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Author Topic: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987  (Read 14484 times)

xcellntbuy

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Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« on: April 04, 2012, 08:43:55 PM »

When I was a much younger man living in upstate New York, the collapse of this bridge in the early morning hours of April 5, 1987 was QUITE an event and a horrific disaster.  Ten people died.  The last body was found 27 months later.

I had crossed that bridge on the Thruway many times going to and from graduate school at Syracuse University, just a few years before.  I had traveled up to the post-collapse site a couple of weeks after the swollen Creek had subsided and the Thruway Authority opened a temporary exit just west of Amsterdam to move traffic onto NY 5S, upcreek to the north.  The detour lasted 13 months until a new partial span was opened.

Wikipedia has the most widely available black and white photo of the aftermath on its website.  It was quite chilling to see first hand, no bridge, piles of pavement and steel folded into the Creek with just the double steel guiderail swinging in the strong breeze between the two sides of what was the missing bridge.  Not something anyone would forget.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schoharie_Creek_Bridge_collapse
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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #1 on: April 05, 2012, 06:20:07 PM »

I first heard about this on an installment of "Engineering Disasters" on the History Channel.  Bridges found there way onto that show a number of times and I just love the idea of learning so much from a catastrophe that it never happens like that again.  In this case, it changed the way bridge piles were inspected to look for scour in the sediment.

It's also a lesson in how a stream reacts when its floodplain is artificially narrowed in some way.  At high discharges, the stream responds by increasing its velocity and in turn, the amount and size of sediment it can mobilize.  Now if we force that stream through a narrower channel because of an embankment approaching a bridge, for example, that further amplifies the sediment transport capacity.  So we need bridge piles that are deeper than the stream's capability to scour at high discharge and/or (preferable 'and') longer spans that won't concentrate the energy of the stream as much.

It's a stark reminder that any impediments we create for flowing water, no matter how impressive or how routine, are geologically temporary.
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Dougtone

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #2 on: April 06, 2012, 06:20:14 AM »

I had meant to post this yesterday, but the Albany Times-Union has a good article on remembering the bridge collapse.
http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/25-years-ago-the-bridge-was-gone-3460076.php

xcellntbuy

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #3 on: April 06, 2012, 11:16:54 AM »

I remember those Albany Times-Union photos very well. 
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SignBridge

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #4 on: July 19, 2012, 07:42:18 PM »

I remember this very well. The 1980's were a bad era in toll road bridge collapses. Only a few years earlier in 1983 a similar collapse occured on the Connectict Turnpike (I-95) near Greenwich, later found to be partly the result of poor maintenance and questionable (pin and hanger)design.

The NY Thruway bridge collapse was also found to be at least partly caused by inadequate design. In the Thruway Authority's case they were trying to build a very ambitious 600 mile system and apparently built their bridges as cheaply as possible. Many people are surprised today that the Tappen Zee Bridge was supposedly built with only a 50 year lifespan in mind.

In contrast the New Jersey Turnpike Authority which was building a much smaller system of only 118 miles originally was able to spare no expense to build the highest quality possible, and continues that trend to this day. Admittedly, it must be easier to spend more money for better quality when you're building a much smaller project.  Maybe the NY Thuway tried to accomplish too much, too fast for its time.
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Mr. Matté

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #5 on: July 20, 2012, 12:38:46 AM »

Just some questions about the area, not the bridge itself:

From aerial and ground photos, it's pretty obvious what the eastern temporary approach to the NY 5S and former railroad bridges were from the Thruway but where was the western approach routed? They were pretty good at digging up the pavement and grading for that side.

On the most recent aerial photos on Google Earth of the NY 5S bridge, it looks like that railroad bridge once used by the Thruway is being prepared (may already be in service) to carry NY 5S traffic. Next to the 5S bridge, it looks like the bridge was converted to handle one lane at a time with traffic lights at each end allowing one-directional movement at a time. Anyone know anything more about the timeline of events regarding this bridge? It probably has something to do with the flooding of the creek during Hurricane Irene which destroyed some older bridges upstream.
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Dougtone

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #6 on: July 20, 2012, 06:56:40 AM »

Just some questions about the area, not the bridge itself:

From aerial and ground photos, it's pretty obvious what the eastern temporary approach to the NY 5S and former railroad bridges were from the Thruway but where was the western approach routed? They were pretty good at digging up the pavement and grading for that side.

