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Alonzo Wright Bridge

Philemon’s eldest son, also named Philemon, is less well known than other members of the family possibly because of his untimely death, by accident, in 1821. However, between 1818 and 1820, he contributed to the building of what became known as Highway No. 8 or the North Shore Road to Montreal. In 1818, the highway began at the angle of the Britannia Road (Aylmer Road) and the Columbia Road (Blvd. St. Joseph, and eventually the road leading to Chelsea) and generally followed the Ottawa River in an easterly direction. The main portion of the road was delayed because of lack of financial resources until 1826 when the canal system along the Rideau and Ottawa rivers made it imperative to complete it. Before his death, however, Philemon II was able to get his part of the road built as far as the Lievre River. At Ironside, where the Chelsea Road comes closest to the Gatineau River the foot of Farmer’s Rapids made the fast flowing river ideal for a ferry and that is where Philemon’s road crossed over to the east side. A scow was used at that time to ferry people, animals and merchandise across the river. The road continued on the left bank of the Gatineau River to reach the Ottawa just above Kettle Island and then proceeded eastward.

In 1835, a number of residents of the right and left banks of the Gatineau River felt that the traffic had reached the point where it was too heavy for a ferry. They addressed a petition to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada to have a proper bridge erected across the river at a site just below Farmer’s Rapids where the ferry had been used for some 15 years. However, the wheels of administration did not turn over quickly in those days and nothing was done for 29 years!

Alonzo Wright was a man of wealth and very apt to exercise an influence on the course of events in his community. His interest as a resident and as a politician coincided, at least in one respect. It was to his advantage to have a bridge built across the Gatineau River practically at his front doorstep. The petition signed 29 years earlier was finally to bear fruit.

The first indication we have that things were indeed moving is found in a memorandum from the Public Works Commission dated 20 August 1864, recommending to the Government of Lower Canada that it approve an expenditure of not less than $8,000.00 for the construction of bridges over the Gatineau and Lievre rivers. On 8 November 1865, A.W. Powell was awarded the contract to build the first Alonzo Wright Bridge for the sum of $6,566,00. Some $427.75 was added to the cost estimates in 1867 to cover some unforeseen expenditures. The bridge was opened to traffic late in 1866 and it greatly facilitated communications between the right and left banks of the Gatineau River but it was of more significance to the left bank residents because it made it easier for them to have commerce with the more important centres of Ottawa and Hull.

Originally, the bridge was constructed entirely of wood and the piers were so far apart that very long timbers were required to support the deck and superstructure. The contractors surveyed the surrounding farms for healthy pine trees and purchased the most suitable ones for cutting into squared timbers. The piers were cedar cribs filled with heavy stones. Considering the swift current, the thick cakes of ice floating down river during the spring break-up and the large quantity of logs floating down practically the year round, it is not surprising that the piers and the wooden structure suffered heavy damage. The first of these wooden structures was washed away by the spring flood in 1878. A Mr. Langford was commissioned to build another bridge using the same specifications as before although the use of iron for bridges was not uncommon at that time. The cost element and the relatively low volume of traffic were probably the reasons why a more substantial project was not contemplated. As we will shortly see, this policy was not economical in the long run.

The Archives of College St-Alexandre contain many references to the old bridge, which shed considerable light on its character and history. For instance, it is recorded that a Mr. Matthew Fleming stated that the wooden bridge consisted of beams or trusses made of pine timbers arranged in a manner not unlike the structure of a barn. The archives also record that a Mr. Moise Aubin stated that in the year 1888 the wooden structure was already beginning to show signs of wear at the western end. He further stated that four years later, in 1892, a fire broke out in the dust and accumulated debris on one of the aprons. The keeper of the bridge, a Mr. Gardner, collected water from the river in a pail suspended at the end of a long rope to put the fire out but was unable to save the bridge. There is no record of the damage caused by the fire of 1892 nor when or how the work of restoration took place but the bridge must have been rebuilt and reopened to traffic soon after because another disaster was about to occur. We are told, this time by a Mr. Blackburn that Mr. Gardner, aided by volunteer firemen was able to bring under control a fire that started on the floorboards of the western span and saved the rest of the bridge. The nature of these two fires was different. The fire that originated in the dust and debris on the apron was not brought under control despite the efforts of Mr. Gardner, whereas in the case of the second fire, it started on the floor of the bridge and was brought under control by Mr. Gardner and the volunteer firemen. The date of the second disaster is not known but it must have happened after 1892 and before 1898 because that year the provincial authorities decided that the wooden structure would have to be replaced by an iron one and thus reduce this kind of hazard.

