Point Ellice Bridge Disaster
On May 26th, 1896 many Victorians gathered to celebrate the 76th birthday of Queen Victoria. The festivities included a mock naval battle scheduled to take place in Esquimalt. Just before 2:00 pm that day, the Consolidated Electric Railway Company’s No. 16 street car crossed the Point Ellice Bridge loaded down with 143 passengers on their way to view the naval battle.
Due to lacking safety standards, poor bridge maintenance, and the overcrowded car, the street car fell into the water as the bridge gave out beneath it. 55 people died that day.
Boats raced to the scene to help and eventually the streetcar was pulled up onto the shore adjacent to Point Ellice House. Peter O’Reilly, then 67, wrote in his diary the next day:
Very bright sunshine – but a day of mourning – four divers still engaged in the endeavour to recover the bodies from the wreck of yesterday – vast crowds surround the fatal spot – boat launches steamers and a large derick [sic] constantly at work. 49 bodies taken out up to the present.
The O’Reilly family witnessed the recovery operation from their home as victims retrieved from the water were laid out on their lawn and the lawns of their neighbours.
One year later, on May 25th, 1897, Peter wrote:
Yesterday the Queen’s birthday was kept, but very quietly – no regatta, no racing, no nothing – I believe…Tomorrow the 26th a day never to be forgotten, when I believed for a while that I have lost my darling child but by gods’ miracle she was spared.
The transcriber of this letter (Royal BC Museum & Archives, A/E/Or3/Or31/File IV) notes that this means Kathleen must have been on or near the bridge at the time, or at least thought to have been.
While we do not know how each member of the O’Reilly residence reacted to this event, we do know that it remains a central moment in the history of Victoria and Point Ellice House.
For more information on the Point Ellice Bridge disaster please visit the following links:
- A video directed by Karl Spreitz, giving contemporary accounts of the disaster (Content warning for vivid accounts of death, including children)
- Lily Wray’s Grade 8 project on the Point Ellice Bridge Disaster
- “Living memory: 24th of May and the Point Ellice Bridge disaster”
- Daily Colonist news coverage from May 27th, 1896