows were broken in some city dwellings. To this day, no one knows who did it.
A Fifth Death?
Was there a fifth death at the bridge? Company officials denied anyone else died, but witnesses say that in September of 1924 another man lost his life. Supposedly, the man was a migrant worker from Mexico. Again, in the book Voices From the Past, there is testimony from Sidney resident Myron Chambers, who was a boy at the time: "The five-year-old watched as the dump cars carrying concrete were backed into place and unloaded. ‘I noticed a Mexican worker walking a two-by-ten plank across the opening of the arch,’ Mr. Chambers recalled. He vividly remembers the worker falling forward into the concrete as the board flipped up. ‘An effort was made to save him, but he was gone.’ In twenty minutes or so, they began to pour concrete again. ‘I don’t think they placed much value on the lives of those immigrant workers,” Mr. Chambers stated.
The final resting place of the Mexican worker is still in the bridge support column. The area around where the body is believed to be in the bridge has been painted green and an historical marker (pictured below) has been placed by Sprint, the Shelby County Historical Society, and the Sidney Visitors Bureau. (It is near the intersection of Main and Miami Streets.) The marker reads: "This landmark bridge was completed in September 1924 by the Walsh Construction Company for the C.C.C. & St. Louis Railroad, and hailed as a “stupendous piece of engineering work. The original Bellefontaine and Indiana line went through downtown Sidney but was rerouted to this location due in part to the 1913 flood. Construction project materials included 28,000 yards of concrete and 900,000 pounds of steel. Five men died during construction. An unidentified worker is believed to be buried in the column behind this marker."
While down through the years many people have given their support to the bridge, is one man literally in the support of the bridge? The town mystery goes on, but most Sidney resident think so!
A marker indicating where the man is allegedly buried in the Big Four Bridge.