Roy Vataja — Minnie Leitch and the Fourth Street Bridge

Right around 1900, Aberdeen experienced her first big growth spurt. Lumber had become an established industry and more ships were arriving at the docks daily. With the population nearly doubled, the city quickly outgrew the available space in the former tide flats and organically spread toward the hills. The primary need in the new residential areas was passable roads. Dirt was hauled from the hillsides to fill and level the gulches, creeks and sloughs that cut through the area and by 1914 the topography of the city appeared pretty much as it does today. One exception was east Fourth Street just off Broadway, where a bridge was constructed to carry street traffic, and where one of Aberdeen’s leading ladies met her end 100 years ago next Wednesday.

In 1899, John H. Leitch, a Canadian-born Michigan millman who had come to Centralia in 1890, arrived in Aberdeen to take advantage of the lumber boom. Joining with James Bryden, the men established the Bryden &Leitch Lumber Company on the south bank of the Chehalis River [where the south approach of the Chehalis River Bridge stands today], and by 1906 it was the 5th largest mill on the Harbor. Mr. Leitch was active in public affairs and had served on the city council, so it was a blow to the community when Leitch died suddenly of “neuralgia of the heart” on January 4, 1907, four days shy of his 54th birthday. Leitch’s widow, Minnie, inherited the estate and soon sold his share in the mill to the C.E. Burrows Company. Three years later, the mill complex was sold and renamed Donovan Mill No. 1.

The widow Leitch was an attractive and popular woman. She served as Worthy Associate Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star, Friends in Counsel, and a local women’s bowling club that would occasionally kick out the men-folk and take over the local Box Ball Alley for an evening. She lived life to the fullest, taking a trip to Europe in 1912 and purchasing a large home at 211 East Third Street which she operated as a rooming house.

It was about noon on May 21, 1914, that Minnie Leitch, shopping for a car, found herself at Poulson Auto Company on the northeast corner of Market and Broadway, local agents for White, Cadillac, and Maxwell automobiles. Minnie was an enthusiastic driver, having navigated the narrow gravel road to Montesano, and was often seen driving around town. Soon Minnie was behind the wheel of a used car belonging to P.A. Bertrand, manager of the Grays Harbor Railway &Light Company, who was looking to sell. Being unfamiliar with the operation of this particular machine, she was accompanied on the test drive by Leslie Poulson, the manager of the dealership.

With Minnie at the wheel and Poulson riding shotgun, they pulled out onto Broadway. Shortly, Minnie spotted her father, William Hunt, and persuaded him to join in the drive. Hunt climbed in the back seat and the trio was off, touring the residential district. Shortly after one o’clock, they were heading north on Broadway when Minnie, intent on attending the Sells-Floto Circus featuring the famous Buffalo Bill, which was in town that day, decided to head back to the dealership. As they approached Fourth Street, Poulson asked her to turn the car around but Minnie insisted on taking a right onto east Fourth Street and travel back by way of I Street.

In 1914, the first block of east Fourth Street had not been completely graded. In fact, the residents had appealed to the city to build a “rustic” bridge to span the diagonal gap between two short roadbeds that ran west from I Street and east from Broadway. The gully was rather picturesque, with a beautiful garden maintained by J.B. Bridges.

The road to the bridge was a gravel incline and Poulson warned Minnie to ride the foot brake as they descended. As the trio approached the bridge, Poulson told Minnie to turn to the left, but Minnie, whether out of panic or confusion, failed to take the left turn onto the bridge deck. Poulson made a frantic grab for the wheel, but it was too late. The heavy car smashed through the bridge railing and into the 15-foot-deep gully, landing about where the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church Parish Hall stands today. When the machine struck the dirt, the jutting front springs stuck fast and the car “turned turtle,” landing wheels up. Both Mr. Poulson and Mr. Hunt were thrown clear; Poulson suffering severe bruises and a cut on his scalp, and Hunt escaping with a sprained left foot. They were both in shock.

A number of people witnessed the tragedy and raced to rescue the woman, but upon lifting the auto they found that Minnie Leitch was beyond any medical aid. The vivacious 49-year-old widow had been trapped behind the wheel and her head was crushed between the car door and the earth. She died on impact.

The call for help went out and first on the scene was Aberdeen Police Sergeant Thomas Delehanty, a childhood friend of Minnie’s, who rode up on the police motorcycle. He was soon joined by Dr. D.A. Schumacher and Dr. E.A. Bartlett, the fire department and the ambulance. As the injured men were moved to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Mrs. Leitch’s body was transferred to the Whiteside Undertaking parlors.

Two days later, hundreds of friends and relatives packed the Presbyterian Church at First and Broadway for Minnie Leitch’s funeral services officiated by Rev. F.F.W. Greene, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. The many floral tributes from friends and organizations, including a large floral pillow from the roomers in Mrs. Leitch’s house, a magnificent floral five-pointed star from the Order of the Eastern Star, and a harp of white flowers from the Masonic brotherhood, were placed around the bier. Members of the Order of Eastern Star occupied seats in the center of the church with the officers of the organization gowned in pure white. The choir, conducted by W.O. McCaw, concluded the services with a beautiful rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Following the church funeral the remains were moved back to the Whiteside Chapel, where it lay in state and viewed for the last time by many. The body was then sent to Centralia where she was interred beside the body of her husband, Mr. John H. Leitch.

In the months following, the Leitch estate was sued by both the Poulson Auto Company and P.A. Bertrand. Bertrand charged that the damaged automobile had been purchased prior to the accident, however he was unable to provide proof of the transaction and the suit was tossed out. Poulson lost in a suit for damages with the court holding that “Poulson, who was demonstrating a car with the view of a sale to Mrs. Leitch, was negligent in care of the machine”.

Perhaps the Aberdeen Daily World best summed up the tragedy, and Minnie Leitch’s place in the community, when they wrote, “No accident in the history of the city has called forth such widespread regret as that which resulted in Mrs. Leitch’s death, and the regret is none the less keen by the fact that the accident appears to have been wholly unavoidable, with blame attached to no one.”

In the wake of the accident, the Fourth Street Bridge was removed, the gully was filled, and the street graded to slope from Broadway to I Street.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and gets pretty cranky when people don’t use their turn signals.


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