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The bridge was officially opened on 26th September 1877 when a party of directors crossed over in a train pulled by the engine Lochee.
On the fateful night of 28th December 1879, during a violent storm, the bridge collapsed taking with it a train carrying over seventy passengers. The train fell into the murky waters of the River Tay leaving no survivors.
The tragedy of the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster lives on in the memory of Dundonians and, over 125 years after the event, it exercises a strange fascination over all who study it. 59 victims are known to have died, for whom 59 death certificates were produced – a tally arrived at some eight months after the disaster when the authorities had recovered 46 bodies and were able to prove a further thirteen unrecovered souls had been on the train.
Items of clothing and belongings from the casualties can be viewed at McManus Galleries and the register of these poignant discoveries can be seen in Dundee Central Library.
Designed by civil engineer, Thomas Bouch, the first Tay Bridge took six years to build, using ten million bricks, two million rivets, eighty-seven thousand cubic feet of timber and fifteen thousand casks of cement. Six hundred men were employed throughout the construction, twenty of whom lost their lives.
Costing over £300,000, the bridge attracted the attention of many at home and abroad, including General Ulysses Grant, who visited to view the construction in 1877. Although Queen Victoria was unable to open the bridge, she did cross it in the summer of 1879, shortly before she knighted Thomas Bouch.
Speculation is still rife concerning the cause of the disaster.
Theory OneA vertical waveform, progressively amplified by the various forces in play that night, effectively shook the bridge apart, somewhat in the manner of the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse of the 1930s.
Theory TwoA carriage was derailed by the wind and an axle hit a buttress on one pillar of the high girders, thus sending a shockwave vertically down a supporting pillar of the bridge.
Theory ThreeThe force of the wind on the bridge set up a domino effect whereby, one after the other, the upper courses of masonry on the bridge piers became detached from the lower courses, thus irretrievably tilting the bridge downwind.