Up the Gatineau! Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 23.
A Bridge for our Times - Rebuilding the Wakefield Covered Bridge
The Gatineau River has always been an important transportation route. It was well known to the various Indian Nations of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence valleys and it was used extensively as a highway for seasonal travel.1It was only in the early 1800s that permanent settlement occurred in the Gatineau Valley. Beginning with the American Philemon Wright's settlement of Hull in 1800, colonization gradually extended north. By the 1830s a village at Wakefield was growing on the west bank of the Gatineau, close to its junction with the La Pêche River, where Fairbairn had built a water-powered grist mill.
The demand by settlers for new farm lands coincided with foreign demand for quality timber, and farms provided both the horse- and manpower required to wrest the virgin timber from the forests. Although rough trails spread out from the river, the Gatineau served as the main commercial highway. Traffic moved up and down the river and then out to the farms on either side. Initially, there was little need or interest in traffic across the region and between river basins. As lands were settled and inter-settlement commerce increased, local people operated simple ferry-scows at many points up and down the river.2In winter, ice bridges linked communities and families.
The first bridge across the Gatineau was built in 1866 below the rapids at Limbour. It was made of wood, and from an archival photo it appeared to have been a simple Kingpost design with six main spans.3This bridge was destroyed by spring floods in 1878, and its replacement, also of wood, was destroyed by fire in 1892. Subsequently, steel bridges were built at Pointe Gatineau in 1895 and at Ironside in 1902.4
In the period 1910-20 the Province sought to encourage settlement and development of its hinterlands under the mandate of the Ministry of Colonization. One element of its program was to finance construction of development roads and simple wooden bridges. A covered bridge was built on the Gatineau River at Grand Remous in 1907 and this was followed by another at Farrellton in 1914, reportedly in response to political pressure spearheaded by the local Catholic Church. Until then, Wakefield, although a more established community, had remained aloof and uninterested in a bridge, but its Council had a sudden change of heart and applied for one too. Built in 1915, Wakefield's bridge was named for the then Member of the Legislative Assembly, Ferdinand-Ambroise Gendron. It was completed so quickly that it sat for some time in splendid isolation until it was linked into the local road network! Not surprisingly, the Gendron Bridge quickly became a crucial economic asset in the further development of the district and subsequently was recognized for the intrinsic beauty of its Town Lattice Truss design and its location overlooking the La Pêche Rapids.
Road traffic increased rapidly as the Second World War drew to a close, and heavier vehicles began to take their toll on the old bridge. The posted limit for the bridge, for a truck, was only 4 tons. A letter dated 1944 from Allans Travel Service sought clarification from Transport Quebec about bridge crossing for an empty bus (6 tons) or loaded bus (9 tons). An official reply was given within the week that the maximum limit was in fact 7 tons, so that the empty bus could cross but its passengers would have to walk!
By the late 1970s, the weight limits imposed for the bridge had become a major concern to the Municipal Council, which requested a modern bridge in addition to the Gendron covered bridge. By 1981 the old structure was deteriorating further and its sagging spans were cause for concern. Major repairs and alterations were completed in that year at a cost of $280,000. Although a new bridge was planned, the load and height restrictions of the Gendron Bridge were evidently too much for some people, and during the night of July 10, 1984 it was burned by arsonists. It was an unforgettably sorry sight to see the famous landmark in flames and then drifting down-river and into history. As the newspapers reported, the "heart was torn out of the village."
Following the initial shock of the loss and the difficulties in awaiting a permanent replacement bridge, a few residents began quietly discussing the idea of rebuilding the covered bridge as a community project. One group even suggested a two-tiered version with provision for a restaurant and small stores, something akin to the famous fourteenth century London Bridge. The result was the Wakefield Covered Bridge Project, incorporated in 1988, which set about promoting the idea of reconstructing the original bridge. In 1990, to gain stature and broader community support, the Committee began to work under the aegis of the established Historical Society of the Gatineau, whose executive supported the project.