At this stage it seems convenient to turn our attention to certain events that had more than a twist of local politics. The residents of the growing community of Pointe Gatineau, long dissatisfied with the detour they had to make to reach Hull and Ottawa, had been clamouring for a bridge of their own across the Gatineau River, but close to the Ottawa River. Their voice was finally heard in 1895 or 30 years after the first bridge had been built over the Gatineau River at Ironside. In the intervening years, the social and economic conditions of Western Québec had improved, and also, much had been learned about bridge building, so a more substantial bridge was put up at Pointe Gatineau. One result of the new bridge was to shorten the distance between Montreal and Hull and make it more convenient for the residents of Pointe Gatineau, Buckingham and other North Shore communities to travel to and from Hull and Ottawa. It was also to have some effects on the Alonzo Wright Bridge.

The Township of Hull was divided then, as it continued to be for years, into several parts but only need concern us at this time. The bridge joined the East Part (Cantley) and the West Part (Chelsea). The East Part had reaped more benefits from the bridge, especially at the beginning, and was the reason why this community assumed the entire responsibility rather than having it made a township or county bridge. With the passing of time, however, the enthusiasm of residents of Cantley, began to cool off after the bridge at Pointe Gatineau was opened to traffic in 1895. Costs of repair and maintenance were mounting and it was difficult for these people to see the logic of having to pay out monies when other parts of the township were using the facilities and getting off scot free. They were especially incensed because the other bridge, at Pointe Gatineau, could be used just as well. A solution, however, was about to appear over the horizon.

On November 3, which was a Saturday, Mr. George Cunningham Wright, a great-grandson of Philemon Wright and a practising lawyer in the City of Hull, wrote a letter on behalf of a group of promoters (The Alonzo Wright Bridge Company) to the council of the East Part of the Township of Hull offering to take over the responsibility for the bridge and operate it as a commercial venture. The council accepted the offer of the Alonzo Wright Bridge Company.

The Alonzo Wright Bridge Company was now responsiblefor replacing the wooden bridge with an iron one. This was done and the bridge was open to traffic in July 1902, this time under the auspices of the company and according to the terms of their agreement. The bridge consisted of two spans each 150 feet long or a total of 650 feet from the outer edges of the abutments. The deck was 20 feet above the water at its normal or average level, which was amply sufficient to protect the bridge from spring floods. The arrangement worked fairly well at first and there seems to have been few complaints but this was only the calm before the storm. The company failed to live up to its agreement of 1900 by neglecting to do the maintenance work and once again the bridge began to deteriorate. In August 1917, Mr. Slater, a shareholder of the company, made a personal inspection of the bridge and concluded that it should be closed to the public as damage claims could be made against the company in case of serious accidents. There followed a period of uncertainty as nobody took measures to make the bridge safe for heavy traffic or to close it down, meanwhile time and nature worked against it. The provincial authorities finally brought matters to a head on May 14, 1919, by halting all traffic over the bridge. The state of suspended animation gave rise to a strange controversy in the annals of the Township of Hull.

East Hull had a far greater interest in having a bridge replace the old ferry because it would provide the residents of the east side with more adequate means of communication to and from Ottawa, Hull, Ironside and Chelsea. The Municipality of West Hull solved its problem without financial involvement by offering to give up the roadway connecting the bridge with the Chelsea Road provided East Hull would assume the entire responsibility for the bridge, including the connecting road. Incredibly, this became the deciding factor in inducing east Hull to take over the bridge and its various commitments rather than having it made a township or county bridge. Later on, the people of East Hull, beyond what is now Limbour, cooled off on the idea when they could reach Ottawa and Hull just as easily by the Pointe Gatineau Bridge. In addition, they felt that, as the Alonzo Wright Bridge served a far greater area than East Hull only, why should they be saddled with the entire cost? By doing nothing they would doom the bridge to a slow death and that is exactly what they intended to do.

