Nearly 60 years later, remembering the Great Huron River Bus Bridge Collapse

One of the most unusual traffic accidents in Livingston County history took place on Sept. 28, 1962, when a bus carrying 43 Winans Lake School students collapsed a bridge and fell into the Huron River.

As terrifying as it must have been for the students and their driver, the great news is that nobody was seriously hurt. And 58 years later, people have become fascinated with the Great Huron River Bus Bridge Collapse.

A photo of the bus crash posted on the Livingston Post’s Facebook page this week has generated a huge response, with dozens of comments and hundreds of shares at last count.

One of the comments came from Pinckney Community Schools Superintendent Rick Todd, who wrote that he’s kept a photo of the bus crash on his desk for years:

I have this very picture on my desk in my office and my kids are always asking about what happened. Glad to see this featured by the Livingston Post as it is a neat little piece in our Hamburg history.

So, because folks seemingly want to know every detail of the Great Huron River Bus Bridge Collapse, here’s the full story of what happened on Sept. 28, 1962.

To set the stage, here’s a little background on the school that was involved in the crash. The Winans Lake School was a relatively small country school that was located on the corner of Winans Lake and Chilson roads in Hamburg Township. It was apparently built in 1915, and at its peak, it housed about 120 elementary school students.

It used to be a self-contained school – part of its own school district in Hamburg Township – but in 1958, the Winans Lake School Board folded and the school was absorbed into the Pinckney Community Schools district. So even though the bus said “Hamburg School District” on the side, it was part of the Pinckney school district in 1962.

In any case, on the morning of Sept. 28, 1962, 26-year-old bus driver David Fischer set out on his route and picked up the 43 Winans Lake School students.

At approximately 8:30 a.m., he arrived at the bridge.

The bridge was located on Hamburg Road near Winans Lake Road, just west of where the Winans Lake Road Roundabout now sits.

According to news reports at the time, the steel bridge was built in 1895, and based on the photos, it certainly looked like it was built in 1895. It was a rickety, narrow, one-lane bridge – only one vehicle could cross at a time. I’m guessing you held your breath every time you crossed that bridge, especially if you were driving a six-ton school bus.

As David Fischer began to cross the bridge from the west on the morning of Sept. 28, another school bus – this one carrying students heading into Pinckney – waited at the east side.

And then it happened. As the bus slowly crept along the bridge, it began to collapse. Here’s how the Livingston County Press reported it at the time:

“Steel supports from the east side of the bridge fell across the top of the bus, smashing its windshield, and another piece of steel crashed out the left headlights Aside from that, there was little damage to the vehicle.”

The bus had fallen about 10 feet when the bridge collapsed, as the students were thrown from their seats. David Fischer calmly helped the students exit the bus and make their way to the shore. When they were all safely ashore, they realized that several of the kids had some minor injuries, so they were taken to the offices of Dr. R.W. Phillips in Hamburg to be checked out. More from the 1962 LCP story:

“Those examined by the physician were Denise Gallup, who had a cut over her left eye, and Gary Nelson, who received a bruise on his right arm. The others were Sharon Ruggles, Linda Bolzman, Pam Winslow and Sam Matteson.”

The story also pointed out that the accident could have been much worse.

“It is most fortunate that the water was low and that the bus remained upright as the bridge collapsed.”

In the aftermath of the crash, the finger-pointing began. It was reported that nearby residents had been petitioning the county road commission for years to replace the rickety old bridge, and the county road commission superintendent said they were trying to figure out how to get the $50,000-$100,000 it would cost for a new one.

As for David Fischer, he appeared to shake off the incident pretty quickly. That afternoon, according to the story, he grabbed another bus and drove all the Winans Lake School kids home. That’s one dedicated bus driver right there.

The Winans Lake School lasted another 18 years. It was closed by the district in 1980, and the building was eventually sold and then torn down. There’s a private residence on the site now.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end there.

Once the bridge collapsed in 1962, a new one wasn’t built right away. This was a letter to the editor that ran in the LCP on Feb. 6, 1963 – five months after the crash – signed by the employees of the Wesson Multicut Co. in Hamburg:

That letter must have lit a fire under some butts, because in March, bids finally went out to build a new bridge. Construction began in May, and the new bridge finally opened on Oct. 15, 1963 – more than a year after the crash.

There’s a bridge there now, and I don’t know if it’s the same one they built back in 1963, but from the looks of things, it appears more than capable of handling a school bus.

Let’s hope so.

The Huron River Bridge as it looks today. (Photo from Google Maps.)

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