Content Tools

The collapse of the Silver Bridge at Gallapolis, Ohio, with the loss of many lives, recalled to many McLean countians one bridge collapse in McLean which resulted in the death of a Beech Grove resident.

It happened on a hot July day in 1911.

In those days, there was a large acreage of wheat grown along the Daviess-McLean border. That, of course, was before the days of combines. The wheat was threshed by a bulky machine called a 'separator' (it separated the grain from the straw and husks) or commonly called a 'thresher.' The separator was drawn from farm to farm by a ponderous and slow steam tractor. Then when the thresher arrived at a 'set' where it would operate, the power for the separator was furnished by a belt from the steam engine's pulley.

Hauling the bundles of wheat or rye from the shocks in the field to the thresher set required several wagons and considerable labor. Therefore, the farmers in a neighborhood would have an informal agreement to swap work and help each other at threshing time.

When a thresher man arrived in a neighborhood, he would get to thresh all the grain of the farmers in that neighborhood who were working together.

This system was in operation in the hours that proceeded the event of 57 years ago.

In the area of Guffie, Kentucky two threshers were operating that day. One was owned by Dude Cox of Cleopatra, Kentucky. The other was owned by Floyd Prewitt, a Negro who lived near Beech Grove.

Cox was threshing on the east side of the Guffie crossroads. Prewitt was finishing in the north side of the crossroads. But the wheat on the west side of Guffie was waiting to be threshed. The first set was at Bill Stiles' farm. The first one to get there would get all the work in the neighborhood, which included a number of large farms.

Both of the thresher men finished about the same time, and the race to Guffie crossroads was on. With governors off and throttles open the steam engines and the trailing separators bumped along the dusty country roads at a high speed of five miles an hour or maybe even more!

Cox won the race to the crossroads by just a few feet. He headed west to the Stiles farm. Prewitt, having lost the race for the West Guffie neighborhood, would have no threshing to do there. There was nothing for him to do but head for home at Beech Grove. His son, Alney, about 22 years old, was driving the steam engine.

Just west of the Green River RECC substation is a branch of Long Fall Creek. There was an old wooden bridge across the creek where a modern concrete bridge now spans the stream. Many of the wooden bridges of those times would not support a steam engine. Frequently it would be necessary to stop and put braces under the bridge before crossing it.

Knowing these facts, Jess Fulkerson drove his wagon down to the bridge as the thresher outfit aproached it, with some posts for braces in the wagon. Jess, then a 23-year-old bachelor, was working at the John Hancock farm (where Arthur Jordan now lives.)

The elder Prewitt wanted to stop and brace the bridge. But his son, disappointed in losing the race to Guffie-and the dependent businesswas impatient. He decided to cross without waiting to brace it.

Looking at the bridge, he decided that the right side was the weakest and if the bridge was to break down it would throw the engine to the right. So he propped his feet up on the tool boxes so he could jump free if the engine fell to the right.

Thinking he was prepared, he started to cross the bridge.

When the engine reached the middle of the bridge, it broke. But it fell to the left instead of the right, and Alney was not able to jump clear. The steam engine turned over on its left side, with Alney under it. There was no water in the creek, and the driver fell right in the creek bed, so he was not mashed by the engine. But, unfortunately a steam pipe punched through Alney's thigh and pinned him under the tractor. The steam pipes broke loose, and steam and boiling water burned him.

Scared by the accident, the elder Prewitt did not know what to do. Alney told him to hold the fire-box shovel beside to ward off the steam. Seeing that the victim could not get out Fulkerson ran up the hill to the Hancock place and got a Diston hand saw. (Few farms were equipped with metal-cutting hack saws in those days.)

The pain from the burns was so intense that Alney begged some of the bystanders to knock him in the head with the axe to put him out of his misery.

Jess ran back to the bridge and sawed the pipe that had Prewitt pinned down. He then lifted Prewitt out from under the engine and up the creek bank.

There, as Jess remembers, 'Alney prayed as pretty a prayer as I ever heard.' Although out from under the hot engine, Prewitt was not safe. He was seriously burned all around his body, and of course suffering from the pierced leg.

Fulkerson ran back to Hancock's again, where Mrs. Hancock gave him some bed sheets to wrap Prewitt's wounds. Then some of the men who had gathered carried the injured man to the Lloyd Leachman farm (then occupied by Dave Glover) where there was a cabin occupied by a Negro farm hand.

But their efforts were fruitless, for as they turned in the gate at Glover's Prewitt died.

Dr. Hugh W. Gates, who had been called to treat Prewitt, arrived after he died. He said it was the burns that killed Prewitt, and not the leg injuries.

Today, 57 years later, Jess still has) the saw he used to cut the steam pipe and memories of the tragic day which produced McLean's only bridge fatality.

(This was sent in by Vaden Troutman, Route 3, Utica, Ky. Vaden got permission from Clyde Wills of the county weekly paper to reprint same. Our thanks to both these men. ANNA MAE