Big Hawk Bridge Collapse – Sunday May 23, 1976

The construction of this bridge and causeway had only just been completed six weeks prior to the collapse.  It was built by Curry Bishop of Haliburton with construction beginning in November of 1975 and paid for by the Hawk Lake Road Association.  The final fill of the causeway was done while there was still ice and snow about the area.    The 26’diameter culvert and adjoining causeway had been built to replace a wooden bridge structure that according to Toronto Star Staff writer, Don Dutton, had been condemned the previous year. However, from Bruce Harris, owner of Camp Kawabi and part of the original Hawk Lake Road Association this is simply not true.  Bruce clearly remembers that “the cottage association tried to get government help to determine the status of the original bridge.  It was never condemned by anyone in the government, or anyone else. As it was a private bridge the government would not help in any way.”

Curry Bishop was engaged to do a bridge inspection and a report was presented at a Hawk Lake Road Association special meeting at Camp Kawabi.  The report recommended that a five ton limit be posted for the bridge and consideration be given to replacing the old bridge with a new structure. In time and after much consideration and several meetings regarding costs etc., it was decided on the recommendation from Curry Bishop that the old bridge would be taken down and be replaced by a steel culvert causeway bridge.’

Bruce Harris goes on to explain, “Never was the old bridge condemned… fact I talked with the people (after the collapse) who were hired to remove the old wooden bridge and they all assured me that there was no need to replace the bridge…..wooden bridges do not wear out, but must be maintained and repaired. The original wooden bridge was less than twenty years old …..our current bridge is forty years old.” Sadly, the fact remains that each Hawk Lake Road Association Member paid $750 to complete the $33,000 construction for the new bridge. Documents in fact show that the actual cost went as high as $38,000. A bridge that was used for only three weeks and it took three lives.

It was the May long weekend and Grandmother Helen Hickman, 68, had walked with her grandchildren, Gordon Schram, 8 and Karen Schram, 7 to the Big Hawk Marina to get candy and ice cream.  They were walking back when the bridge collapsed and they slid to their deaths, buried by sand, silt and mud.

Stanhope Township Firefighters and other cottagers tried to dig them out but to no avail. Ruth McAdam, who operated the Big Hawk Marina with her husband Bill was the last person Mrs. Hickman joked with prior to crossing back over the culvert.  Mrs. Hickman seemed to know that the causeway bridge had a bulge and was unsafe.

Barb Bell tells the story of her father Peter Bell, who was president of the Big Hawk Lake Road Association at the time, going through the culvert in his small aluminum boat just before Mrs. Hickman and her grandchildren attempted to walk over top.  Barb says, “He was probably 50 meters up the lake when he turned and saw the dust rise.”

John Logan who owned the nearby Government House at the time also heard the whooshing sound as the bridge collapsed.  He wrote in his memoires, “I ran down to the shore and road and found Mrs. McAdam, the marina’s owner, hysterical at the foot of the bridge….I calmed her down and got her to call the OPP and then things heated up.  Many people started arriving and frantic digging ensued.  All was for naught, though and the bodies were eventually recovered.”

Barb Bell also relates that her mother Catherine Bell sat on the hill with Mrs. Schram while they waited for the bodies to be dug out: “Heartbreaking to say the least.”

The Bells, along with more than 300 cottagers, were stranded for 27 hours as the only access out was by boat.  The more than 100 cars belonging to these cottagers were eventually allowed out as well, but with only the driver in the vehicle.

The sister of Helen Hickman is pictured in the foreground of the group of people crossing the bridge.  Mrs. Hickman who died in the collapse was a semi-retired teacher who worked for many years in East York and would have actually finished a part-time contract at Valley Park Junior High School five days after this tragedy occurred.  She was a specialist in arts, crafts, and mathematics.  Her husband Reg Hickman described her as someone always taking courses.  The Globe and Mail reported on September 30, 1976 that she had a master’s degree in education as well as an M.A.

At the time of the tragedy, the Toronto Star reported that the Reeve, Sinclair Nesbett, said that the causeway was too high and just couldn’t withstand the water flow.  He said it was just a matter of time before it collapsed.  Others, like Big Hawk cottager, John Hollows knew that the culvert was unsafe because “you could see a bulge in it.”  Lawyer’s correspondence with Peter Bell, the Road Association president confirms that the bulge in the bridge had been reported to Curry Bishop Ltd. as much as a month prior to the collapse.  Ruth McAdam from Big Hawk Marina told the Globe and Mail: “Everybody was talking about it, those who went over it didn’t like the look of it and those who went though it (in boats) didn’t like the condition of it.”  Even the father of the deceased children, Ken Schram was reported in The Minden Progress as saying that, “he had often worried about the possibility of an accident… He said the cottagers had decided only Saturday to have an engineer inspect it.”

It is also interesting to know, as reported in The Minden Progress, that just prior to the collapse, a “large truck driven by Goldie Willis of Hawk Lake had driven over … A backhoe following it driven by Bob Baker of Hawk Lake stopped as the ground gave way just a few feet in front.”

The old bridge doesn’t look so bad after all.
The new bridge certainly did not serve the Hawk Lake cottagers as it was meant to make life safer.

Following the collapse of the culvert, the Ontario Provincial Police launched an investigation.  A separate investigation, funded by the Hawk Lake Road Association, was undertaken by Proctor and Redfern Ltd., Consulting Engineers of Eglinton Avenue in Toronto.  This private report completed in July 1976 determined that a flat had been noted in the circular culvert as early as April 18th and this flattened area developed into a bulge.  On the morning of the collapse an eye witnesses, noted that the bulge was as much as 10” over a length of at least 10”.  The Proctor and Redfern report also determined that the “fills were not placed evenly on both sides and produced a distortion of the culvert towards the south… the flattened area produced by this distortion eventually became the bulge which buckled.”

The report goes on to say that “placing frozen backfill with ice pieces would have also have an extremely detrimental effect on a thin walled culvert since supports would be removed from critical areas as the ice melted in the spring.”  From this report initiated by the Big Hawk Road Association, we know that one eye witness said “that pieces of ice measuring about one cubic foot were seen floating away from the area immediately after the collapse.” The report did not specially outline that the cause of the collapse was “underdesign or poor construction.”  More information on that came from the inquest that followed the OPP investigation.

Dr. Ross Bennett was the deputy chief coroner at the time and he headed the five-man coroner’s jury that took place at the Minden Community Hall over a period of 11 days beginning September 7th 1976. Well over 60 witnesses were called to testify and there was a great deal of conflicting testimony given.  It seems that 23 year old Ty Irwin was mostly responsible for the day to day work and had been given a technical manual to use but he did not have an understanding of many of the terms in that document.  As Irwin himself said, “I’m not an engineer!”  Curry Bishop testified that he believed Warren Jenner from Westeel-Rosco was supervising.  Jenner in turn denied this, saying that they had not agreed to pay the $150 a day for him to supervise the job.  He had been told he would not be needed and yet no one qualified really did supervise the work.

The findings of the five-man jury concluded that “the collapse was entirely preventative and predictable.”  Causes of the disaster included “inadequate supervision” and an “inappropriate design.”  They made the following recommendations:

  • A building code be implemented
  • The Ministry of Transportation and Communication supervise all construction of private causeways
  • The MTC or some other regulatory body approve all planning before bridge building is begun
  • Certified engineer, contractor and supervisor be approved before building begins
  • MTC do site investigation while work is in progress

The blaming of who was ultimately responsible went on for quite a long time.  According to a soil expert, Ty Irwin who built the causeway should not have done so in the winter months and in fact knew about the distortions but did nothing about it.  The engineer was blamed for “underdesign” as the “plate thickness is very low for such a large diameter” but would have been “likely sufficient for ideal backfill conditions” and Curry Bishop was blamed for breach of contract and/or negligence.  According to the notes from the inquest the culvert should have been ten gauge but was seven gauge on one side and five gauge on the other.  An expert in metallurgy told the jury at the inquest that “when the bolted cylinder did not meet at the top leaving a gap of 10”-15”, the ends were forced together….that forcing of bolted plates into a new shape would cause distortions and loosening of bolts.” 

Yet at the end of all the legal haggling, there were still three lives lost. Reg Hickman, husband of Helen and grandfather to the two children, who also lost their lives, sold his cottage that fall.  He is reported as saying “how could I look at that causeway again without being haunted by my wife and those two kids.  This sad story remains a tragic piece of our Hawk Lake History.

This story could not have been written without the many letters and official correspondence that are a part of the Bell archive.  With thanks to Barb Bell, Bruce Harris as well as John Hollows.  Joan Hamilton

Notes were also made from articles published in:  The Minden Progress; The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and The Globe and Mail between May 1976 and October 1977.