Louise Bridge

From EGM Heritage

CPR Comes to Winnipeg

In 1881, a modest steel through-truss bridge in Manitoba changed the course of Canadian history. British Columbia had joined Canada on assurances from the federal government that it would soon be connected by railway to the rest of the country. A major hurdle to completion of this lofty goal was a crossing of the Red River. The obvious candidate sites were at Selkirk and Winnipeg.

Sandford Fleming, the railway’s chief engineer, held the view that Selkirk was the logical place to cross the river. His opinion was based on surveys by explorers Henry Youle Hind and John Palliser with input from local residents. The banks of the Red River at Selkirk were known to be higher and more stable than those at Winnipeg such that, during the Great Flood of 1826, for example, Winnipeg was inundated while Selkirk remained 15 feet above the highest flood peak. It had already been determined that the railway would head toward Edmonton. So, if the railway were to cross the Red River at Selkirk, then head northwest to cross Lake Manitoba at The Narrows, the new city of Winnipeg would end up far from the line.

Transcontinental railway construction began in 1873 but the work proceeded slowly. Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie was unwilling to commit the country to a massive debt to speed it up. In 1877, with progress stalled, Winnipeg boosters took advantage of the opportunity to petition Mackenzie to reconsider the railway’s route across the West. They passed a resolution offering a contract of $200,000 (at least $5 million in modern-day money in 2020) to any company that could build a railway from Winnipeg to the western edge of the postage-stamp province west of Portage la Prairie.

By 1878, the initial part of the transcontinental railway connecting St. Boniface to the United States had been completed but it did not cross the Red River. A few miles of the transcontinental line in Canada had been built but the matter of the bridge had not been resolved. Later that year, Sir John A. Macdonald was elected Prime Minister with a platform advocating for completion of the railway on a more southerly route. Macdonald’s policy was that, where possible, the railway should pass through major population centres. Winnipeg hardware merchant James H. Ashdown, sensing one last opportunity to promote Winnipeg as a railway hub, offered an additional $300,000 towards the completion of a railway bridge on the condition that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) promise to pass through Winnipeg. A delegation to Ottawa put the offer before Sir Charles Tupper, the Federal Minister of Railways, and he agreed to build a branch line to Winnipeg if Winnipeg provided financial backing for the bridge. But this was still not enough for local advocates. Winnipeg was determined to host the main line.

Sandford Fleming vehemently maintained his original opinion that the CPR should pass through Selkirk. To counteract views about the flood risk in Winnipeg, the Hudson’s Bay Company offered letters from its employees stating that the flooding had not been nearly as bad as the reports—on which Fleming had relied—made out. The fact that the HBC owned 1,750 acres of land in Winnipeg and would benefit handsomely from redirection of the railway likely influenced the company’s actions.

Winnipeg’s campaign came to a climax in 1880. During a visit by Tupper to Winnipeg, the City Council offered to exempt railway buildings and property from civic taxation for a prolonged period. Councillors pointed out that it would be in the best interest of the railway to have its maintenance shops close to the commerce and housing that the city provided. Tupper agreed but reminded them that the CPR was building the line, so the decision would ultimately fall into its hands. A delegation was duly sent to St. Paul, Minnesota to make a case for Winnipeg before the firm’s leader, Donald A. Smith.

In 1881, the CPR counter-offered to locate its major workshops in Winnipeg if the city would pay the company a bonus of $200,000, give them the land to build their stations, and for all railway land in Winnipeg to be exempt from municipal taxes in perpetuity. This offer was put before a meeting of residents and, predictably, it passed by a vote of 130 to 1. Despite the setback to Selkirk’s ambitions of greatness, there was one last chance for redemption. Approximately 12 miles of railway and the bridge to cross the Red River were all that stood in the way of the original route through Selkirk. The CPR asked Selkirk for a bonus of $125,000 to complete the work. Selkirk was not able to raise that sum, so it was bypassed.

As a result of advocacy on the part of Winnipeg supporters, and the construction of the Louise Bridge, railway traffic across western Canada followed a southern route, roughly paralleling the American border, rather than a northwesterly one toward Edmonton. Had events turned out differently, and Selkirk had become the railway hub, the agricultural development of the West could have spurned the dry lands of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta in favour of wetter regions to the north.

