I remember seeing the old steel railway bridge across the Fraser when I first moved to Prince George, driving down the Highway 16 hill from the east. It's an expansive scene of our city and industry, ever changing with the seasons, fluctuating river levels and ice, with a grassy treed island midstream.
At a half mile long, our Grand Trunk Pacific Railway bridge is the longest railway bridge in British Columbia. Designed by French engineer Joseph Legrand, it was completed 100 years ago, at a cost of $1.6 million. The Railway and Forestry Museum has a picture of the S.S. Conveyor sternwheeler passing under the bridge in 1914 on one of the rare times the lift span was raised, as part of an exhibit highlighting 100 years of rail in the region.
Imagine the scene in 1913 when 600 men lived on Goat Island, working day and night six days a week to complete the bridge. Sternwheelers docked on the Island, delivering barrels of cement and construction supplies, most of it transported from Tete Jaune down the Fraser on wooden scows and sternwheelers. The island (known as Railroad Island at the time) used to be located under the bridge, until erosion reduced its size and location to further downstream. There were bunkhouses for the workers, storehouses for supplies and a steam plant to supply heat for the camp and the concrete work. Another camp accommodating 100 men was located nearby on the east bank of the Fraser.
David Davies' article about the construction of our GTPR bridge "Not a Bridge Too Far But One Far Enough" in Canadian Rail, May-June 2000, is a fascinating read. Now in his 80's and living in Kamloops, Davies never worked on the railroad but has been fascinated by trains since his childhood in Wales when he would walk to school along the tracks of a tramway pretending he was a train.
Davies has donated his papers, including copies of engineer Legrand's notebook containing drawings of the bridge, to the Northern B.C. archives at UNBC. He said finding the notebook (held by CN in Edmonton) along with an October 1914 article by W. C. Ruegnitz was a lucky break in his quest to document the bridge's history. Ruegnitz was a superintendent with Bates and Rogers Construction Company of Chicago, which had the contract to build the concrete piers. He detailed how the barrels of cement were protected as they were transported down the river. "False bottoms, covered with straw to absorb the moisture, served as a floor to receive the cement. The sides and ends of the cargo were also protected by straw, while the top was covered with a heavy oiled canvas. Run boards were provided to protect the cargo from the boot caulks worn by the river men. From the time the cement left the mills (in eastern Canada and Pennsylvania) until stored on the job it was handled eight times."
Davies estimates that the first six piers and the eastern abutment of the bridge needed close to 1,700 tons of cement that would have come down the Fraser in about 70 scows (some of which would have been lost due to many hazards in the river). Originally the GTPR bridge was to be built in two sections - the eastern half, over the Fraser River channel would be steel, and the western half over the Nechako River channel would be made of wood, which was less expensive. But due to ice jams causing damage to the temporary wooden bridge the decision was made to construct the bridge entirely of steel.
A temporary wooden bridge across the Fraser had carried the first train to Fort George in January 1914. Another lower tote bridge was used to construct the 12 concrete piers that would hold the steel trestles, no simple feat given our cold winters and the steam operated equipment of the day. Each pier has about 200 wooden pilings which were sunk into the riverbed before the concrete was poured.
There are excellent pictures of the bridge construction in Trelle Morrow's book, The Grand Trunk Pacific and other Fort George Stuff, who noted that the bridge was "the largest individual construction project in the Mountain section of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway".
The first train crossed the GTPR bridge in June 1914. People who have lived in Prince George a long time remember driving and walking across the big steel bridge. A roadway on each side was used for cars and pedestrians from 1915 to 1987, at which time the concrete Yellowhead bridge was completed.
Regarding the bridge's lift span - Davies writes that it's doubtful it was ever used after 1920. "In 1954 Board of Transport Commissioners permitted CN (Canadian National Railways) to make the span a fixed one. Prior to this, CNR had a statutory duty to lift the span once a year to show that navigation rights existed and the mechanism worked."
Morrow points out that, "ironically, completion of the bridges and railway construction through the Fort George area in 1914 hastened the demise of sternwheeler traffic on the Upper Fraser."
The bridge has been photographed and painted by numerous artists. "It's an extraordinary structure, which really speaks to our history" said George Harris, Curator of Two Rivers Gallery, which holds several paintings of the bridge in its collection, now searchable online.
Watercolor artist June Swanky Parker painted the GTPR bridge because she was inspired by the great shadows cast on the ice. She used to live near the bridge and remembers walking and driving across it. As a kid she remembers brave children climbing down near the centre of the bridge to get to Goat Island. She was part of the Milltown artists, six women who did paintings of Prince George bridges in the 90's (prints of their work can still be found at Studio 2880).
Photographer Dan Moore, who was out recently shooting the bridge from the underside, likes the profile of the structure on the skyline. He says the nostalgia and iconic status of the bridge makes it a good subject, which he has captured in the different seasons.
I know most Prince George residents will agree with writer David Davies who summed up his article by stating "this half-mile long bridge was built in epic and heroic circumstances and its history needs to be documented, remembered and marveled at!"