The Council of East Hull, however, reckoned without the Holy Ghost Fathers who had bought Alonzo Wright’s estate on the east side of the Gatineau River in 1905 and had the same views that Alonzo Wright once had about the bridge. By that time, Alonzo’s old homestead had become the College St-Alexandre and students came from distant points of Ontario and Québec to attend school there (the Honourable Paul Martin was one of those). They and their visiting parents were able to arrive at the Canadian Pacific Railway station at Ironside, cross over the bridge and be at the front door of the college, whereas without the bridge, they would have to land in Hull or Ottawa and take a long bus or taxi ride via the Pointe Gatineau Bridge to arrive at the college with their luggage and supplies. Rev. Father Burgsthaler, then head of the College St-Alexandre, took matters into his own hands by writing a letter to Sir Charles Fitzpatrick, Lieutenant Governor of Québec. He very accurately stated that the bridge was in a poor state of repair and that if no action were taken by someone, serious accidents might occur as people were crossing on foot at their own risk in spite of the prohibition on crossing. His views concerning the negative attitude of the Council of the Municipality of East Hull also left nothing to the imagination!

The immediate result of this action was a decision taken by the provincial authorities to have the responsibility for the bridge withdrawn from either the Alonzo Wright Bridge Company or the Municipality of East Hull and placed squarely on the shoulders of the Township of Hull, making it what it should have been from the beginning, a township or county bridge. The Provincial Government also agreed to pay half the costs required to rebuild the bridge which were estimated at $8,000.00 by the Public Works engineers. The distribution of the balance of the costs, including maintenance, were to be made as follows:–1/2 East Hull; 1/6 West Hull; 1/6 East Wakefield; 1/6 Township of Hull. The College St-Alexandre was to pay East Hull $150.00 per year for 15 years from 1921 as compensation for their immediate use of the bridge. Finally the bridge was opened to traffic on June 17, 1921.

Once again, on July 10, 1929, the bridge was closed to traffic, this time because the piers, which were still cedar cribs filled with stones, had weakened to the point that they could not support the iron structure any longer. Concrete piers had to be installed. This, of course, was a major operation and the bridge was not open to traffic before January 22, 1930, but now it rested on firm foundations.

One would think that this was the end of the trials and tribulations of the bridge but it was not so, in part due to the fact that snow removing equipment around 1935 got bigger and heavier and this caused some damage to the aprons or abutments; these were repaired, however, before more serious damage could occur. Other mishaps took place such as on August 16, 1943, and May 30, 1944, when trucks ran into the guard-rails. In the case of the last of these accidents, the truck actually plunged into the river. The Provincial Ministry of Transport finally took over the entire responsibility for the bridge in 1965 and built a completely new and modern bridge. The relevance of the new bridge is amply demonstrated by the fact that during the many months when the Pointe Gatineau bridges were being built and renovated, late in the 1960’s, the traffic between Hull and Touraine and Gatineau was diverted via the Alonzo Wright Bridge.

People from the National Capital Region motoring to ski resorts on the east side of the Gatineau River, or going to the sugar-bush at Limbour or to their summer cottages at St-Pierre-de-Wakefield and other places will recall this grandson of Philemon Wright, otherwise known as “King of the Gatineau,” largely because of the bridge they use to cross over the Gatineau River. Alonzo never owned the bridge that bears his name nor did he contribute directly towards its maintenance. He was instrumental, however, in moving the powers that-be to replace the old ferry by a bridge uniting the communities on the left bank to those on the right bank. He was generally successful in life, influential and enterprising in private and public affairs and the bridge was named after him solely because of these qualities.

Laberge, Edouard P., “The Story of a Bridge” Up the Gatineau!, Vol. 5, 12–17

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