On the most recent aerial photos on Google Earth of the NY 5S bridge, it looks like that railroad bridge once used by the Thruway is being prepared (may already be in service) to carry NY 5S traffic. Next to the 5S bridge, it looks like the bridge was converted to handle one lane at a time with traffic lights at each end allowing one-directional movement at a time. Anyone know anything more about the timeline of events regarding this bridge? It probably has something to do with the flooding of the creek during Hurricane Irene which destroyed some older bridges upstream.

I want to say that the Thruway detour followed NY 5S for a few miles and the western approach was actually in Fultonville, but to be honest, I am not sure.  Based on what I've seen on NY 5S, that may make the most sense.  Perhaps the western approach was closer to the Martyr's Shrine in Auriesville, but I have not seen evidence as such.

As for the NY 5S alignment switching to the railroad bridge over the Schoharie Creek, that has happened and it looks like it was a permanent switch.  The now old NY 5S bridge is now being used as a recreational bridge for pedestrian and bicycle traffic for the Canalway Trail.

vdeane

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #7 on: July 20, 2012, 11:34:17 AM »

I remember this very well. The 1980's were a bad era in toll road bridge collapses. Only a few years earlier in 1983 a similar collapse occured on the Connectict Turnpike (I-95) near Greenwich, later found to be partly the result of poor maintenance and questionable (pin and hanger)design.

The NY Thruway bridge collapse was also found to be at least partly caused by inadequate design. In the Thruway Authority's case they were trying to build a very ambitious 600 mile system and apparently built their bridges as cheaply as possible. Many people are surprised today that the Tappen Zee Bridge was supposedly built with only a 50 year lifespan in mind.

In contrast the New Jersey Turnpike Authority which was building a much smaller system of only 118 miles originally was able to spare no expense to build the highest quality possible, and continues that trend to this day. Admittedly, it must be easier to spend more money for better quality when you're building a much smaller project.  Maybe the NY Thuway tried to accomplish too much, too fast for its time.
The Thruway was also built in the middle of the Korean War during a steel shortage.  That's why the Tappan Zee was built the way it was, and probably explains the other bridges as well.  The Schoharie Creek Bridge's problem wasn't so much that it was built cheap but that the designers ignored local knowledge of how the creek floods in the spring.
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cpzilliacus

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #8 on: July 20, 2012, 12:20:43 PM »

I first heard about this on an installment of "Engineering Disasters" on the History Channel.  Bridges found there way onto that show a number of times and I just love the idea of learning so much from a catastrophe that it never happens like that again.  In this case, it changed the way bridge piles were inspected to look for scour in the sediment.

I saw that episode as well. Pretty educational to me (as a non-civil engineer).

It's also a lesson in how a stream reacts when its floodplain is artificially narrowed in some way.  At high discharges, the stream responds by increasing its velocity and in turn, the amount and size of sediment it can mobilize.  Now if we force that stream through a narrower channel because of an embankment approaching a bridge, for example, that further amplifies the sediment transport capacity.  So we need bridge piles that are deeper than the stream's capability to scour at high discharge and/or (preferable 'and') longer spans that won't concentrate the energy of the stream as much.

What you say makes plenty of sense.  Maryland's new Route 200 toll road has extra-long bridges over the streams that it crosses to reduce environmental impact, but you mention several additional good reasons for building bridges long (spanning much or all of the floodplain, not just the stream itself) and high, even over "small" streams.

It's a stark reminder that any impediments we create for flowing water, no matter how impressive or how routine, are geologically temporary.

Agreed.  Even dams can fail (though fortunately,few have, at least so far - the scariest near-failure (or near-overtopping) I can remember both involve the large Conowingo Dam over the lower Susquehanna River - once in 1972 during Hurricane Agnes, and again during a freak winter thaw in January of 1996 after a lot of snow had fallen upstream). 

Speaking of dams, I only recently figured out that one of the New York City water supply dams impounds Schoharie Creek some distance upstream from the Thruway (Google Maps here), and diverts some percentage of its waters into a aqueduct, ultimately bound for the city.
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empirestate

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #9 on: July 20, 2012, 08:44:45 PM »

I will always remember this event. My parents and brothers were on a westbound trip on the Thruway, homeward to Rochester where my sister and I awaited them along with a sitter. They were among the first half-dozen cars that didn't go over the brink after the span collapsed, and they were delayed several hours while police rerouted traffic. Of course, this was before cell phones and the internet, so we didn't know why they were delayed until they finally got home; the bright side is that news didn't travel as quickly so we weren't aware of the incident to worry about their safety. They credit my brother having to run to the bathroom just as they were trying to leave for the trip, and to this day, last-minute bathroom runs are always permitted in my family!

On my site I have an aerial photo of the area showing the eastern temp roadway and the paved railroad bridge as used during the detour: http://empirestateroads.com/week/week67.html

I'm also not sure where the western temp roadway was.

EDIT: Now that I look more into it, I'm a bit unsure of the timeline of detours myself. I remember being diverted onto local roads before the detour was built, and I remember a later trip using the temp roadway and the NY 5S (?) bridge. I don't remember whether EB Thruway traffic used 5S while WB used the railroad bridge, or if 5S was shifted to the railroad bridge and all Thruway traffic used 5S. I wrote on my page that both scenarios were used at different stages, but I'm second guessing that now. I did find this article discussing the detour while it was under construction:
http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1917&dat=19870627&id=RhAhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Y3IFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4067,6887772
« Last Edit: July 20, 2012, 11:14:36 PM by empirestate »
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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #10 on: July 21, 2012, 12:28:31 AM »

Just some questions about the area, not the bridge itself:

From aerial and ground photos, it's pretty obvious what the eastern temporary approach to the NY 5S and former railroad bridges were from the Thruway but where was the western approach routed? They were pretty good at digging up the pavement and grading for that side.

I want to say that the Thruway detour followed NY 5S for a few miles and the western approach was actually in Fultonville, but to be honest, I am not sure.  Based on what I've seen on NY 5S, that may make the most sense.  Perhaps the western approach was closer to the Martyr's Shrine in Auriesville, but I have not seen evidence as such.

Here's what we're after: I found a 25th anniversary retrospective from the Amsterdam Recorder, featuring both an aerial and ground level photo of the detour, along with a contemporaneous map. (That's interesting because it shows a pre-detour detour labeled Interchange 27A.)

http://assets.mediaspanonline.com/prod/7898824/04062012_A01.pdf

and to follow the page jump:

http://assets.mediaspanonline.com/prod/7898833/04062012_A09.pdf

So the western approach was basically a mirror-image of the eastern, but it was the part located on the contentious Mr. Dufel's property, who protested the detour across his land and was overruled. But the Thruway obviously did hold up its promise to restore his land to its former condition: there isn't the slightest trace left in aerial photos or on the ground today. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that occurred before his death.
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Alps

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #11 on: July 21, 2012, 02:05:49 AM »

Now that's interesting - (Doug and) I had thought I-90 followed a two-lane approach across the 5S bridge and back, while 5S was rerouted onto the old RR bridge, now a snowmobile trail. But apparently I-90 used BOTH bridges and 5S was killed on both ends. Page editing time.

EDIT: edited
« Last Edit: July 21, 2012, 02:20:08 AM by Steve »
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Mr. Matté

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #12 on: July 21, 2012, 09:20:03 AM »

Wow, pretty interesting. Thanks for finding those articles!
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Jim

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #13 on: July 21, 2012, 10:00:53 AM »

As a high school junior living in Amsterdam at the time, I remember the collapse very well.  There was some sort of event at the high school that morning, and I first heard about the collapse while there.  It wasn't until afternoon that the scope of it became more clear to me.  It's one thing to see pictures and video of a disaster but it's another when it's in a familiar place.  I remember driving out toward Fonda on NY 5 to look across the river at that area, and then across to Fort Hunter Road, just off NY 5S, which is the overpass just up the hill on the east side of the Thruway from the Schoharie Creek.  It was a popular spot to go to look at the surreal scene -- the empty Thruway heading down the hill, then simply disappearing just beyond emergency vehicles, where the bridge was supposed to be, then reappearing undamaged on the other side.

