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On Cold Iron: A Story of Hubris and the 1907 Quebec Bridge Collapse

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When engineering students in Canada are soon to graduate, the solemn "Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer," penned by none other than Rudyard Kipling, charges them with their Obligation to high standards, humility, and ethics. Each budding engineer then receives an Iron Ring to be worn on the small finger of the working hand as a reminder throughout their career.

Through the story of the 1907 Quebec Bridge disaster, in which seventy-six men died, author Dan Levert teaches a powerful object lesson in what can happen when that Obligation is forgotten. Woven from transcripts of the inquiry into the collapse, the report of the commissioners, and other sources including the coroner's inquest, On Cold Iron plays out like a fast-paced thriller. Levert recounts the original 1850s proposals to bridge the St. Lawrence near Quebec City, through the design and construction of what was to be the longest clear span bridge of any kind in the world, to its shocking collapse during construction in August 1907.
The missteps, poor policies, hubris, and wrong-headed actions begin to build like a death by a thousand cuts, until its inevitable and horrifying culmination.

The meticulously researched and deftly delivered story of this terrible historical event makes fascinating reading for anyone, but even more, it is a powerful cautionary tale and a clarion call for the obligation and responsibility of an engineer....

276 pages, Hardcover

Published March 12, 2020

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Dan Levert

2 books2 followers

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Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Penning.
Author 7 books49 followers
May 8, 2020
On Cold Iron is a captivating meditation not only on the responsibility of engineers to ensure public safety, but also on the very real tragedy that can occur when their duty to speak truth to power is undermined. Its meticulous attention to detail speaks to what must have been years of dedicated research. The result is a comprehensive and authoritive account of the factors that led to the 1907 collapse of the Quebec Bridge, what was revealed in its aftermath, and the lessons that could and should have been learned.

As a English Lit. geek, I was intrigued by Rudyard Kipling’s connection to the engineer's ritual of "Obligation" and am now even more curious about what exactly is not “for the public nor the press”. The chapters immediately leading up to the bridge’s collapse were also particularly engaging. There was a rising tension as they discovered more and more evidence that the bridge was failing and yet the daily inertia of those responsible kept contributing to a maddening sense of tragic inevitability. One particular young engineer, Kinloch, was especially sympathetic as a man caught between his instincts and the bureaucracy that governed him. The vignettes of some of the specific workers’ lives also gave a human face to the tragedy that I found was very important. The details about the Kahnawake First Nations workers were also particularly effective, and given what happened in Canada’s residential schools, I was reading in dread as they discussed what to do with the orphans left behind in the wake of so many deaths.

I highly recommend On Cold Iron to anyone with an interest in Canadian history or engineering. In fact, given its value as a cautionary tale, it should be on the mandatory reading lists of all engineering students. Congrats to Dan Levert for a very fine achievement.
1 review1 follower
August 9, 2021
I read this book over a single weekend, and I found it mesmerizing. As a Canadian structural engineer myself, I read it with a particularly intimate lens. The author did a remarkable job of painting the multi-faceted picture of how things go wrong on this sort of scale. This was such a valuable reminder of the need for checks, staying humble, inviting outside review, and practicing with integrity. An absolute must-read for those in the industry, and a gripping read for everyone else!
1 review
June 1, 2021
Writers of good non-fiction create a story where the reader, rather than simply going to the glossary or index and seeking out the parts of the book that interest him or her, is compelled to read the entire work. Dan Levert has certainly accomplished this by melding two uniquely Canadian historical events together. The first is the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” and the second is perhaps the greatest Canadian engineering failure that has ever occurred. The book is certainly an essential read for all engineers, but the way Levert tells the story makes it a must for all. Many elements of the book grab the reader’s attention, but what resonated with me were the particular challenges and conflicts inherent in building a large ground-breaking project in Canada, while relying on American manufacturers and engineers. Levert explores these in great detail and gives the reader a first-hand view of what can happen when the consulting engineer, with the final say on design, does not leave his New York office to view the progress of the bridge and the problems being reported. And, of course, the victims of the hubris that Levert describes were many, from the inexperienced resident engineer, to the Mohawk ironworkers. Perhaps the book’s finest quality is that the reader really gets to know many of these victims, both from the perspective of what they were going through during the construction of the bridge, and what their families went through after its collapse.
Tom Davis Montréal
3 reviews
November 9, 2020
I thoroughly enjoyed On Cold Iron and found it not only informative, but eye opening. The author, Dan Levert, not only challenges the mythology behind the Iron Ring ceremony, but made the tragic story of the Quebec bridge collapse so vivid, real and human. Over the course of our studies and careers as engineers, many of us have faintly heard about the bridge and its relationship to the iron ring that is worn by Canadian engineers but we have rarely related what we know directly to the actions of real engineers, companies and government bodies who didn’t do all that they could to prevent the loss of so many lives. Nor did we have a full appreciation of the human impact of engineers’ inaction. Mr Levert put human faces and names to the suffering that occurred. This book is a stark and important reminder of the obligation that engineers have to protect the public and those who work under their supervision. I highly recommend this book to all engineers, not just those in Canada, especially in an age where we have seen all too often the impacts of technologies gone wrong.
September 29, 2020
Je m’intéresse à l’histoire du pont de Québec depuis environ 50 ans. J’ai donné plus de 2 000 conférences sur le sujet et j’ai aussi écrit quelques volumes pour raconter l’histoire fascinante de ce pont exceptionnel. J’ai lu récemment le livre "On Cold Iron" de l’ingénieur Dan Levert que j’ai grandement apprécié. M. Levert a effectué une recherche approfondie pour découvrir toutes les circonstances qui ont conduit à la grande catastrophe du 29 août 1907 lorsque le pont de Québec s’est écroulé. Même si je pense bien connaître l’histoire de ce pont, on ne peut jamais dire que l’on connaît tout sur un sujet. J’ai donc découvert dans le livre de M. Levert de nouvelles informations qui viennent compléter mes années de recherche. Je vous le recommande !
Michel L’Hébreux, auteur
Le Pont de Québec, éditions Septentrion (3e édition, 2008)
Ce sera le plus grand pont du monde (éditions Les 400 coups, 2019)
Curieuses histoires du pont de Québec (éditions Septentrion, 2020)

