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By: Lawrence Herzog
From no bridges to five river crossings
In the first dozen years of the 20th century, Edmonton went from no bridges to five river crossings. Those five bridges, opened between 1900 and 1913, were to serve the growing city without any additions for nearly the next 50 years.
The first train crosses the Low Level Bridge, October 20, 1902. Photo courtesy City of Edmonton Archives
Built in the days before readily available heavy machinery and the popularization of the internal combustion engine, the bridges were constructed using mostly human and animal power. Here’s a look at three of Edmonton’s earliest engineering marvels.
Low Level Bridge
In the early 1890s, Edmonton businessman began lobbying the federal government to build a bridge across the North Saskatchewan River. The only regular conveyance across the water then was John Walter’s cable ferries, which began service in April 1882, but only ran when there was no ice in the river.
Low Level Bridge
The federal government eventually agreed to fund a bridge and construction on piers began in March 1898. But the project was delayed by a shortage of materials and then the river flooded in August 1899, submerging the piers. Within days, plans had been made to add eight feet to the height of the piers.
The bridge was completed in April 1900, and the honour of driving the last rivet went to pioneer Donald Ross, for whom Rossdale is named. The first train crossed on October 20, 1902 – Canadian Northern locomotive No. 26 with a coach, box car and two flat cars. The city was jubilant about the first train to cross the river into Edmonton and Mayor William Short proclaimed the day a civic holiday.
The first streetcar crossed the bridge in 1908. Over the years, the bridge has carried vehicular, train and pedestrian traffic across its deck. Initially the single-lane bridge handled trains, wagons and pedestrians and then a wooden deck was added to handle other vehicles.
The great flood in June 1915 prompted the decision to raise the deck another three feet, but it took 30 years for work to actually get underway. The June 15th, 1947 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin reported that “hydraulic jacks will inch the deck up to a maximum of three feet at the centre and 18 inches at each end. New steel beams will be placed beneath the deck.”
The lift operation brought the old span to the same level as a new parallel one, constructed to the south of the original. With Edmonton booming, traffic levels surged dramatically and, to alleviate congestion, a carbon copy bridge, based on the plans of the original but with a wider deck, was officially opened August 2nd, 1949.
Low Level Bridge today
Southbound traffic continues to use the newer bridge, while northbound traffic uses the original one, handling more than 27,000 vehicles a day. Major rehabilitation work on the Low Level was completed in 2006.
Clover Bar Rail Bridge being built in October 1908.
Clover Bar Rail Bridge
Clover Bar Bridge
Opened in 1908, this mammoth cast iron and concrete bridge east of 34th Street and north of 120th Avenue gave Edmonton its first railway crossing. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) originally intended to cross the North Saskatchewan River where the High Level Bridge now stands, but the rail company was unable to reach an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Today there are three bridges at Clover Bar
With some monetary inducement from Edmonton, the railway decided instead to cross the river at Clover Bar, where the river was at its narrowest. It was a massive undertaking and construction on the 1,655 foot long structure began in 1907. To meet the grade on both sides of the valley, the top deck was erected 138 feet above the river’s mean low water level.
For the first half of the 20th century, the railway bridge was the only way to cross the river between Beverly and Clover Bar. Residents and miners walking to work at the mines on the eastern side of the river regularly walked across the top deck of the structure, dodging trains.
Rail bridge on top of the car bridge
“There were about eight wooden water barrels across the bridge – four on each side,” remembered long time resident Harry Walters. “If a train came when you were on the bridge you would climb into the barrel until the train passed.”
In the summer of 1953, the Beverly (vehicle) Bridge opened, bringing to an end the need for harrowing and dangerous high level crossings. A twin vehicle bridge was added in 1972, also to the south of the old railway bridge.
Clover Bar Foot Bridge
The East End (Dawson) Bridge
In its early years, it was known as the river crossing in the East End, but considering the role H.J. Dawson had in getting the bridge built, it’s fitting that today we know it as the Dawson Bridge. Dawson, who founded the Dawson Coal Company in 1907, gave city council a kick in the pants in 1910, telling them to bloody well build it – as they promised the would in their election campaigns.
The Dawson Bridge
Work began in 1911 on a structure 776 feet long and 41 feet wide – longer and wider than the Low Level. The Dominion Government required that the channel span of the bridge be erected 45 feet above the low watermark, necessitating five Pratt Truss spans, which was one more than the Low Level and two more than the Fifth Street Bridge, also under construction then.
Another location further east was considered, but city engineers settled on the crossing connecting Rowland Road and 106th Avenue for its proximity to downtown and favorable slopes at either end. The location resulted in maximum grades of eight per cent, suitable for street railway traffic.
The Dawson Bridge
As work progressed, the local media waxed eloquent about the technology and the achievement. “The bridge is of the most modern construction and is destined to carry the heaviest build of cars,” reported the Daily Capitol in its June 14th, 1912 edition. “The bridge is 41 feet wide, with two six-foot sidewalks and a 26-foot roadway. This is wide enough for teams to pass each other and a street car as well.”
With piers of concrete, a steel skeleton and timber decking, the total cost of the bridge was placed at $145,000. It opened to traffic October 8th, 1912, with the Edmonton Bulletin reporting the first vehicle was a truck hauling a load of lumber.
The Dawson Bridge
Re-decking happened in 1926 and again in 1942 and the piers were rehabilitated in 1951. The structure was repainted in 1938 and 1959, when the original black colour was changed to gray. The work took 600 gallons of paint – 300 of red lead base and 300 of the outer coat.
The bridge itself has survived not only the march of time, but also several proposals to replace it with a wider, more modern structure. In 1967, Edmonton City Council approved the Dawson Corridor, which was to result in a new bridge. Neighbourhood protest eventually killed the scheme in 1984 and the bridge was closed for 114 days in 1986 for resurfacing.
Nearly a century after H.J. Dawson gave city council a kick in the pants, his namesake is still fulfilling its original function.
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Tags: Edmonton heritage