That Old Blue Bridge
This evening, Victoria’s city council will introduce a bylaw to borrow $63-million to replace the Johnson Street Bridge. Then, on September 8, City Hall will unveil three possible designs for the replacement, as part of a huge PR campaign to generate enthusiasm for a new bridge – and make Victorians forget about the one that’s already there.
Up front, I should mention that I’m a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org, a group that’s criticized the hurried, closed-door process that’s so far marked our city’s most expensive public-works project. But as someone who also writes a local history blog, and values what’s unique about Victoria, I think it’s also necessary to explain the background of the existing bridge before it's sentenced to death.
Politicians argued over the Johnson Street Bridge for nearly 25 years before it was built. In 1888, a steel swing bridge was constructed across the Inner Harbour, bringing the E&N railway into downtown to satisfy Victoria’s demands for a national-rail connection promised by Confederation. But within a decade, Victorians began calling for a new bridge to carry a wider variety of vehicles, including newfangled automobiles, enabling a direct traffic route from Oak Bay to Esquimalt.
In 1911, the British Columbia government bought the Songhees native reserve on west side of the harbour, and then plunged into negotiations over a new bridge, and who should pay for it, with the City of Victoria, the E&N, and the B.C. Electric streetcar company. The parties didn’t reach an agreement until 1919. In a referendum the following year, fed-up Victorians voted six-to-one in favour of a municipal bylaw to borrow money to construct a new bridge.
For designs, the City turned to Joseph Baermann Strauss (photo right). Born in Cincinnati, Strauss was a poet and self-promoting romantic who never obtained an engineering degree, but learned everything about bridge-building while working for construction firms. In Chicago, around 1902, he patented an improved steel bascule (the French word for “see-saw”) drawbridge, using a huge concrete counterweight to balance the span upon a fixed-heel trunnion, or set of axles, ingeniously enabling the overhead truss to fold up as the span lifted. Thanks to the growing demands of automobile traffic, and availability of electric power for lifting motors, Strauss created some 400 bascule drawbridges around the world. His reputation as the “king of drawbridges” in turn got him the job as chief engineer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. (Strauss is sometimes erroneously called the “designer” of the Golden Gate, but historians have shown that the real credit should have gone to his employees.)
The City of Victoria’s engineering office, led by F.M. Preston, built the Johnson Street Bridge’s substructure and approaches. Another team, using steel shipped from Ontario, assembled the Strauss bascules with the spans pointing upright to attach the counterweights. There were a few hangups – unions threatened to strike because day-labourers worked on the site, and lawsuits plagued the city’s expropriation of land around the bridge – and it did not officially open until January 11, 1924. British Columbia premier John Oliver told the thousands attending the ceremony, “I wish to congratulate the people upon the completion of a protracted and somewhat expensive undertaking.” The final cost was $918,000, some 27 percent higher than first estimated – a cautionary tale for Victoria’s councillors, who maintain that the City can build a new bridge within budget by March 2011.
Such history has value. The top photo, for example, is taken from the August issue of United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, proving that the old bridge is one of the elements that gives Victoria’s Inner Harbour its unique charm. Below is a scene from the 1999 movie Excess Baggage, which the producers shot in Victoria specifically to use the bridge:
This past April, Vancouver heritage expert Harold Kalman delivered a report – which the City has not publicly released, but you can download here – identifying the bridge as a “very significant heritage landmark” of Victoria’s industrial and transportation history. It’s unknown exactly how many of Strauss’s bascule bridges survive today – perhaps a few dozen – but several are identified as historic sites, such as Toronto’s 1931-built Cherry Street Bridge. Nathan Holth, a Michigan researcher who runs historicbridges.org, told me that all movable bridges are rare, mainly because they're built only to cross navigable rivers or canals where the long approaches for a high-reaching fixed bridge would be impossible. He considers ours an “important heritage bridge,” especially unique because it is actually two differently-sized parallel bridges that can be lifted independently.
Admittedly, preserving history also has a price. The City is pushing for a new bridge mainly because an engineering assessment said it would cost $25 million to rehabilitate the old one, although most of that is for seismic upgrading. Steel bridges, especially ones with intricate latticework like ours, contain thousands of difficult-to-reach joints, often hiding corrosion that’s accelerated by salty air. Repairing and repainting such bridges is an ongoing headache, especially compared to ones made of concrete. Nevertheless, some places re-invest in their old steel bridges. Toronto refurbished its Cherry Street Bridge for $2.6 million in 2007, and recently Boston and San Francisco spent tens of millions renovating their Strauss drawbridges as well.
Some say that paying anything to renew our bridge is a waste because it’s “ugly”, but that’s a superficial judgement. The truth, most apparent and impressive when you see it working, is that the Johnson Street Bridge is a giant machine from a vanished age. It’s like a rare and unusual grandfather clock – one which the owner has decided is too much trouble to repair, and now wants to replace with a shiny new timepiece under warranty.
This would be repeating a mistake the City has made before. We once had streetcars, a public market building, and the grand Victoria Brewery, and we demolished them all in the name of “progress”. Now, too late, we wish we had kept them. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
PS Thanks to Deddeda Stemler for the opening photo, and Lotus Johnson for the one of the latticework. The Johnson Street Bridge not only inspires photographers, but musicians too: check out these videos by The Bills and an ‘80s punk band, The Wardells.