I have been interested in the Quebec Bridge for the past fifty years. I have written three books and given more than 2,000 presentations on the subject. I very much enjoyed reading On Cold Iron written by engineer Dan Levert. Mr. Levert’s thorough research brings to light all of the facts and circumstances that led to the collapse of the Quebec Bridge on August 29, 1907. I thought I knew the history of this bridge well, but one can never claim to know all there is to know on a subject. I discovered in Mr. Levert’s book new information that complements my years of research. I highly recommend it!
1 review
August 15, 2020
This is a taken from a hand-written review from Mary Simmons 92 years old "A true story from Canadian history. A real gem, impossible to put down, so exciting it grabs you from beginning to end. Not only is it an account of the rise and fall of the Quebec Bridge built in 1907 in Quebec, but also the story of the fate of those who planned it and the decisions that would ultimately lead to great loss of life and tragedy.
All was not lost however; the idea continued and it took much courage, bravery, skill and perseverance on the part of the bridge builders to begin again, to the ultimate triumph of the Quebec Bridge as it stands today- the longest span cantilever bridge in the world.
Rudyard Kipling's contribution to the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer is intriguing, a real gift to the Canadian engineering profession.
A lot can be learned from this modern "Greek Tragedy". It inspires the young and gives thought to the old. It is written with skill, experience and clarity.
Mary Simmons, Victoria, BC"
1 review
September 8, 2020
On Cold Iron starts out with the fascinating historic details related to the foundation of “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” in Canada. It celebrates the beautiful wording from Sir Rudyard Kipling and its importance to the Engineering profession and society as a whole who rely on the advice. Through great detail on the 1907 Quebec bridge disaster It digs deeply into why the ritual was and is needed today.

Dan Levert takes us through the details on all the main characters and their actions and inactions which led to the collapse of the Quebec Bridge. The hubris, sign offs on work without knowledge, reliance on figureheads, lack of accountability and off site control are still somewhat evident today as demonstrated by the Muskrat Falls project (financial consequences) in Newfoundland & Labrador. This important piece of work should be highlighted in Engineering schools to bring us back to our “On Cold Iron” roots.
1 review
May 16, 2021
I could not put this book down. The story of the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse, its effect on the Engineering community and the entire country, is well told in a style a layperson can understand and appreciate. The subsequent development of the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer and the oath of Obligation, with its connection to Rudyard Kipling, is touching. The broader aftermath the tragedy has parallels to another Canadian disaster, the tainted blood scandal, some eighty years later. In both disasters a combination of ignorance, arrogance, hubris and financial imperative trumped safety. The response of all levels of government.was similar. Following both disasters there were lengthy inquiries. No person, organization or government was really held accountable. Nothing changes.
May 25, 2020
Had me at the first chapter. Was most interesting reading how the Obligation came about.

