This year is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Rondout Suspension Bridge (or the Wurts Street Bridge, the Port Ewen Bridge, or the Rondout-Port Ewen Bridge, etc!), which opened to vehicle traffic on November 29, 1921.
The bridge was constructed to replace the Rondout-Port Ewen ferry Riverside, which was affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as "Skillypot," from the Dutch "skillput," meaning "tortise." Spanning such a short distance, the ferry was small, and with the advent of automobiles, only able to carry one vehicle across Rondout Creek at a time, causing long delays. Motorists advocated for the construction of a bridge, which was set to begin in 1917. But when the United States joined the First World War that spring, construction was delayed until 1921.
Staff at the museum had long known that there was a woman welder on the construction crew, but we knew nothing beyond that. Had she learned to weld at a shipbuilding yard during the First World War? Was she a local resident, or someone from far away? There were more questions than answers, until a few weeks ago when HRMM volunteer researcher and contributing scholar George Thompson ran across a newspaper article that he said went "viral" in 1921. Entitled, "Woman Spider," and featured in the Morning Oregonian from Portland, Oregon, the article indicated that "Catherine Nelson, of Jersey City" was our famous woman welder.
Having a name sparked off a flurry of research and the collection of 37 separate newspaper articles, all variations on the same theme. Fourteen articles were all published on the same day, September 3, 1921. But only one had more information than the rest - "Never Dizzy, Says Woman Fly, Though Welding 300 Feet in Air. Mrs. Catherine Nelson Has No Nerves, She Loves Her work and Is Paid $30 a Day," published in the Boston Globe. Which, wonderfully, included a photo of Mrs. Catherine Nelson!
Here is the full article from the Boston Globe:
KINGSTON, NY, Sept 3 – Three hundred feet above the surface of Rondout Creek, a worker in overalls and cap has been moving about surefootedly for several days on the preliminary structure that is to support a suspension bridge across that stream.
Thousands of glances, awed and admiring, have been cast upward at the worker, stepping backward and forward and wielding an instrument that blazed blue and gold flames and welded together the cables from which the bridge will swing.
“Some nerve that fellow’s got!” was a favorite remark, to which would come the reply: “You said it!”
But there’s more than awe and admiration now directed aloft, for it turns out that “that fellow” is a woman – Mrs. Catherine Nelson of Jersey City, the only woman outdoor welder in the world.
Isn’t Afraid of Work
She isn’t afraid of her work; she loves it; and – of course this is a big inducement – she gets $30 a day for it. She has never had an accident in her seven years’ experience at the trade. She’s as strong as a man, weighing 180 pounds to her 5 ft 6 in of height, and is a good looking, altogether feminine, Scandinavian blonde. She’s 31.
"I was born in Denmark and was married there," Mrs Nelson told the reporter. "But my husband died and left me with two small children, so I had to shift for myself.
"For two years I worked as a stewardess on an ocean liner, but I could not have my children with me and my pay wasn’t much, so I cast about for harder and better-paid work, so I could have my own little home.
"My husband was a garage keeper in Denmark, and I had worked with him, so I knew something of machinery. I got a job in a machine shop in this country. They had an electrical welding department there and I soon got a place there. I grew to love the work and I’ve been at it for seven years.
Does Not Get Dizzy
"This is the highest job I’ve been on, but one of my first was on a water tower at Bayonne, 225 feet tall. I’ve been on smokestacks and tanks plenty. No, I don’t get dizzy. I wear overalls and softsoled shoes, and I’m always sure of myself, for I haven’t any nerves.
"I like to pride myself on the fact that I’ve never turned down a single welding job because it might be dangerous.'
Showing Mrs. Nelson’s standing in her trade, it was she who was sent up from Jersey City when Terry & Tench, the bridge contractors, asked the Weehawken Welding Company for their best operator.
"My children and I are happy and comfortable now,' she said; 'and I hope to afford to take them home to Denmark for Christmas. But I will come back and tackle some more welding jobs."
The last published article we could find, "Says She Has No Nerves," published in the Chickasha Star, in Chickasha, Oklahoma on September 16, 1921, is almost a verbatim reprint of the Boston Globe article.
As a cable welder, Catherine Nelson was responsible for welding together the cable splices that made up the longest length of the cable span. Wire cable is produced in limited sections, and often the cable was spliced together with welding, which is among the strongest of the splices, replacing the earlier versions of wire wrapping, and later screw splicing. Welded splices are stronger and more durable than both.
Most welding was typically done in a shop setting, but some, as with Catherine Nelson, were done on site. She may have done additional welding while walking the cables, as most of the newspaper stories focus on her working 300 feet up in the air.
Once the initial suspension cables were in place, supporting cables for the deck of the bridge could be constructed, which were designed to provide additional support, rigidity, and to spread the weight load across the entire bridge.
This particular bridge is said to be unique for its "stiffening truss," located under the deck of the bridge.
The bridge was opened on November 29, 1921 to great fanfare. It remains the oldest suspension bridge in the Hudson Valley, predating the longer Bear Mountain Bridge by several years.
As for Catherine Nelson? We've yet to find any additional information about her, but if you have any leads, or are a relative with family stories, please let us know in the comments!
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum, where she has worked since 2012. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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