The worn wooden handle of the saw jutted out of the concrete. What held onto the buried end, no one wanted to know…
A ghost story isn’t just a ghost story.
Whether you believe a tale is fact or fiction is immaterial. Either way, the tale itself illuminates the history of a region and its residents. And Indiana, in 200+ year history as a state, has amassed plenty of ghost stories. Few are as telling, and as terrible, as the story of the spandrel bridge crossing White Lick Creek in Avon, Indiana.
Simply known as the Avon Bridge, this century-old bridge and its stories have been tattooed on the identity of the town (and, in its inclusion on the town’s official seal, its legislation).
But what horrific tale is connected to the Avon Bridge? That’s not easy to say, because there are several. Among the most popular are recent reports of a mother’s wailing cries after she futility shielded her child with her body against an oncoming train decades ago.
As terrible as that story sounds, the legend of the Irish worker buried alive in the bridge is both earlier and more reflective of the region’s history. Since it’s far more likely, then it’s the story we’ll share.
The 1900s were a hard time for the Irish in America, even in Indiana. Long before labor laws and unions, the Irish helped build this country brick by brick. In fact, they contributed so successfully to the fortunes of the United States that most forget the Irish were among the early “hated” immigrant classes.
A hundred years ago, dozens of underpaid and overworked men, many of them Irish, built the Avon Bridge. Commissioned by the Big Four Railroad to span the White Lick Creek and supplement rail shipping to and from Indianapolis, the bridge sported a unique spandrel design, which made it both incredibly strong and uniquely aesthetic. But it took a lot of work.
Spandrel construction, or more simply construction relying on curved arches for support, was fairly new and possible only through the increasing reliability of concrete (concrete is hardened cement, for those that don’t know the difference).
All that is fact.
Here’s the legend…
A group of Irish workers were crossing the temporary walkway across the bridge after pouring several tons of cement that would become the meat of the arches. Although dangerous, crossing the six or seven inches of walkway with White Lick Creek yawning below them was just a matter of course for the workers. Something they’d done a hundred times and do a hundred times more.
But this time, one slipped.
One second the Irishman stood firmly on the walkway, the next second he was tumbling through the air.
His coworkers froze, half expecting to see his body splash into White Lick Creek and break on the jutting rocks. He didn’t. Instead, the poor Irishman fell squarely into the mess of cement ten feet below them. Neither he nor his friends could believe the luck. You can imagine they enjoyed a short moment of relief as a crisis narrowly averted.
Then a longer moment of terror as his body slow gurgled and sank into the deep cement. Once the fallen Irishman realized this, he strained to stand up, but this jerking movement only made him sink faster. He cried and cursed and stared up at his friends, his arm outstretched for help, but they were too far away.
One quick–thinking worker trod across the narrow walkway as fast as caution would allow and, sitting on a pile of unused tools, found the closest thing to a rope: a two-man crosscut saw. Six feet long with heavy wooden handles, a two man crosscut saw would be strong enough to lift anyone. He hefted it over his shoulder and carried it back.
By now the fallen Irishman had sunk to his chest in the cement. Its weight squeezed his chest, making each breath an effort. He couldn’t move his feet, legs or hips, only his arms and neck.
The workers spread themselves on their bellies across the walkway, one holding the legs of another in a human chain. The strongest of them dangled the two-man saw down above the fallen Irishmen, telling him to grab it. For God’s sake, grab it!
The fallen Irishman did. With a cry, both his hands found and wrapped firmly around the handle. He sobbed with relief. The rescuer pulled and the rest waited for the fallen Irishman’s body to slow rise from the cement.
As they pulled, they didn’t realize they weren’t just lifting the hundred-and-fifty pound body of their countryman. They were also attempting to lift the hundreds of pounds of cement firmly holding his body. It was futile.
The saw handle popped from the rescuer’s grip like a champagne cork, and they gazed down in horror as the relief evaporated from the fallen Irishman’s eyes. He didn’t let it go, however, hoping for rescue that would not come. He cried and waggled the saw at them and his friends cried, but nothing could be done.
Minutes ticked by. and he sank lower and lower, past his chest to his shoulders, to his neck, to his chin. The weight of the cement crushed him slowly. His breath narrowed to a straw.
Then the cement covered his mouth.
Here was a moment, so memorable and so horrible, where he screamed beneath the cement and his muffled scream drifted up to his friends. Then the stone slurry flooded his mouth. His eyes must have blinked as wide and frightened as a snared rabbit when he sank past his nose, and he breathing ceased.
Sure enough, at that moment, his friends could see his eyes as they widened and then grew glassy and dead.
He had never let go of the saw handle. It sank with him. Long after his body had gone the steel jutted out of the cement, jittering at first and then growing still.
When it was over, it was like nothing had happened.
Removing his body from the concrete would have been far too costly, especially for the sake of recovering a simple worker’s body (an immigrant worker at that, the company no doubt weighed). The body was left buried.
Either as a reminder or out of fear, the remains of the two-man saw were left as well, sticking out of the concrete and rusting in the rain and snow.
Eventually someone hacked away the saw as well, long after the bridge was completed and the tragedy had passed into legend. And as part of that legend, visitors to the Avon Bridge have reported hearing the cries, moans and wails of the fallen Irishman, whose supposed remains are still entombed in the bridge today.
That’s the legend.
Whether you believe it or not, there are lessons to be taken from it. Our debt to the Irish in America. The callousness of big business when they decided not to retrieve his remains, and their disregard for basic safety precautions are also obvious ones.
Another is the desperation of a friendless class of workers hoping their backbreaking work might support their families. A more positive one is the effort countrymen will go to, no matter how futile it might seem, to save one of their own. Fewer ideals are as noble. Or as American.
But there is one, more disturbing, thought to take away from this legend.
Part of us, the morbid part, or the part someone once said “we don’t like to talk about at parties”, wants the story to be true, even if it means someone had suffered a century ago for it. It’s not satisfying to say it’s a local piece of lore.
It’s far more satisfying to say this really happened…
THAT inclination is the real horror story.