As a right brainer the pictures and descriptions helped to carry you along as events unfolded.

The egos, the unquestioned confidence in the hierarchy, and the personalities lead to this horrible tragedy. Unforgettable reading.

I found it very engaging, got right into it. Recommend it!
1 review
August 2, 2020
Well written with a wealth of technical information regarding the first Quebec bridge and the series of blunders that ultimately resulted in the collapse in August 1907. A clear reminder of the critical importance of an engineer’s obligation to careful and conservative design and of his/her acceptance of peer review of their work.
1 review
August 26, 2020
Thank you, Dan Levert, for bringing this tragic story to us and giving it the attention it deserves.
On Cold Iron will certainly go down well with the Canadian engineering community with all the interesting new details about the Ritual and Rudyard Kipling’s involvement, which together with the Quebec bridge disaster are foundational elements of the Canadian engineering culture. Beyond the interesting details, this is an important book for the engineering community in that it provides context for the Ritual, clearly illustrates the ethical link between the Ritual and the Quebec bridge disaster and spells out in heart breaking detail the importance of humility in the working life of an engineer.
This well-written book also has a broad public appeal. It as about human failure which results in a great human loss. Who does not recognize a project with inadequate government and board oversight, lack of clear, competent technical leadership, lack of on-site engineering expertise and leadership, and incompetence and hubris embedded as cultural norms? There are many examples.
A book with a known ending must have something special to keep the reader interested. Dan Levert provides a factual timeline of documented events over a period of many years for a great human tragedy that seemed to occur in a fog outside human comprehension. Throughout the tragedy, the evidence was in front of the people involved but they could not recognize the danger. I could not put the book down until I had understood the dynamics of the situation, both human and steel, and how the tragedy flowed from beginning to end.
Profile Image for The Idea Shop.
2 reviews
December 3, 2021
If you are a reader for whom the words “Canadian history” and “page turner” have never really come together in any meaningful way, On Cold Iron will be a surprisingly satisfying read.

On Cold Iron begins by unravelling the Toronto origins of the famed iron ring worn by Canadian engineers and in doing so, ultimately brings readers face to face with the world's worst bridge disaster-the tragic 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse which claimed 76 lives.

This meticulously researched book, which is enhanced by a selection of well-chosen archival photographs of the Quebec Bridge both before and after it’s collapse, reads like a real-life Canadian history whodunnit.

A meticulously researched real life disaster story passionately crafted from a host of historical documentation into a taut narrative with meaningful moral implications, On Cold Iron is an unforgettable read which offers an unprecedented look at a tragic event in Canadian history.
1 review
August 21, 2021
In "On Cold Iron", Dan Levert explains the history behind and the basis for the Obligation contained in the "Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer". He then tells the story of the Quebec bridge collapse in which illustrates the tragic results which can occur when the Obligation is not followed.

I had a concern before starting the book that it would focus on technical and legal matters. That concern proved to be unfounded. Dan Levert writes in a way that brings out the human side of the story. Characters are developed, and the decisions or lack thereof, of these individuals are shown to be the contributing factors in the collapse.

The manner in which the story is told is a sobering cautionary tale to all who have worked on or aspire to work on major projects, and a reminder of why the "Obligation of the Engineer" is so important.
Profile Image for Stevie.
143 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2022
I probably should have given this book more stars, but, for me it was a four star because it was hard to understand the complicated elements involved in bridge building. I met the author’s wife through a mutual friend, and because of that was curious to read this book. I learned a great deal about building a bridge, my vocabulary improved, and I discovered what a Canadian engineer’s obligation entails. Extremely interesting.
Profile Image for Mike.
261 reviews12 followers
May 10, 2023
While a good part of this account of the Quebec Bridge disaster is much too technical for me, Mr. Levert is still successful in documenting the errors in a manner that even a layman can understand...

His description of the collapse on the day is harrowing and reads somewhat like a thriller...

This is an excellent account of the arrogance that inhabits people when they become full of their own reputations and seek to make monuments to themselves...
Profile Image for Corey.
24 reviews
March 20, 2022
One sentence takeaway: Ground breaking creations requires engineering that incorporates a mix of theory, field validations, and an organizational structure that fosters front line decision making and peer review. If any of these dimensions is missing or weak, these creations are more susceptible to flaws.
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews

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