Skagit River bridge collapse near site of fatal 1903 bridge collapse

by: Casey McNerthney Updated:

This panorama is believed to have been taken in 1903 when the Great Northern Railway bridge collapsed into the Skagit River. The bridge was roughly 1,200 yards east of where the Interstate 5 bridge collapsed Thursday night. Two train employees were killed in the 1903 collapse. Three people were injured in the 2013 collapse, but all were in stable condition and expected to survive.

The bridge that collapsed Thursday into the Skagit River happened about 1,200 yards west of where another bridge collapsed 110 years earlier.

Dan Kerlee, a collector of local historic photos, was stunned by the television coverage for a few minutes, "then I went to go find my old photo."

In his Magnolia home, Kerlee found three photos of the 1903 bridge collapse and cargo train lost into the Skagit River. There wasn't an exact date on the images, which he bought at a Seattle antiques shop more than two decades ago. But from his research, Kerlee now estimates the collapse occurred in January 1903. He initially thought the photograph was from May 1903, when he said the bridge also has a washout.

Two people were killed when that bridge collapsed: the Great Northern train engineer and the train's fireman.

After the Thursday collapse, caused by a semitrailer hitting the bridge, three people were evaluated as hospitals. All were in stable condition that night with non-life-threatening injuries.

The picture of the damaged train in the 1903 collapse was taken looking northwestward. At least one box car is in the Skagit River, and men are examining the engine on the river bank.

That section of railway was completed in the early 1890s when the Great Northern Railway was completed from Stevens Pass to Everett, Kerlee said. The current rail bridge is in the same location as the 1903 bridge was.

Kerlee said he became interested in collecting local railway photos because his grandfather, Julius Duane Kerlee, was a Great Northern employee who survived a 1910 Stevens Pass avalanche that killed 96 people.

Kerlee's friend, Ron Edge, helped put the 1903 panorama together in the hours after Thursday's bridge collapse. Kerlee said he was amazed by the eerie coincidence with the photos he'd collected, and his further research after the crash was helped by Great Northern Railroad researchers.

"I've enjoyed them for over 25 years," Kerlee said of the pictures, "but never guessed that they would be so relevant."

This story has been updated to correct the date initially given by Kerlee.