The High Level Bridge at 100

One hundred years after it was completed, the High Level Bridge stands as Edmonton’s most iconic structure. When it was built, the bridge was the fourth largest in Canada and the only one to carry four modes of transportation – rail, streetcar, automobile and pedestrian.

It wasn’t fancy, but it was strong and structural, with 17.2 million pounds of steel held together with 1.4 million rivets atop four massive concrete piers. If the steel had been placed end to end, it would have reached 900,000 feet (170 miles). Right from the beginning, it was painted black – 5,000 gallons in all.

“The High Level Bridge precipitated many changes,” said Shirley Lowe, City of Edmonton Historian Laureate. “It altered the direction the city would take, moving the focus from the south side to the north side. It was a factor in the amalgamation of Edmonton and Strathcona. Today, the High Level Bridge is a landmark that continues to define our city.”

It was a landmark engineering achievement, too, designed and built by Canadian Pacific Railway with the most sophisticated ingenuity from some of the brightest minds of the time. The plans were overseen by Phillips B. Motley, CPR’s Montreal-based engineer of bridges, specifying two decks, 39 feet wide and 20 feet apart. It was to be 2,478 feet (755 metres) from one end to the other and 156 feet (47.5 metres) above the mean river level.

Construction began in 1910, but the project had its start in 1903, when CPR decided to move forward with plans to extend its line from Strathcona to Edmonton. The federal government passed legislation requiring the crossing to be 150 feet above the water of the North Saskatchewan River, so that meant a “high level” rather than a “low level” bridge.

Local politicians wanted a road as well as a railway crossing, and negotiations between the City of Edmonton and the CPR resulted in an agreement in October 1906. Edmontonians voted on the deal in November 1909 and approved it by a margin of three to one. The City provided $286,000, the Province of Alberta contributed $175,000 and the federal government kicked in $125,000.

Clearing of the site along CPR’s 109th Street alignment began in May 1910, and construction commenced that August with excavation for the 62 foundations of the land piers and four river piers, nearly 100 feet high. The work was carried out by local contractors Pennie and Kerr under the direction of John Gunn and Sons of Winnipeg, the firm that had built the CPR railway bridge at Lethbridge and another across the Pembina River near Entwistle.

As activity ramped up, more than 500 men were employed on the site. It was treacherous, backbreaking labour, and, by the time the bridge was complete, four workers had lost their lives. One was crushed by the hammer of a pile driver, another died of injuries sustained while shovelling clay in an eight-foot pit, and two others fell to their deaths.

Steel for the superstructure was fabricated at the Canadian Bridge Company plant in Walkerville, Ontario and shipped by rail to Strathcona. Working from the southern approach, a large steam-powered “erecting traveller” crane lifted and held the steel components in place for riveting. Steel legs were used to support the bridge on its Strathcona side with 28 spans in total, including three Pratt Trusses over the river and two Warren Trusses over the north approach.

There were a few hiccups along the way, including a strike by steel workers in October 1912. Fifty men refused to report to work, demanding 50 cents an hour for a nine-hour working day, up from 45 cents an hour for a 10-hour day.

The massive structure was completed in May 1913. The first passenger train, No. 33 with seven cars and carrying 200 passengers, steamed from Strathcona to Edmonton on June 2, 1913. Interestingly, it was a low-key affair, with no grand public ceremony.

Two months later, August 11th, the first streetcar made the journey across the upper deck. One passenger reported the trip this way: “From the streetcar, one looks down from a dizzy height into the murky waters of the Saskatchewan without so much as a handrail to break the gaze into the abysmal depths below.”  Streetcars ran across the bridge every day for the next 38 years until service was terminated on September 1, 1951 as part of the dismantling of the city’s streetcar service.

Even though the traffic deck was ready, CPR barricaded the roadway on October 1, 1913, until it was paid $37,672, the balance of the construction contract. The dispute was resolved within two weeks, and traffic began flowing across the lower level with a posted speed limit of six miles per hour (10 km/h).

“Defying death in a perilous ride,” a motorist drove a car across the top deck sometime in the early hours of June 19, 1932. “The right wheels of the machine were within two or three inches of toppling over the east side of the bridge,” a newspaper account reported. There were no witnesses, but marks on the bridge provided clear evidence of the ill-advised stunt.

A baby girl was born on the bridge on April 21, 1935, in the taxi of A.C. “Curly” Wallen. The Edmonton Journal sponsored a contest for a name suitable for the occasion, and suggestions included Bridgena, Ponsetta, Taxina and Highlevela. Her parents chose Olive Marie Poncella Beauchamp, with the name Poncella (meaning “from the bridge”) coming from 12-year-old Annette La Riviere.

Since its completion, the bridge has undergone several alterations, although its appearance remains essentially unchanged. Modifications were made to the south automobile approach in 1931, and the lighting system was improved in 1939. Extensive repairs in 1971 gave the High Level a new lower deck and girders at both ends were rearranged for safety.

Over the years, there has been talk about expanding the top deck to accommodate vehicular traffic, including a 1940s proposal to add two lanes on either side of the railway tracks. Edmontonians voted in favour of the expenditure in 1949, but then, as costs escalated, voted to reject it in 1950. That killed the scheme.

To celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967, the City considered painting the bridge gold. It never happened, but the Great Divide Waterfall did, designed by artist Peter Lewis to commemorate Alberta’s 75th anniversary. The waterfall was installed on the upper deck and turned on for the first time on September 1, 1980.

As historian Alex Mair put it in 1989: “Lots of cities have a bridge that does over water, but Edmonton ended up with water going over a bridge.” The City stopped running the waterfall in 2009 over concerns the chlorinated water could be impacting the river.

In 1994, the City of Edmonton assumed full ownership of the bridge, and a $19.9- million facelift repaired spans, piers and the road deck through sandblasting and painting that lasted into 1995. The sidewalk was also rejuvenated and a new pedestrian and cycle pedway was constructed on the west side of the span. After the work was done, the bridge was declared a Municipal Historic Resource.

While trains no longer run across the High Level (CPR stopped using it in 1989), streetcars operated by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society began trundling across the upper deck in 1997. And now, the High Level can look down on its upstart sibling, the Dudley C. Menzies Bridge, and watch LRT trains traverse its deck.

One hundred years after it first opened to traffic, the High Level Bridge still has citizens talking. The Light the Bridge project is aiming to raise $3 million to illuminate the historic crossing with 60,000 LED lights.

Among those who donated is 100-year-old Jessie Voaklander, who bought 100 of the $25 bulbs for her 100 years. “I’m very fond of the bridge. We’re the same age,” she said. She remembers crossing the bridge for the first time in her family’s Model T Ford when she was just a little girl.

This piece originally appeared as article #45 of Herzog on Heritage, August 15, 2013.

© Lawrence Herzog 2013, All Rights Reserved

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