Legend of man buried in bridge shares some truth with real story
Thursday, March 06, 2008 10:00 AM
Since the Madison-Milton bridge was built nearly 80 years ago, many stories from local residents in Madison and Milton have surfaced about a man who was supposedly buried in one of the piers.
DISPELLING THE RUMORS: Local legend tells of a man who was buried in one of the piers of the Madison-Milton Bridge. The truth is that man did die while constructing the piers of the bridge. The actual story tells of a different location where the man was buried. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Part of the story is true - a man did die during the construction of the steel truss bridge. However, the part about him being buried in one of piers of the bridge is not correct.
According to reports published in 1929 in The Madison Courier and The Madison Daily Herald, a 34-year-old compressed air worker by the name of Earl Kelley was instantly killed while working on Pier No. 7.
Kelley, who was from Leitchfield, Ky., was working for Vang Construction Co. of Louisville while the company was constructing the 10 piers of the Madison-Milton bridge. Before coming to Madison, Kelley worked on the piers for the Louisville-Jeffersonville bridge.
To work on the piers, the men, who were called "sand hogs," would work in caisson chambers. The chambers were airtight, open at the bottom and contained enough air pressure to keep the water out while working. In order to keep air from escaping, the workers had to keep the bottom of several large tubes covered with earth.
At the time of the accident, Kelley was working early Sunday morning with seven other men when an air "blow" occurred. At the time, the men were working under 35 pounds of air pressure and the cutting edge of the caisson was 74 feet below pool stage of the river.
Thirty minutes after working in the chamber, the air pressure was released slightly through a down stream tube that was used during evacuation. The air release caused the caisson to drop 14 inches suddenly.
Kelley was working in the southwest corner of the chamber at the time of the blow. As he ran to escape, Kelley's body was thrown by wild air currents and his feet became stuck underneath the steel tube. As he struggled, more air began to escape from the chamber. The chamber dropped another three feet, which caused the chamber to fill quickly with water, gravel and sand.
The six other workers, including the foreman, narrowly escaped death by running to an escape shaft and climbing to the top of the pier.
Two minutes after the blow, the foreman and another compressed air worker re-entered the chamber to try to save Kelley. The men discovered the chamber was still dry but sand and gravel surrounded Kelley. Only Kelley's shoulders and head were in sight at the time. When the men found him, Kelley was dying, the newspapers said.
Jefferson County, Ind., Coroner John H. Gans said Kelley died from internal injuries and drowning. It took crews 20 minutes to dig out Kelley's body from all the sand and gravel that filled inside the caisson. His remains were removed from the pier for burial in Kentucky.
Kelley was survived by his wife, Polly Kelley, and his small, five children - Earl William, Josephine, Wilbur, Mary and Polly. The family lived at 525 West St. in Madison at the time of the accident.