By Stephen D. Bowling
January 8, 1906 – The fireman held Mrs. Morgan tightly and would not permit her to jump. The engine had just cleared the pillar, and the tender was hanging with the back suspended above the river. Mrs. Morgan was certain they were all about to die. The sounds of twisting metal and the screams from 45 feet below could be heard as they echoed across the valley in the freshly fallen snow.
Without warning, the central span of the Kentucky Lumber & Veneer Company Railroad bridge across the Kentucky River at the mouth of Panbowl Branch collapsed a few minutes after 1:00 p.m on Monday, January 8, 1906.
The dinky train headed for Jackson crossed Frozen Hill from Camp Christy. The train and its five loaded, flat-bed cars moved slowly around the curve and the bridge. The engine was at full-stream coming down the mountain. It started to slow to cross the bridge. The engine and tender crossed the bridge and had just passed over the north pier when the bridge collapsed into the frigid waters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
The train was not filled with passengers since it was primarily a log and freight train, but several people had taken advantage of the trip to “catch” a ride. In the engine were the brakeman and engineer, Mrs. Charles Morgan, two of her children, and her sister-in-law. Several riders sat on the flat cars as the train rumbled along.
Simon Ison, an African-American passenger, had both of his legs broken just above the ankle in the drop. Frank Robinson suffered severe internal injuries and was bleeding from the mouth when he was pulled from the rubble. John Caudill, the train’s conductor, was struck in the head by a metal bar and was rendered unconscious for some time. Three other passengers received minor cuts and scrapes, and several “others received a serious shock.”
The accident, which happened about a mile and a half from Jackson, was a major shock to many. Workmen from the Indiana Bridge Company completed the Kentucky Lumber Bridge in 1903 to connect the lumber camps of the K.L. & V Company some 9 miles away and the city of Jackson. The bridge had been in constant use for more than three years. The truss-style structure boasted one of the longest, all-metal spans to cross the Kentucky River in eastern Kentucky.
The Kentucky Lumber & Veneer Company first established an office in Breathitt County in November 1901 and purchased several timber tracts. The company was created in September 1901 when a group of investors in Akron, Ohio, pooled their money and started operations with $200,000 in capital cutting poplar and oak.
The investors recruited Mr. R. S. Thomas, former Superintendent of the Akron schools system, to serve as the General Manager and Secretary. Henry C. Christy, of the Colonial National Bank, served as the K. L. & V. Company President. They established two centers of operation- one at a new community they called Camp Christy in honor of its president and a lumber camp at Robbins on Hawes Fork named for a significant investor.
A messenger on horseback rushed from the scene to Jackson. He alerted every doctor in town. As the doctors made their way to the Panbowl Bridge, neighbors and unharmed passengers started moving the injured from the tracks to the home of James Roberts a few hundred yards from the bridge.
Workmen from Camp Christy camps arrived to secure the engine to prevent the train and tender from toppling off the eastern pier. The crews also started clearing the tracks and debris. The next day, surveying crews were at the bridge preparing to rebuild. Over the next two weeks, crews worked three shifts per day to rebuild the vital structure so that lumber from the camps could again be transported to the Lexington & Eastern line at Jackson.
While the injured recovered, the reconstructed bridge reopened the last week of March. Trains loaded with fresh-cut lumber again pulled up the backside of Frozen hill and rolled down into Jackson. The company reported that the new, state-of-the-art bridge had cost more than $8,000 to reconstruct.
During the night of March 30, 1906, heavy rain poured down on the hillside along the Kentucky River. The river rose quickly and left its banks. By March 31, the river gauges at Jackson showed an 18-foot rise. Thousands of logs sat tied together in rafts on the banks, waiting for the river level to drop.
A raft of logs from some point upstream broke loose and headed downstream with the full force of the raging river pushing the timbers. Shortly after midnight, the raft struck the reconstructed bridge and knocked the newly constructed central span off the pillars and into the raging torrent. There were no injuries in the second collapse.
The expense of the bridge and the difficulty in finding large, standing hardwoods in the Frozen Valley ultimately spelled the doom of the Panbowl Bridge. Kentucky Lumber & Veneer Company officials decided to cut their losses and announced that the bridge would not be rebuilt. Soon after, the company closed its satellite camps and reduced the size of its Breathitt County operations. By 1909, the company advertised much of the property they owned or leased in the Frozen Valley for sale. They continued lumbering for several more years before eventually ceasing operations.
The tracks were removed. The steep grade turned into Highway 15 in the 1920s and the legend of passing yourself on the curvey drive was born. Nothing of the old bridge remains today except the single photograph of the collapse. The city that grew up at Camp Christy is just a memory, and the K.L. & V. left only scars in the valley of Frozen. The only reminder of the saga of the Panbowl Bridge is the long winding ascent from the mouth of Panbowl to the valley floor beyond that we know as Highway 1812 over Frozen Mountain.
© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling.