Disaster Ditties & Demonic Demolition: The Silver Bridge Disaster Memorial Album

A half-century ago, a disc jockey turned ordained minister, best known for his upbeat ditties about deceased dictators and Soviet spacecrafts, penned a touching musical memorial to the victims of a tragic accident, which may or may not have been foretold (or even caused by) the presence of a demonic winged entity with glowing red eyes.


This is the story of the Silver Bridge Disaster Memorial Album.




GATEWAY TO THE SOUTH


The Silver Bridge was a gleaming suspension bridge over the Ohio River, connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Gallipolis, Ohio. It was built in 1928 and charmingly got its name from the color of its metallic aluminum paint. But the “Gateway to the South” became infamous for reasons other than its charm.


At 4:58 pm on December 15, 1967, while full of rush-hour traffic, the bridge collapsed. Forty-six people died in what remains the deadliest bridge disaster in American history.


The bridge failed due to a 0.1-inch crack in a single link of chain on the one-third of a mile long structure. To be technically precise, it was fretting wear in the single chain link and stress corrosion cracking, exacerbated by residual stress, which led to insufficient redundancy, ductile overload, and the eventual and inevitable collapse of the Silver Bridge – in less than a minute, according to witnesses.


But the collapsing bridge was just one of the many strange and horrible things that locals had witnessed around Point Pleasant in the months, weeks, days, and even moments before the tragedy.



BEELZEBUB VISITS WEST VIRGINIA


For the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on the birth of one of America’s foremost monsters.


In November of 1966, folks in Mason County, West Virginia started seeing things. More specifically, they began seeing what they near-universally described as a large bipedal creature with wings and glowing red eyes. A gravedigging crew of five men was startled when this man-like being buzzed over their heads. A pair of young couples in Point Pleasant saw “a large flying man with ten-foot wings” following their car. Volunteer firemen saw “a large bird with red eyes.” One man reported strange buzzing noises, the disappearance of his dog, and strangely reflective eyes in the night. The local police held a news conference, national media picked up the story, and the legend of the Mothman flapped to life - but it only got weirder from there.


As more and more people came forward with reports of sightings of the Mothman in Point Pleasant, something else began to happen. There were simultaneously reports of other strange and paranormal activities in the area. There were unidentified flying objects. There were suspicious men dressed in black suits. These “Men in Black” allegedly interrogated and even harassed locals about their Mothman sightings, acted strangely, and had unnatural eyes. Theories still abound as to whether the Mothman was a wayward avian (snowy owl or sandhill crane) or a legitimate cryptozoological entity and if these Men in Black were government agents, alien visitors, time-traveling informants, or something else.


By 1970, author John Keel had penned his theory that the Mothman was a harbinger of doom; claiming even that the demonic winged entity had been spotted on the Silver Bridge near the time of its collapse – whether it caused it or portended its demise. Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies recounts his investigation into the 1966-1967 Mothman sightings and correlates them with the ongoing encounters with UFOs, Men in Black, ghostly apparitions, livestock mutilations, phantom sounds, and other high strangeness occurring in the vicinity of Point Pleasant area leading up to the collapse of the Silver Bridge.


While Keel and other authors were putting pen to paper to record the events of the Silver Bridge disaster, busy too were musicians tuning their guitars and harmonizing their voices in an effort to commemorate and memorialize the tragedy through song.



COLD WAR CROONER


Ray Anderson was born in West Virginia in 1924. His early love of music led him to fastidiously learn guitar from an uncle and dream of a life as a country musician.


He ended up rejected by the Grand Ole Opry and writing songs about orbiting satellites and the dogs who inhabit them, the paralysis and death of an foreign Communist dictator, and, eventually, families drowning in the tragic collapse of a beloved West Virginian bridge.


After being discharged from the U.S. Air Force following World War II, Anderson bounced around the music industry. He flubbed a Grand Ole Opry audition in Nashville, got a job at a West Virginia radio station hosting a show known as the “Hillbilly Jamboree,” and secured a recording contract, which kicked off his musical career.


By 1953, with the Cold War era underway, the World War II veteran Anderson cut a track that put him on the map. The story goes that Anderson was contracted to record an album of country music covers or religious songs, but that all changed when an international event caught his attention. Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and that nation’s Premier and de facto dictator, died in March 1953 and Anderson decided the occasion needed to be commemorated with song – a theme he would revisit in Point Pleasant 15 years later.


So Anderson recorded some unusually cheery music and coupled it with an unusual set of lyrics, calling it “Stalin Kicked the Bucket,” in which his thoughts on Stalin are painfully evident:


“While near the end, he couldn’t talk,

He’s paralyzed and he couldn’t walk,

He died with a hemorrhage in the brain,

They have a new fireman on the devil’s train


Although he was a man of power,

He was scared of Eisenhower

So now the devil can retire,

‘Cause old Joe Stalin will keep the fire”




But Anderson’s fascination with the Soviet Union didn’t end there.


