The idea for On Cold Iron came to me in 1985, during my second year of law school. I was writing a paper on expert evidence and, being an engineer, I decided to use a bridge disaster as my case study. On August 29, 1907 the southern span of the Quebec Bridge, the longest cantilever bridge in the world, collapsed during construction, taking the lives of 76 men. A Royal Commission of Inquiry comprising three senior engineers was appointed by the federal government to investigate and determine the cause of the collapse. I first became aware of the disaster in my final year of engineering at the University of New Brunswick in 1978.
After completing the requirements for my engineering degree, I was invited to take part in the solemn Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, a ceremony created by Rudyard Kipling, in which the aspiring engineer takes an Obligation to adhere to high ethical and professional standards. During the ceremony, the Obligated engineer receives an Iron Ring, to be worn on the small finger of the working hand as a reminder of their Obligation. The first such ceremony took place in Montreal in 1925. It is uniquely Canadian.
When I received my Ring, I was told by a classmate that the original Rings were made from steel of the collapsed Quebec Bridge. For years I wondered about this possible connection and whether there was any truth behind it. But I didn’t pursue it, not until law school seven years later.
My research for my law school paper began with the four-hundred-page transcript of the proceedings before the Royal Commission of Inquiry. The story that unfolded from witness testimony was fascinating. It was a tale of hubris; arrogant engineers refusing to believe that their design was flawed, even though the Bridge was showing obvious signs of failure days before the collapse. The bridge could not have been saved, but the lives of those men might have been spared if there had been even a trace of humility in any of the senior engineers involved; they wouldn’t admit their mistakes. The story was dramatic; it had all the elements of a great human tragedy.
Although I can’t recall how I did, researching for my paper ignited in me a fascination for the story of the Quebec Bridge and its possible connection to the Iron Ring. That’s when I decided to write a book about it. But the book would have to do the story justice. It would need to bring this true story to life in a way that engineers would remember it, and hopefully learn something from it. The book could even serve as a reminder of the Obligation that we took, On Cold Iron.
That was 1985. My book was published in 2020; only took 35 years. At this rate, my next book should be out when I’m 102!
Muskrat Falls and the Quebec Bridge