Louise Bridge

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Revision as of 16:40, 27 February 2024 by Gcook (talk | contribs) (Created page with "'''CPR Comes to Winnipeg: The Louise Bridge''' 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. <br> Sandford Fleming, the railway’s chie...")
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CPR Comes to Winnipeg: The Louise Bridge

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.

SIDEBAR: The 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.

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