In 1957, Anderson recorded an energetic country song “Sputnicks and Mutnicks,” which describes the Soviet Union satellite Sputnik 2 and the dog named Laika, who rode (and sadly died) in the orbiting spacecraft. The song talks about “funny missiles” and hints at Anderson’s Cold War fears that he should be looking for a hiding place if “our scientists have admitted that we’re five years behind.” The rest of the song, which can be found on the "Atomic Platters - Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security" compilation album, is just as weird as you might imagine:


“The strangest looking objects I ever saw from space,

With a dog inside that got to ride into the USA

To see our hound dog or American groundhog,

That Russian canine can’t stand the pain”




In 1962, Anderson became a born again Christian, then an ordained minister, then in 1965, while serving as a pastor in Ohio, he returned to the music industry by starting the gospel label G.R.S (Gospel Recording Service), "a Christian Studio for Christian People.”


Then, in 1967, the Silver Bridge fell and Anderson, much as he did for Stalin, decided to commemorate the occasion with song and verse.



SILVER BRIDGE DISASTER MEMORIAL ALBUM


In the wake of the Silver Bridge’s collapse, Anderson must have immediately jumped on the opportunity to musically mourn the tragedy. He released his single “Silver Bridge Disaster” on a 45 rpm record (with the B-side “They Crucified The Rose”) in December 1967, as bodies of victims were still being recovered from the Ohio River and laid to rest. Two bodies were never recovered.


In 1968, Anderson was able to give the disaster a proper treatment when he recorded and released on his G.R.S label the Silver Bridge Disaster Memorial album. The memorial album is the same aluminum hue as the bridge it commemorates and is advertised as a limited edition “Collectors Keepsake Album,” which seems to be accurate, as it took me quite a bit of work to finally track down a copy of my own.



While the front cover of the album features a photo of the Silver Bridge in all its pre-collapse glory, the rear cover is a montage of alarming newspaper headlines and photos of twisted wreckage of the collapsed bridge, which provide the listener with the horrific inspiration for the songs they’re about to hear. The headlines blare:


“40 Automobiles, 17 Trucks, Are Located In Twisted Steel Girders of Silver Bridge”

“Horror Gripped Witnesses When Bridge Fell”

“Why? Why Did It Happen?”

“It Did Happen: A Monster of Death”


The first songs on each side of the record are Silver Bridge related; all the rest are standard spiritual mourning fare:


Side One

Silver Bridge Disaster

Flower in God’s Garden

Boat of Life

You Must Take Time to Die

This Man Jesus


Side Two

Why Did It Happen? (Silver Bridge Disaster)

Then We Shall Rise

Coming Someday

I Called to the Lord

In Darkness No More

Pray For Them

New Lease on Life



As for the Anderson’s mournful hit “Silver Bridge Disaster,” the song laments the loss of life (to include husbands, wives, and children) in somewhat graphic fashion; in one stanza describing a man calling for help as he drowns in the frigid Ohio River. The song is also something of a cautionary tale, as Anderson ponders whether the victims had proper time to settle up with their Lord before meeting Him:


SILVER BRIDGE DISASTER


“It was sad when that great bridge went down,

Oh so sad when the Silver Bridge went down,

There were husbands and wives, little children that lost their lives,

It was sad when that Silver Bridge went down


In the twinkling of the night it had happened,

The great Silver Bridge it did sway

From the cars and the trucks lined upon it

Lord, I wonder if they had the time to pray


A man’s voice screamed out, ‘My God, help me’

From the cold icy waters there below

He was calling on God in his trouble

For he knew that his time had come to go


It was sad when that great bridge went down,

Oh so sad when the Silver Bridge went down,

There were husbands and wives, little children that lost their lives,

It was sad when that Silver Bridge went down


There were husbands and wives with their children

They’d been shopping for Christmas that day

There were thinking of living not of dying

When that great Silver Bridge it gave way


Oh my friends do you know that we’re a-traveling

Day by day as we journey along

And some day we must cross this chilly river

Cross the bridge into our eternal home


Let’s prepare now to leave all our loved ones

In that land where no bridges give way

And no heartaches will come to God’s children

For my God shall wipe all their tears away


It was sad when that great bridge went down,

Oh so sad when the Silver Bridge went down,

There were husbands and wives, little children that lost their lives,

It was sad when that Silver Bridge went down”




QUEASY LISTENING


“Country music has a long and cherished tradition of topical songs dealing with real-life tragedies like train wrecks, ship wrecks, and murders,” teases 91.1 FM WFMU’s ‘Beware of the Blog’ out of Jersey City, NJ.


