It was the end of a long day’s work on the Quebec Bridge on August 29, 1907. Over 400 men were working on constructing the bridge, which sprawled across the St. Lawrence River. It was supposed to be one of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering, and was set to be the longest bridge in the world. Instead, it’s remembered as one of the world’s most tragic engineering failures.
Seventy-six men died that day, as the bridge came crashing down, plunging tons of steel into the river. Of those men, 33 were from Kahnawake. It’s still unclear precisely how or why the bridge fell, but what is known is the devastating impact the disaster had on the community.
“The village was so small at the time. There’s an assumption that there were only between 1,600 to 2,000 people,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Peggy Mayo-Standup, who has been involved in memorials for the tragedy over the past years. “If you look at this smaller community, that’s 33 families affected by this. It wasn’t just 33 men that died. There’s many people that got hurt in the process.”
News of the disaster reached home quickly, but information was spotty. With vast numbers of men in the community working as ironworkers, it was unclear who had been working at the time, and whether there were any survivors.
“There was only one telephone in Kahnawake, and someone called and told what happened, and the word spread in the community by word of mouth. They just knew that the bridge fell with many men on it,” Mayo-Standup said. “A lot of the women, as much as they could get, went on the train to Quebec City, and a lot of them when they got there found out that it was their husbands, or their sons, or their brothers, or their fathers. They brought back 18 bodies. But some were never recovered.”
The bodies were brought back to Kahnawake and buried in a row at the Catholic Cemetery. Soon afterwards, steel from the bridge was brought back to Kahnawake, and constructed into permanent memorial structures; one stands at the entrance to the cemetery. Crosses were also constructed with the steel, which are now within the cemetery and at the east and west sides of the village. Those crosses are still maintained, with lights changed regularly that shine in remembrance of each of the men who died.
“There were a lot of children who grew up without a father. A lot of women who lost husbands,” Mayo-Standup said. “It had long-term impacts. major impacts in our community.”
Since then, the face of ironwork has changed. Mayo-Standup said that at the time, the women of the community got together, and swore that a tragedy of this scale would never happen again. They made sure that their families were not all working on the same job at any one time.
“Apparently they’ve stuck to it, even to this day. You don’t see all the men in the same job,” Mayo-Standup said. “It changed the trajectory of our workers for the future. If a lady had seven sons, they’re not all going to the same job. And that was instilled in their brain.”
In 2007, the community came together to mark 100 years since the tragedy. At the time, Kahnawa’kehró:non Cathy Rice and Connie Meloche were heavily involved in the Quebec Bridge Anniversary Committee, who installed a memorial located by the bike path that borders the St. Lawrence River. The site was chosen because it’s one of the few areas in the community where you can see the St. Lawrence River unobstructed by the St. Lawrence Seaway.
“If you look directly behind the memorial, it points out to the river, it’s pointing directly there,” said Cathy Rice, explaining that the memorial is meant to acknowledge those whose bodies were not recovered, as well as those who were able to be brought home. “It’s not just a fixture sitting there. There’s a lot of meaning as to why it was placed in that location.”
The large obelisk-shaped memorial monument bears the image of each man who died that day, with a path that continues to a 40 feet-tall steel replica of the bridge that was completed before it fell. Signage at the entrance to the memorial tells the complete story of what happened that day, with plaques that have each man’s family members and etched portrait surrounding the granite monument.
“The thing that I remember is the power of our community, and of our resilience,” said Meloche about the memorial at the time. “We did a lot of talking to people, to get their accounts, their memories, whatever it was that they knew about the bridge disaster, and what came up the most was those people they left behind.”
Meloche explained that the effects of the disaster are enduring. Many family members of those affected ended up in residential school.
“I had a great-great-aunt who lost her husband there and her children were sent to residential school, and they never came home,” Meloche said. “There’s still that hardship. There’s still that piece.”
Meloche and Rice both emphasized the importance of never forgetting the history of what happened.
“When Connie and I got into this, we thought, people are starting to forget about the tragedy in the community. When it was revived, people knew very little,” Rice said. “I remember one lady say that she never knew why her father never talked about his brother, because his brother died there. And she said that now, she understood.”
Rice said that while remembering the tragedy fills her with overwhelming sadness, she also wants to celebrate the resilience of the community coming together.
“We bind together, and help each other,” she said.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, August 25, in issue 32.34 of The Eastern Door.