A bridge to the past

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History series starts with Western Canada's first bridge

One can just about imagine the frustration Father Albert Lacombe must have felt back in 1862 as he wrung the mud and water of the Sturgeon River out of his boots for the umpteenth time.

The St. Albert mission had just been founded, and the settlers were trickling in. But that trickle was barred by the mighty Sturgeon, which ran right through the middle of it.

“Imagine you had a cart full of goods you were trying to move from one side to another and the mud you’d have to cope with,” said Joanne White, curator of the MusĂ©e HĂ©ritage Museum.

If St. Albert was to grow, it needed a way to get people and goods across this waterway.

So Lacombe built a bridge – the first such bridge in Canada west of the Great Lakes. That bridge’s successor at Perron Street spans the river at almost the exact same spot today, and may even have some of its ancestor’s bones beneath it.

St. Albert’s history is all around us if we think to look for it. As Canada approaches its own sesquicentennial, the Gazette will examine elements of this city’s past are still here, in some form, today.

St. Albert was a colony of maybe 20 homes in the early 1860s, almost all of which were on the north side of the Sturgeon, White said. If you wanted to cross, you either had to swim, ride a horse, push a scow, or wait until it froze.

“Accessibility equalled settlement,” White said.

“By having better trails, roads, and bridges, things like that, settlers were able to come and that’s what started to open up the west.”

Lacombe must had known this in 1862, a year when the Sturgeon was swollen and very dangerous to cross, reports St. Albert’s official history book, The Black Robe’s Vision. Lacombe called on the Hudson’s Bay Corp. at Fort Edmonton to back his construction of a bridge, promising to give their staffers free use of it if they did.

Lacombe then turned to his flock for the labour.

“My friends, I am through crossing the river, walking in mud on the bank and pushing the scow,” he said one Sunday during mass, reports the Black Robe’s Vision.

“I’ll build me a bridge. All those who help me, will cross over it free. The others will not. I will have a man there to watch.”

No surprise, then, that pretty much everyone in town showed up the next day with saws, ropes, axes, and horses, ready to work.

Lacombe directed them to build a bridge that was 200 feet long and 15 wide (about 61 by 4.5 metres), and supplied them with tea, pemmican, and encouragement.

“As the frame and trestlework emerged, people came to watch at the chosen sight and shake their heads in disbelief,” St. Albert historian Florence Pitre-Lefebvre writes in the Gazette.

After a few days of labour, it was done. The bridge became a major tourist attraction, with peopling coming for miles to see it. The Black Robe’s Vision reports that one First Nations man was so impressed at being able to cross the river without touching water that he tried to camp on the bridge.

Baptiste Galarneau was the first toll operator of the bridge, charging five cents per crossing except on evenings and weekends. That rose to 10 cents if you had a cart and 25 if you had a team of horses, said Roy Toomey, education programmer at the Musée.

That’s a lot of dough, suggests Bank of Canada spokesperson Josianne MĂ©nard. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, a five-cent toll in 1862 would be $5 to $9.15 in 2016 dollars.

Not everyone was a fan of the bridge, the Black Robe’s Vision reports. Hudson’s Bay governor James Dallas was furious when he learned of it and ordered it destroyed, but his underlings wisely left it in place.

Mother Nature was another critic, and washed the bridge away completely in 1875, necessitating its reconstruction, historian Arlene Borgstede writes in the Gazette.

Residents eventually tired of paying a toll for the bridge and asked the federal government to buy the structure in 1884. Bishop Vital Justin Grandin signed it over on Sept. 2, 1885, for $1,500, ending the toll era.

Borgstede writes that ice dams continued to wrack the bridge despite several ice-deflecting posts driven into the riverbed, necessitating a $5,000 rebuild in 1890.

With the arrival of the horseless carriage, the wood structure was showing its age. In August 1905, provincial bridge foreman Duncan Gillies stated that the bridge “may not be very safe for tractor engines.”

Those words proved prophetic, as on Sept. 23, 1913, a massive threshing engine driven by James McCauley crashed through the bridge deck, killing him.

The Edmonton Daily Bulletin reports that McCauley had disregarded the warnings of police officers to not take his engine onto the bridge and had told them, “If the bridge collapsed, the government was responsible.” A derrick had to be called in to remove the wreck.

“A strange fact is that McCauley had a brother killed at Leduc in a similar accident, about three years ago,” the Bulletin noted.

An inquest found rotten wood at the collapse site, but assigned no blame. Toomey said McCauley’s family tried to sue the community, but failed as McCauley had been warned.

The real tragedy was that the bridge was set to be replaced by a new steel model, White said.

“The steel was in Edmonton on its way here.”

The steel bridge was in place by 1914.

St. Albert historian Ray Pinco said it was the only bridge he knew of in town as he was growing up.

“It was kind of iconic.”

The bridge had concrete piers with a bit of a ledge on them as well as angular steel arches that rose far above its wood deck, Pinco said. Daredevils would scale these features to cross over and under the bridge.

The steel bridge wasn’t really built for cars, and wasn’t wide enough for a car and a bus to pass each other going opposite ways, the Gazette’s archives suggest. It was also very old, and just two lanes – inconvenient once the city widened Perron Street to four lanes, said Larry Galye, senior capital projects manager with the city.

Crews dismantled the bridge in the summer of 1984, preserving a few of its beams and a stone plaque that commemorated the original wood bridge as keepsakes. (Both are now in storage at the Musée, White said.) Its concrete replacement went in soon after.

Although it’s no longer the sole route across the river, the Perron Street Bridge is still the centre of downtown St. Albert and links Mission Hill to the city’s centre, White said.

Several chunks of the original bridge still exist. St. Albert carver Arthur Racine used tamarack from the 1862 bridge to build a scale model of it that’s now in the MusĂ©e. The MusĂ©e also has a chunk of what is thought to be a support or ice-deflection pillar from the bridge found preserved underground decades ago during sewer excavation. Tool marks are still visible on it, White said.

There are a few smashed posts sticking out of the riverbed under the current bridge that might be from the wood bridge era. Archival photos suggest that there were ice-deflection posts in roughly these same spots under the steel and the wood bridge, but records and historians checked by the Gazette were unable to determine the age of the posts. A chemical analysis of the posts could put this question to rest.

Galye said the current bridge should last until about 2034.

Links to the past

In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert’s history every month until July 2017. The features will typically run on the last Wednesday of each month.

Got a suggestion for our next topic? Send it to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.