As seen in the Recorder article posted upthread, the local traffic problems were pretty nasty between the time of the collapse and the construction of the detours onto the 5S and railroad bridges downstream.  I worked at a small pet shop on West Main Street in Amsterdam, just west of where the NY 5 "arterial" in Amsterdam ends for a short 2-lane run along West Main before expanding back to 4 lanes in Fort Johnson.  There was traffic like I had never seen before or since.  Nonstop.  After a time, more traffic took longer detours like US 20, but at first, everyone was dumped onto 5 between Amsterdam and Fonda.

I also remember taking the detours once they were complete: travelling along the familiar Thruway, then a very unfamilar ramp to get down to the bridges, familiar bridges (at least the 5S one), then another unfamilar ramp back up to the Thruway.  The ramp on the west side did cut right across very rich farmland, as it was on a flood plain near the confluence of the Schoharie Creek and Mohawk River.  There was talk that the farmland would never be the same again, but it did seem to recover and the farmstands were reopened.

Last summer's floods following Tropical Storms Irene and Lee brought back more memories and some similar traffic problems.  As the Schoharie Creek was destroying everything in its path and the Mohawk was experiencing record flooding, many roads were closed.  This included all crossings of the Schoharie Creek.  Once again, traffic intending to take the Thruway was being routed into Amsterdam and nearby areas.  This time, it couldn't just be routed onto NY 5, as many parts of that were also under water.

The flooding in 2011 had very significant effects on the farmland that was previously used by the Thruway detour ramps.  The creek was so high that it was passing under the Thruway overpass of Route 5S in addition to the Schoharie Creek bridge.  All sorts of debris were littered on that farmland.  I have a few pictrues of this at http://www.teresco.org/pics/flood-20111015/  As of last month, Karen's Produce (the old Dufel's, I believe) is back up and running, but there was no sign of activity at Pines, my long-time favorite place to pick up sweet corn...

The flood also damaged the Route 5S bridge again.  It was determined that it was easier to improve the railroad bridge and abandon (to the bike route that formerly used the railroad bridge) the 5S bridge.  For a time, 5S was again closed to traffic, but it has since been rerouted, permanently, onto the old railroad bridge:



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xcellntbuy

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #14 on: July 21, 2012, 02:42:04 PM »

Wonderful additions to the record of this tragedy.   :clap:
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Alps

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #15 on: July 21, 2012, 04:10:38 PM »

The flood also damaged the Route 5S bridge again.  It was determined that it was easier to improve the railroad bridge and abandon (to the bike route that formerly used the railroad bridge) the 5S bridge.  For a time, 5S was again closed to traffic, but it has since been rerouted, permanently, onto the old railroad bridge:




More news to me, more editing to do...

xcellntbuy

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #16 on: July 21, 2012, 05:03:24 PM »

It has been many, many years since I have been in that area of NY 5S, but given the moderately steep terrain of the Mohawk Valley overall and in that particular area of when the Thruway bridge collapsed, the geography can change drastically in the confluent area of the Schoharie Creek and Mohawk River.
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seicer

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #17 on: January 21, 2020, 02:16:53 PM »

Is the Google Map data accurate? It shows the trail going over the railroad bridge and Route 5S going over the automobile crossing despite the aerials indicating otherwise.

Jim

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #18 on: January 21, 2020, 08:14:23 PM »

Is the Google Map data accurate? It shows the trail going over the railroad bridge and Route 5S going over the automobile crossing despite the aerials indicating otherwise.

5S has been using the RR bridge for quite a while now. A few years, at least.
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cl94

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Re: Schoharie Creek Bridge New York State Thruway April 5, 1987
« Reply #19 on: January 21, 2020, 11:32:59 PM »

Yeah, 5S moved to the railroad bridge somewhere between mid-2016 and late 2017. Can't remember exactly when, but I remember being surprised to drive on the railroad bridge the first time I drove it after the swap.

This was after the road bridge was reduced to single-lane traffic for a while.
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