While these songs all seem to follow the same basic idea - something horrible happens, it is described (often ad nauseum via a repetitive chorus), and its victims are mourned (with mandatory twangy guitars and southern drawls) - they nonetheless make fascinating listening. If you’re looking to put together your own playlist of macabre music and terrifying tracks based on real life tragedies…someone has already done the work for you.


In 2007, Tompkins Square Records released “People Take Warning! (Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938),” a set of 70 songs (more than 3.5-hours of music!) enclosed in a hardcover book with lyrics from the songs and photographs from many of the tragedies. This three-disc set (which was Grammy-nominated) is usefully broken up into a trio of tragic categories: Man v Machine (Titanic Blues, Altoona Freight Wreck, The Crash of The Akron, etc), Man v Nature (Ohio Prison Fire, Memphis Flu, The Santa Barbara Earthquake, etc), and Man v Man (And Woman, Too) (The Murder of the Lawson Family, Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann, Fingerprints Upon the Windowpane, etc).


While there aren’t any Silver Bridge tunes within this set of disaster-themed ditties (the bridge wouldn’t collapse until 30 years after the timeframe captured on these albums), there are a handful of other Silver Bridge/Mothman related songs in existence, which I’ve tracked down and listed below, along with a key lyric from each for good measure:


“Silver Bridge History” by Jim Stout

“Yes, that great Silver Bridge will stand evermore, it brought death and destruction and people by the score, the nation was shocked, people prayed, many wept, when that monster of beauty became a monster of death”




“Silver Bridge Disaster” by Three J’s

“The bridge piers are standing like tombstones to mark this tragic site and all the people who lost loved ones will never forget that night”




“The Great Silver Bridge” by Charles Alexander with The Carolina Five

“It was sad when the Silver Bridge went down and the bars of twisted steel came tumbling to the ground. There were prayers, screams, and cries, many people lost their lives”




“Grey Silverbridge” by Little Hot Rod and The Fire Blazers

“Rescue workers came from many states around to help with that mess of twisted steel. Forty lives they were taken on that tragic day, when that great Silver Bridge went down, down, down”




“The Fate of The Silver Bridge” by Cecil Pigott

“You could hear the people screaming as the Silver Bridge went down, they were crushed beneath the wreckage down below, and within a few short moments they went to meet their doom, their time had come to die, they had to go”


“When The Silver Bridge Went Down” by Jim Wayne

“Truck drivers prayed as their rig went down, they watched little children in the cold water drown”




“Tragedy Of The Silver Bridge” by Barnett Brothers

“Workmen came from far and near, retrieving the ones who died, from 40 feet of watery grave, while their loved ones cried”


“The Silver Bridge” by Lowell Varney and Jim Horne

“Silver Bridge, Silver Bridge, I heard of your falling that day, 50-some souls in the cold water below, went to meet God that day”




“Tragedy Of The Silver Bridge” by The Sunshine Twins

“The story now is going around, that there’s some remains that will never be found, cars and trucks are pinned below, the Silver Bridge of the Ohio”




“Mason County Mothman” by Anne McCoy

“The Mason County Sheriff’s Department had a mystery that night, when they heard an awful story of a Mothman in flight”




“T.H. Mothman (Attorney At Law)” by Captain Catfeesh

“Eyes burnin’ red, flyin’ around town, little did they know, that a bridge was comin’ down”




“Genus Unknown” by Blitzkid

“The traffic streams across the Silver Bridge, happy faces view the fog up on the eastern ridge, something gives, the beams collapse, a darkened figure on the shore below completes its task”




But wait, there’s more! While the previous songs can all be found and listened to online with relative ease, there are couple of others that have proven more challenging to find. So, while I haven’t personally given them a listen yet, I can say with some measure of certainty that, given the song titles, we’re dealing with the same Silver Bridge and the same 1967 disaster:


- “The Day The Silver Bridge Fell” by Alvin Young and The Teays Valley Boys

- “Silver Bridge” by Grandma Graves and The Junctioneers



EPILOGUE: “THE LAND WHERE NO BRIDGES GIVE WAY”


As for Anderson, of Silver Bridge Disaster Memorial Album and Stalin/Sputnik song fame, definitive biographical information on him is difficult, if not impossible, to find, except that he died in Camden, Ohio on August 11, 2010 at the age of 86.


What we do know is that Anderson lived long enough to see the construction of the Silver Memorial Bridge, built a mile downstream from its predecessor; the adaptation of Keel’s wild The Mothman Prophecies book into a major motion picture; the birth and success of the annual Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant; and the inclusion of his Silver Bridge Disaster Memorial Album in a place of honor displayed within the Mothman Museum, just across the street from where “that great Silver Bridge gave way.”