With an estimated replacement cost of over $600,000 the task of fund-raising would obviously be a challenge for a small community; however, that arduous task is not the subject of this article. When I joined the Committee in 1994 (Chair: Ivan Hale; Fund-raising: Norma Walmsley; Special Events: Ann Chudleigh; Secretary-Treasurer: Anita Rutledge), it had already raised $130,000 and Canadian Pacific Forest Products (now Avenor Inc.) had donated 350 boom logs.
How we built and erected the bridge
The first of six critical construction challenges was planning and resources. When I began organizing the construction of the covered bridge, it came as no surprise to find that the Wakefield, Lower Gatineau and Ottawa Valley communities were rich in the professional and technical talents which would be needed to plan and execute a project of this magnitude. In particular, we needed engineers, timber-framers, sawyers, carpenters, a surveyor and a lawyer, to name some of the requisite talents.
From the outset we created a small brains trust comprised of Laurent Déry and myself, and subsequently added Pierre Meilleur of Boileau Associés (consulting engineers), and Rob MacLeod as project coordinator. When planning the erection phase, we added David Laflamme of W.D. Laflamme Ltée. (general contractors) who was always very generous with his time as we studied the site constraints and debated different options. Initially, there was a certain unreality about our discussions as it was difficult to imagine just how fast and how far we would progress in constructing the bridge. With the assistance of this core group, I was able to sort through various options, plan and cost out each stage, and provide realistic recommendations to the Bridge Committee Executive.
Establishing time frames was particularly difficult as we knew that no community-based volunteer group had built such a large covered bridge in recent times. It was impossible to estimate the extent to which donations of money, materials, equipment or skills would allow us to proceed. To further complicate matters, the Committee decided to rely as much as possible on using lumber recovered from the old boom logs.
One of our first major decisions was to purchase a portable sawmill. Volunteers were trained by local sawyers, and a start was made on milling the 150,000 board feet that we would require. After a slow start in 1994, it was apparent that the project would fail if we were unable to make tangible and visible progress. Our construction plans were discussed fully with the Committee, and with some trepidation they agreed to support our proposal to commit scarce funds and hire a small core team.
The boom logs were difficult to work with, but they provided an excellent source of high quality construction-grade fir. We also liked the idea of recycling the old logs from the Gatineau River to build our bridge. We found that estimating our total needs and finding a secure source of good quality logs were difficult. In the end we used over 600 logs, but we also struck gold in that one of the suppliers, Danny Stosik of Maniwaki, loaned us his 24-foot saw mill extension and a 10-ton forklift. This forklift became invaluable in moving and supporting our heavy lumber as construction proceeded. Additional equipment, such as front-end loader tractors and farm wagons, was frequently loaned to the project by Gib Drury and Ivan Hale. These equipment loans, free of charge, made a great difference in speeding up the project.
Early on, we had to determine just what regulations would apply to our project, and decide how to meet those requirements. As the Gatineau River is navigable, it falls under federal jurisdiction although its environmental aspects are the responsibility of provincial agencies. Fortunately, the bridge site had already been transferred from the province to the Municipality of La Pêche, so instead of dealing with the provincial and federal governments, we needed to obtain the Municipal Councils support and a building license. As the bridge was to be a major engineering structure, our consulting engineers worked with the Quebec Ministère des Transports to ensure that both provincial and national standards were met. We found that because the project was to replace an original structure, we would not have to file for environmental approvals. In any event, no disturbance to the river bed or banks was envisaged, or took place. While the Municipal Council gave their full support for a replacement bridge for pedestrians, they were concerned about assuming maintenance liabilities and were not prepared to make a direct financial contribution toward construction.
As a nonprofit entity with little bridge-building expertise, we could not obtain affordable insurance. Fortunately, the Municipality was prepared to cover all volunteers under its insurance, and the government-sponsored workers also came with workmen's compensation coverage. All other paid workers were engaged on personal services contracts and were responsible for their own coverage. We reviewed our plans with the provincial government Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail to be clear on safety procedures and to ensure that we met standards. During the entire three years of bridge fabrication and erection the worst accident was a sprained back from a slip on the ice-we were lucky!