The First Louise Bridge

Work on the first bridge over the Red River began in mid-1880 with the quarrying of stone at Stony Mountain and Selkirk. Contractor J. G. McDonald began work in building its stone piers (typical of the time) and was joined by members of the local Masonic fraternity on 9 August to lay the first foundation stone. The steel through-truss railway bridge design was like many crossings in eastern sections of the CPR. Named the Louise Bridge, it commemorated Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria and wife to the Marquis of Lorne, who was Canada’s Governor General at the time. The steel superstructure was manufactured by a foundry at Cleveland, Ohio, transported to Manitoba by rail, and assembled on site through the fall and winter. The first trains began running over the new bridge in June 1881. It hosted the main line of the Canadian Pacific until 1904 when it was replaced by another bridge nearby, but it continued in use for pedestrian and other vehicular traffic until 1909 when construction of the present-day bridge Louis Bridge, with a widened and modified through-truss superstructure, began.

City of Winnipeg Tender in Manitoba Free Press

To Bridge Builders and Contractors
Tenders for the construction of a combined Railway and Traffic Bridge across the Red River at or near Point Douglas, will be received by the undersigned until 21st January. The Bridge will be about 800 feet long, with stone piers and abutments, or on iron screw piles (the former preferred) and will have a draw or swing opening, at the navigable channel of the River. The superstructure is to be iron; and the work is to be commenced immediately on the awarding of the contract. The tenders are to be accompanied by plans and specifications, which are subject to the approval of the Government Engineer. The City Council does not bind itself to accept the lowest or any tender. Further particulars may be obtained on application to the undersigned at his office in Winnipeg.
E. W. Jarvis, City Bridge Engineer, Winnipeg, 13th Jan. 1880

Observations from a bridge engineer in 2020

Not much is recorded about the details of the original 1881 railway bridge. However, given that the original substructure units, although widened to accommodate the wider roadway, are in the original location the spans must have been a typical steel through truss railway bridge of the configuration used for significant crossing in the eastern sections of the CPR. A 1914 report of the City of Winnipeg Bridge Engineer indicates that it was “an old iron structure”. The piers were of stone masonry construction also typical of railway bridges of the time. Another City of Winnipeg document indicates that the first bridge was a “combination CPR/City Bridge until 1904”, so there must have been some provision for vehicle traffic as part of the structure. There is no indication as to why the CPR relocated its crossing to the present location further upstream in the vicinity of Nairn Avenue but it provides a more direct route to the then CPR station and the yards to the west of Main Street.
The 1914 report also states that the to accommodate vehicle traffic and be useful to the City a wider roadway was required. So, the stone masonry piers were lengthened, an ice fender was constructed for the main pier, and a replacement through truss superstructure with a swing span was built. There is a plaque over the portal of the North truss stating that the superstructure was built by “Algoma Steel Bridge Co. Limited Winnipeg Manitoba 1910”. The 1914 cost of all of the changes was $174,774 which in today’s dollars would be roughly $5,200,000 (2020).
  • Louise Bridge Name Plate - Algoma Steel Bridge Company - 1910, Photo Credit: Glen Cook, 2015
  • Dave Ennis, P. Eng. (SM), FEC, past bridge engineer with Mcaw and McDonald, Winnipeg, 2020"


    References accessed in 2019. https://timemachine.siamandas.com/PAGES/winnipeg_stories/BRIDGES.htm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Winnipeg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Winnipeg#Railways_and_economic_growth https://winnipeg.ca/publicworks/construction/bridges/history.stm https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp05/mq23323.pdf http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/railsacrossthered.shtml http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/louisebridge.shtml b3e7c8ed-9a28-4ee9-9157-b4b0c975d424-MAP327.jpg (image) https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp05/mq23323.pdf http://www.winnipegrealestatenews.com/Resources/Article/?sysid=1996

    Compiled by

    Trent Erskine, P. Eng.
    Reviewed by Ryan G. Bernier, P. Eng., Dave Ennis, P. Eng., Gord Goldsborough PhD.
    Edited by James A. Burns, PhD.
    Posted by Glen N. Cook, P. Eng. (SM), FEC

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