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Heritage Bridges

We take bridges for granted, yet they are vital works of construction that connect places and people separated by waterways.  In fact, bridges are some of Canada's iconic structures, and they have been designed by innovative engineers who have tried to overcome the difficulties of climate and terrain. Therefore, you will find a variety of bridge designs, the most common being suspension, truss, or arched. Here, then, is an exploration of some of the more interesting historic bridges in Canada.

CentreStreetBridgeNext time you are in Calgary, perhaps you might want to pause to look more closely at Centre Street Bridge, which spans over the Bow River. Completed in 1916, it connects downtown Calgary with the Crescent Heights neighbourhood. The bridge has four arched spans, has a high degree of ornamentation, and has upper and lower traffic desks that could accommodate cars, pedestrians, and at one time two streetcar lines. The bridge was designed by bridge expert J.F. Greene - also the engineer for many pioneering bridges in the United States - and he is considered to be one of the main contributors to the City Beautiful planning movement in Calgary. Adding to the overall aesthetic look was Calgary artist James L. Thompson, who had massive sculptures of lions mounted on top of two pairs of kiosks at either side of the bridge. While the lions are supposed to symbolize the British Empire, Thompson's other sculptures show his interest in the cultural connections of his age: so there are buffalo heads, which represent Western Canada; maple leaves, symbolizing Canada, roses, for England; shamrocks, for Ireland; and thistles, for Scotland. Notice how the bridge adds to the natural landscape of the Bow River valley.

HagwigletBridgeThe Hagwilget Bridge in British Columbia is another awe-inspiring engineering marvel. Built in 1932, this single-lane steel suspension bridge makes use of a trussed steel deck, has one tower at each end for support, and spans the rugged Bulkley River canyon. By linking the Kitimat-Stikine region, it connects inland First Nations communities with those on the coast, thus maintaining valuable trade networks that have been well-established since the 19th century. When the first bridge was built in the 19th century, it was a cantilever construction with a central span built first with wood and rope, and later with telegraph wire. A second bridge was constructed in the same spot in 1912, and was made of wood and wrought iron.  The third - and last - bridge has been a vital highway link between northern coastal British Columbia and the Yukon for almost 80 years.

Of the many historic landmarks in Quebec City, there is one that is perhaps an overlooked, but is a work of engineering genius. The Québec Bridge National Historic Site - which spans the St. Lawrence River and connects Québec with Lévis - was considered one of the greatest engineering feats in the world when it was built in 1917. It is the longest clear span truss bridge in the world, and head engineer H. E. Vautelet decided to use nickel steel rather than cheaper (and more popular) carbon steel, and used a "K Truss" design that allowed for a 500 metre free span section. A "K Truss" refers to two diagonal beams PontDeQuébecsupporting one main beam, thus creating a "K" shape. During construction, the bridge's free span section was floated along the river to the cantilever arms, then raised, and riveted in place. It is worth noting that the cantilevered arms are supported by two massive masonry pillars which were sunk into the river bed. The length of the bridge is 987 metres and the height is 95 metres. Designated as a monument to civil engineering, it is still one of the most important bridges built in Canada, and provides fantastic views of the river, of the steep river banks, and of the two cities it connects.

On a smaller scale, it is worth mentioning the West Montrose Covered Bridge, Ontario's last remaining covered bridge which crosses the Grand River near Woolwich in the Region of Waterloo. Built in 1881, it was originally constructed solely of wood, is 208 feet long, and is painted a distinctive red colour. Affectionately nicknamed the "Kissing Bridge", it has window openings that allow for views of the nearby wooded landscape, and is itself an iconic feature of the landscape. Another such bridge can be found in New Brunswick, but this one - known as Hartland Covered Bridge - is the longest of its kind in the world. It crosses the St. John River near Hartland, New Brunswick, and its construction in 1921 helped local travellers by replacing lengthy detours. Built using "Howe" trusses (beams which slope towards a central beam), it has concrete piers supporting the trusses with their tapered shape to break the ice flows on the river, as well as interior electric lighting.

Finally, if you are visiting Vancouver, a bridge that is not to be missed is the Lions Gate Bridge National Historic Site, which by its very design and location adds to Vancouver's iconic image.  Designed by Victoria-born engineer Alfred J. Taylor and completed in 1938, it is the longest suspension bridge in Western Canada, spanning Burrard Inlet and linking the peninsula of downtown Vancouver with North Vancouver.  This bridge is another engineering marvel, using innovative techniques such as a think deck, open steelwork in the twin towers, and suspension cables to create a light and soaring look.  Adding to the overall design are two Art Deco lion sculptures at the south entrance.  Well-used by commuters, it is also a primary tourist attraction.

Canada, then, is filled with many historic bridges that are engineering triumphs and aesthetically beautiful pieces of construction.  Many of us think nothing of them as we commute across them daily, but not only are they key transportation links, bridges are also important visual landmarks.  Next time you visit an historic bridge, take a moment to celebrate its role in helping to stitch together our country.


Hartland Bridge (NB) - longest covered bridge in the world

Hagwilget Bridge (BC) - suspension bridge

Centre Street Bridge (Calgary)

West Montrose Covered Bridge (Grand River)

Québec Bridge National Historic Site (Québec)

Lions Gate Bridge National Historic Site (Vancouver)