There is more to covered bridge design than most people realize. Examples of such bridges date back more than 800 years, and they are found from China through Europe to the Americas. The original reason for being covered is to protect the fabric of the bridge from weather deterioration. Since they were roofed, these bridges were used as places for meetings and markets in Europe and Asia. In North America the evolution of the covered bridge reflected function, necessity and the increasing application of new engineering principles.
The first settlers were faced with many large rivers to bridge but they also had abundant local timber. Using the age-old principle of the arch, they initially combined this with frame construction similar to that used for large barns. Specifically, the arch was married with a truss wall to support a plank roadbed. These initial designs could be constructed by local labourers using local materials. Between 1805 and 1830, New England bridge styles evolved from the Palmer (1805) and Burr through to the Kingpost, Town (1820) and Long (1830) designs. The Long design, patented by Col. Stephen H. Long, used a few basic mathematical computations and was the first "engineered" wood truss design. As builders became more proficient and were faced with heavier loads and larger spans, they strengthened the basic Long truss by using multiple laminations, to increase the strength yet save on deadweight.
As spans grew in length, the Town Lattice Truss design evolved. Used extensively in both the United States and Canada, this design represents the zenith of basic wood bridge design. In Western Quebec, the first Ironside-Limbour covered bridge of 1866, the Fort Coulonge Marchand Bridge of 1898 and Wakefield's Gendron Bridge of 1915 used variations of the basic Town Lattice Truss design. The success of this design was its simplicity, with a modular design that could be extended to meet most needs. Builders could add chords (main spars) and increase the frequency of the lattice to augment the strength and length of the spans. The old Wakefield bridge utilized a single upper and lower chord, and each span comprised 18 sections plus maximum density of lattice spacing.
As these bridges consisted of sections made up from very many smaller pieces of wood, they could be built progressively across a river. In some cases this was done using the winter ice as a "false bridge," in others the builders used barges or temporary dams and false works. The abutments and piers were initially made of rock-filled wood cribs, although these were vulnerable to frequent ice or spring flood washouts.
In the earliest bridges, all connectors between beams and lattices were made of hardwood dowels and blocks. Large iron spikes and steel bolts were used later to reduce labour costs, but they tended to loosen up over time as the wood was compressed, and this resulted in sagging and failing structures. Another improvement in covered bridge design was to strengthen the roof structure by bracing the trusses to withstand lateral wind forces, which could otherwise cause wracking and collapse. For weather protection, either vertical or horizontal siding could be added with one or two windows to allow for free air passage to keep the wood dry. The porticos varied in ornamentation depending on the skill and artistry of the local builders.
The functions of the new Wakefield bridge were to exhibit the traditional Town Lattice Truss design and to provide for use by pedestrians, skiers, cyclists, and possibly horse-drawn wagons: motorized vehicles would not be allowed. Strange as it may seem, this called for an increased total design load by a factor of seven. The modern standards for a pedestrian bridge of its length called for a loading of almost 50 pounds per square foot, or 50 tons per span, far greater than what would be needed for a bridge to be used by cars and light trucks. Our design allows the possibility of having up to 1000 people on the bridge at any one time. Quite a load!
Engineering standards and techniques have also advanced significantly since 1915. Now, we could create a computer model of the design so that forces could be assessed at all points, especially where there are connections. From this model, the engineers were able to advise on the layout of the chords in relation to overlaps and joints, and to give us specifications for all the steel bolts, braces and connections.
The engineers knew that the original structure had been modified and strengthened in later years in order to take heavier loads and to compensate for the wear and tear on the main beams. The New England timber-framer, Jan Lewandoski, recommended that we should double-up on the upper and lower chords, based on his experience in restoring major covered bridges in the United States. Our engineers had come to the same conclusion, and they also advised against the use of wood dowels in favour of steel bolts. Steel spikes and bolts had been used in the original Gendron Bridge, but over time these had become slack and steel tie-rods had been added to tighten-up the structure. To avoid this problem, we added more than 2000 split steel shear ring connectors around all the main bolts, an adaptation that better distributes the compression and tension forces throughout the wood fibres.
