At Montreal, there is a bridge that spans the St. Lawrence River and may seem relatively normal, as far as bridges go. Running for three kilometres, with 24 ice-breaking piers, this bridge is far from normal. When it was built, a decade before Canada existed as a country, it was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. It was an engineering achievement unlike anything seen at the time.
Let’s dive back into its history for a bit.
In the first half of the 1800s, a need for a link over the St. Lawrence River was apparent with trade increasing in the area. Prior to the construction of the Victoria Bridge, it was often impossible to cross the St. Lawrence River during the winter season, and extremely dangerous during the freezing and thawing of the spring and fall.
To remedy this, Thomas Keefer chose a site for the bridge, while the structure was designed by Robert Stephenson and Alexander McKenzie Ross. The chief engineer for the project would be James Hodges, with the English partnership Peto, Brassey and Betts serving as the contractors for the bridge.
Many thought such a structure, of that size, could not be built. Thankfully, commerce trumped any concerns and work commenced. For the public in Montreal, the bridge was a source of great excitement.
Canada did not have the funds for building the bridge, the promoters of the idea went to England in 1852 and arranged for the contractors to build the bridge, as well as the Grand Trunk Railway.
The deck of the bridge, which was a tubular bridge, was made of iron sections from England that had been shipped across the Atlantic. The project was a giant effort and at its peak of construction, six steamboats, 72 barges and 3,040 men, as well as many children aged eight to 12, were working on the bridge. There were also 144 horses and four engines helping with the build process, which cost $6.6 million at the time. In today’s funds, that would be about $114 million.
The entire construction was spurred on by the Grand Trunk Railway, which was currently connecting the Great Lakes with a port on the Atlantic Ocean.
All those workers and their families had to live nearby in temporary camps called Victoriatown.
For James Hodge, the building of the bridge was plagued by difficulties. For one, the water froze every winter. In the summer, the challenge of building across a 2.5 kilometre wide river that flowed at 11 knots. Barriers had to be installed so that work could proceed in dry docks and piers could be anchored. In the building of the bridge, 1.5 million rivets were used to hold the structure together. The ice breaking cut waters pointed upstream, breaking the ice that would come down the river and preventing ice jams. The bridge would help with various innovations in bridge building including the ice-breaking piers, steam derricks and more.
One interesting thing about the construction was that workmen discovered the human remains of Irish immigrants who had come to Canada to flee the Potato Famine, but died during the typhus epidemic of 1847. A large rock was erected at the bridge approach, called the Irish Commemorative Stone, or Black Rock, to honour the dead. An inscription on the rock reads:
“To preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever A.D. 1847-8, this stone is erected by the workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859.
The honouring of the dead at the site was important to the workers since most were from Ireland themselves and had come over around the same time. Some of the workers had just recently come over to work on the bridge and had the cost of their passage over taken off the cheques.
It wasn’t just Irish workers who worked in harsh conditions on the bridge. Mohawk workers were also on hand, providing brute force labour with the Irish.
As the bridge was built, various celebrations were held throughout the process. When the first pier was completed 20 metres below the water level, a banquet with music was held. More celebrations would be held as each milestone was reached.
Once the bridge was completed, it was the longest bridge in the world at the time.
On Nov. 15, 1859, a small engine went over the bridge, making itself the first locomotive to go over. Nine days later, the executives of Grand Trunk took a contractor engine and platform car to the centre of the bridge, where they gave three cheers for Queen Victoria, and then proceeded to the other side. The first freight train to move across the bridge happened on Dec. 12, 1859, while the first passenger train passed over the bridge on Dec. 17. The first passenger train was greeted with 1,000 people, arranged in tables all along the rails, for the big event.
The original name of the bridge was the Great Victoria Bridge, which was changed to the Victoria Jubilee Bridge in 1897, and then Victoria Bridge in 1978. Speaking of Victoria, she was invited to the official opening of the bridge on Aug. 25, 1860, but she declined and Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, and at the time the Prince of Wales, came to inaugurate the bridge instead. For several days around the inauguration of the bridge, balls and banquets were held in celebration of the accomplishment.
The bridge would have an immense impact on Montreal and its economy. With this link across the river, the city quickly grew and became one of the most important centres in Canada. No longer did goods have to come from a ferry across the river.
At the time, the bridge also had an enclosed iron tunnel, rather than being open at the top like it is now. For train engineers, entering the tunnel could bring trepidation as only one train could go on that track at a time. Trains would slow down at the entrance to the tunnel and passengers would crowd at the windows.
Over the next 150 years, the bridge would be upgraded and changed to adjust it to the changing times and changing technologies. Today, the bridge is still used to this day. Each of those new renovations were accompanied by official openings. One such opening happened in 1899, when George Reeve, the general traffic manager for Grand Trunk, took his horse and carriage over the bridge. Two years later, the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George V and Queen Mary, reinaugurated the span as the Victoria Jubilee Bridge.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Heritage Montreal, McCord Museum, Montreal Gazette, Montreal Times