Monday, 4 July 2016

The Arlington Bridge & Other Historic Bridges of Winnipeg

Written by Laura Wiens, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp. 
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director. 

Every heritage conservation project has its own challenges, but historically significant bridges tend to be even more difficult to conserve than buildings. A building can often be redeveloped for a new use while preserving its historical character defining elements, but it is often much harder to repurpose a bridge for a number of reasons.

If a bridge was only built to accommodate one lane of traffic in each direction, it isn’t possible to make it accommodate more traffic without major construction, basically rebuilding the entire bridge. If a bridge wasn’t originally made to carry pedestrians, trying to make space for pedestrian traffic over a bridge is often unrealistic and would not meet modern safety requirements.

Many bridges are built strictly for functionality and are not particularly pleasing to the eye. There often isn’t the same community sentiment toward a bridge that there may be toward a building that has a beautiful design and significant social history. People view bridges are just there out of necessity. Even though bridges can be hugely significant in exhibiting historical changes, engineering innovation and architectural design, without community support, heritage conservation for bridges is often impossible to accomplish. 

The Arlington Bridge has been in danger of demolition for years. Photo taken by Christian Cassidy.

Railway bridges are even more difficult, because they fall under federal jurisdiction, meaning they cannot be designated as municipal or provincial historically significant sites.

In the late 90s, a United States Department of Transportation report stated that approximately 40% of bridges in the United States were structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. That number was approximately the same for Canada. New American studies in 2013 showed that the percentage of obsolete bridges in the U.S. has improved. Only about 10% of bridges are deficient. In Canada however, the percentage of obsolete bridges was still about 30% in 2012.

Winnipeg’s first permanent traffic bridge opened on August 8, 1880. After the opening ceremony a group of people got drunk off a large amount of stolen liquor, which was intended for city councillors, and they became disorderly in the streets.

One of the next bridges constructed in Winnipeg didn’t even last a week. The Broadway Bridge was built to connect Winnipeg to Provencher Boulevard in St. Boniface. The bridge had only been open four days when it collapsed. Ice jams raised the water levels, and ice flows smashed into the bridge’s piers higher than they had been built to maintain. Luckily, everyone on the bridge managed to make it to safely to shore before the bridge collapsed.

The oldest surviving bridge in Winnipeg is the Redwood Bridge. It was built in 1907-1908. It was built with 700 tonnes of reinforced steel, and had a mid-river swing span. It has had a few upgrades over the years and the swing span is no longer used, but this bridge is still going strong.

The Redwood Bridge in 1909. Photo courtesy of the Manitoba Archives.

The 8th bridge in Winnipeg was the Arlington Bridge. Built in 1912, it crossed from Brown to Brant Street over the huge CP rail yards. Sadly some people have been saying the Arlington Bridge needs to come down almost since the day it was built. And now, that will finally be happening. The City of Winnipeg has scheduled the Arlington Bridge to be demolished by 2020. City councillors throughout the years have been saying the bridge had reached the end of its lifespan.

The Arlington Bridge in 2007. Photo by Christian Cassidy.

Alderman A. A. McArthur was the main advocate for a bridge in the location of Brown and Brant Street, (later renamed Arlington Street after the bridge connected the two) but many people disagreed with him. They said they should repair the Salter Bridge instead, because a bridge crossing at Brown and Brant Street was too far out of the way. Some said they had bigger priorities and shouldn’t be focusing on a bridge at all. Although McArthur didn’t give up. As a city councillor and later a member of the city’s Board of Control, he used his position to make sure the project never got forgotten as the years went by.

You may have heard the local legend that The Arlington Street Bridge wasn’t originally supposed to come to Winnipeg. The story goes that The Cleveland Iron Works had finished a bridge that was supposed to cross the Blue Nile River in Sudan. The contract fell through however, and the bridge never reached Africa. The Cleveland Ironworks submitted their bridge when the City of Winnipeg put out a request for a design. Since the bridge was already constructed they offered it for a significantly reduced cost, so they could get rid of it. 

The city bought the already-constructed bridge that was supposed to span the Nile, and it became the Arlington Bridge, but there were were no celebrations when the bridge opened. There was no ribbon cutting, no stolen liquor, no drunken disorderly party.  There was nothing at all except Alderman A. A. McArthur, who went alone to see the fruit of his long labour.

One of the main selling points of building the Arlington Bridge was to extend streetcar service. Streetcars could not go through the rail yards, and this made things very inconvenient for people needing to get from one side to the other. The Salter Street Bridge was far too old and in poor condition to support Streetcars. The new Arlington Bridge would allow Streetcars to cross over the rail yards, and it would be a big improvement for people who relied public transportation.  No streetcars ever ran over the Arlington Bridge and the city fought with the Winnipeg Electrical Company for years, but the company insisted it would be suicide to try to take a Streetcar over. The Streetcar rails that had been installed on the bridge were ripped up in the 1920s without ever being used.

View of the CP yards from the Arlington Bridge. Photo by Christian Cassidy.

After the Streetcars rails were ripped up, the bridge needed major repairs in the 1930s. Then it needed to be repaired three times in the 1940s and one of those times it was repaired was for erosion of the iron on the bottom of the bridge. The acidic smoke from trains passing below it was eroding the iron on the bottom of the bridge. The bridge was unable to handle the acidic smoke because it was likely built to go over water, not a train yard, which supports the Nile theory.

The bridge was repaired again in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. It was closed completely on multiple occasions. It is now one of the three oldest bridges remaining in the city, but it looks like it may be time for this centenarian to be laid to rest.

Read more about the Arlington Bridge on West End Dumplings Blog where local historian Christian Cassidy wrote an in-depth series of articles on the long and troubled history of the bridge. 

See the city’s plans for the replacement of the bridge.

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