Thursday, April 7, 2011

Another Notorious Knoch

I haven't posted much of anything about my own family tree yet, instead remaining focused on my wife's lineage. My father spends his days of retirement tracing down the Knoch ancestry, a project I began more years ago than I care to mention, and I have been content to simply reap the rewards of his research. A couple of weeks ago he brought to me a bit of a mystery he'd uncovered while examining his grandfather's siblings. It seems that the death certificate of his grandfather's brother, one John Knoch, indicated a place of death as Louisville, KY. That in itself is interesting, since until that point we had thought that my move to Kentucky from Michigan was the first such venture undertaken by any member of the Knoch clan. The circumstances of John's death were also a bit of a mystery, as he was only 28 years old at the time of his passing in January of 1890 and the cause of death was listed as drowning. Census records indicated that John was a bridge builder by trade. Given that Louisville rests upon the Ohio River, it seemed very plausible that John was the victim of an on-the-job mishap.

Big Four Bridge
I began to dig through what I could of Louisville's history to determine if in fact a bridge was being constructed at the time of John's death, and sure enough one was - the Big Four Bridge. You can read more about the bridge itself at Wikipedia, where I learned that there was a large loss of life due to a collapsed caisson. I mentioned this to my father, and he began to scour the digitized archives of various newspapers in circulation during that time period. It wasn't long before he discovered that the caisson had collapsed on 6 January 1890, the same day as John's death. An article in the 10 January 1890 edition of the Chicago Tribune describes in detail the accident, the survivors, and the deceased. The article mentions a John Knox, but that spelling is later corrected in an article from the Fort Wayne (IN) Gazette dated 11 January 1890 (on a side note, proving that our particular pronunciation of the surname has a very long history).

The matter is further intensified when both articles name John as the cause of the accident, and subsequent deaths of thirteen other men. John is not the first Knoch of our immediate line to have been responsible for a large loss of life, as his uncle in Detroit allegedly murdered the majority of his own family. I say allegedly, since he was never convicted, but there is significantly strong circumstantial evidence that points to him as the perpetrator. That, however, is a story for another day. Unfortunately we couldn't find any Louisville papers online, so I'll be heading to the state archives in the next couple of weeks to dig further. In the meantime, I've transcribed the Chicago Tribune article below, since the image I have is unreadable at anything but the full 8MB resolution. I'll transcribe the other articles soon.

I've driven by the Big Four Bridge many times since moving to Kentucky, and always thought it a curiosity. Driving by it now, with caisson Number 1 looming just offshore, brings entirely different thoughts.

A Caisson of the New Bridge Near
Louisville Gives Way.
Of the Eighteen Workmen Only Four
Are Now Alive.

LOUISVILLE, Ky., Jan. 9. - The most appalling accident known here in many years occurred this evening about 6 o'clock, fourteen lives being lost.
Following is a list of the killed:
HAYNES, WILLIAM E., 40 years old, No. 214 Clay street, Louisville.
KNOX, JOHN, 28 years old.
McADAMS, JAMES, 26 years old, Hyde Park, Pa.
MAHAR, FRANK, 23 years old, native of New Jersey.
NAYLOR, PAT, 27 years, Philadelphia
ASH, THOMAS, colored, 30 years, Henderson, Ky.
BOWLING, MONROE, colored, 34 years, Henderson, Ky.
CHILES, CHARLES, colored, 30 years, Henderson, Ky.
JOHNSON, THOMAS, colored, 30 years, Henderson, Ky.
GORDON, JOSEPH, colored, 25 years, Henderson, Ky.
MORRIS, HAMILTON, 20 years, Henderson, Ky.
SMITH, THOMAS, 27 years, Henderson, Ky.
SOAPER, fRANK, colored, 25 years, Henderson, Ky.
TYLER, ROBERT, 16 years, Henderson, Ky.
The men saved are all colored, as follows: Abe Taylor, Lewis Coch, and Frank H. Haddix, all of Henderson, Ky.

It was nearly time for work to stop all over the city, and workingmen were expected home by their families when the report spread rapidly that there was a wreck or crash of some kind at the new bridge now under contruction between Louisville and Jeffersonville. A caisson had given way and the workmen employed in it had been drowned or crushed to death by stone and timbers. The caisson known as No. 1 was about 100 yards from the Kentucky shore.

As the workmen of the pumping station were looking for the men in the caisson to put off in their boats leaving work for the night they suddenly saw the low dark structure disappear in dashing white waves, and heard, before they could realize what had happened, the roar of the furious maelstrom. A runner was dispatched to the life saving station, and three skiffs were manned and pulled to the scene of the wreck.
Word was sent to the police station and a squad was at once ordered to the ground to aid in the work of recovery. The Coroner was called and went with a corps of physicians.

The site of the bridge is at the upper end of the city, just below Tow Head Island. Within an hour from the disappearance of the caisson 3,000 people were on the shore and strained their eyes trying to see something of the wreckage. Dozens of boats were plying about over the spot where the caisson had stood, and lights danced to and fro with them, but there was no trace of the massive structure of stone and timber which had kept off the hungry river to promise any hope to the anguish-stricken mothers and wives who stood in the throng on the shore. The water rolled sullenly but smoothly down from the coffer-dam above the pumping barge below where the caisson had stood. It was soon known that only four of the eighteen men who were at work at that time had escaped.


The last man out of the caisson was Frank Haddix. He was barely saved by Murray, who dragged him from where he was caught, waist deep, in the quicksand. Taylor says he stood nearest the iron ladder by which they got in and out of the caisson. He heard a rumbling, and there was a rush of air almost at the same instant. He jumped up the rungs of the ladder, followed by the other men. They had hardly got clear of the caisson when the water burst through the man-hole in a surge, knocking them all into the river, where they were picked up. Haddix says he saw Ham Morris, who was climbing next below himself, swiftly drawn under by the sand, and heard his cries for help, but could do nothing.

The caisson is not wrecked, as at first supposed, but has settled down in the bed of the stream completely filled with sand and water. The pumping station is hard at work clearing the way to the bodies, but none will be reached tonight. There seems absolutely no hope for any of those caught within the caisson.

John Knox, the gang boss, took charge of the work Monday. The negroes who escaped say he had them dig too deep before letting the caisson settle, and the digging was too close to the shoe of the caisson. Just before the accident Knox gave some order to Robert Baldwin, the keeper in charge of the upper door to the exit. Baldwin then opened this door, and the compressed air which kept out the river rushed out, letting in the stream. The men say they were working in an ugly quicksand at the time.

The caisson was about forty feet by twenty and built of timbers twelve inches square. It was protected by a cofferdam, but the river is high and the pressure of the water great.

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