Our design called for each span to describe an arc 144 feet long with the centre 14 inches higher than the ends. The wear and tear on the original structure had resulted in a sagging bridge which we wished to avoid in order to ensure a stronger and more durable structure. We also felt that the bridge sections would be easier to repair if a significant redundancy factor was built in from the start. Another design modification was to add an adjustable steel cable, hidden under each of the lower chords, to provide additional strength and a capacity to make adjustments and facilitate any future structural repairs.
The roof structure of a covered bridge is more than just a cover to protect against the weather: it is also an integral part of boxing the wall trusses to keep them square and stable in the vertical plane. Since the original bridge was built, tin roofs instead of wood shingles are now used to reduce the risk of overloading from wet snow. Our engineers also factored in possible wind shear forces, especially as our bridge is located across a particularly windy gap between two hills. We ensured extra rigidity by using steel plates to tie together roof trusses and truss posts and to strengthen the roof braces.
Due to the magnitude of the task of raising sufficient funds, our challenge was to demonstrate and communicate progress and so elicit further participation, support and enthusiasm. We realized that we would have to overcome cynicism about the viability of the project, and to do this we needed to be visible and show tangible progress. We were fortunate that the municipality offered us the use of an excellent construction site beside the railhead in the centre of the village. We established an office and information centre in 1994, and regularly publicized our plans and solicited volunteer participation via the local media, including radio, television and newspapers. Two local newspapers based in Wakefield gave us excellent coverage when we had relevant news stories.
From the outset, we knew that we would need skilled labour and good direction to get the job done well. The project was essentially a "low tech" effort requiring an enormous amount of precise and repetitious work including sawing 150,000 board-feet of lumber from rough boom logs to specific measurements and assembling, fitting, drilling and bolting hundreds of heavy pieces of lumber. We soon realized that it was unrealistic in this day and age to expect that the work could be accomplished solely by volunteers, or through holding "barn raising" events. In 1994, we hired Terry Flaherty as supervisor of a crew of six workers sponsored under a federal Unemployment Insurance Job Creation grant. That year all 350 boom logs were sawn and the lumber moved by rail from the Déry Quarry (at Farm Point) to our work site in Wakefield. The first truss was surveyed and laid out on the ground, the bridge abutments checked and surveyed, and the adjoining Hendrick Park site cleared.
Learning from difficulties encountered in the first year, for the next two summers we engaged a core team of two-Rob MacLeod as project coordinator and Mario Breton as his assistant. Rob had been a volunteer in the first year and had proved his enthusiasm and interest in the project. As a newly-graduated Civil Engineer, Rob was then working in a restaurant and leapt at the opportunity to be a major part of this project. Mario was a very experienced jack-of-all-trades who could tackle any task, and also knew where to go to borrow odds and ends of equipment that we needed from time to time. These two men set high standards of effort, technical knowledge and creativity applied to getting the job done. There is no question that their leadership, teamwork, and work example were crucial factors in the high rate of progress we achieved in 1995 and again in 1996.
In 1996 we started up in May and were able to obtain a federal grant to hire two summer students and two labourers who were receiving U.I. From time to time we benefited from considerable inputs of volunteer workers, but the bulk of the work was accomplished by our crew of six: these four along with Rob and Mario.
After we had constructed the four bridge walls and the 148 roof trusses, our most interesting challenge was to find a safe and low-cost way to bring the parts together, and then erect the actual bridge. The bridge site presented its own particular constraints. The river is swift, there are rapids immediately downstream from the bridge, and the western approaches are steep and narrow with private properties bordering both sides of the road. Given our lean bank account, least risk and lowest cost were invariably the most important considerations.
We think that the original bridge was constructed using a levee and false bridge, but in 1915 there were no dams on the Gatineau so the river was shallower and, except in the spring, water flow would have been much less than at present. Furthermore, the original builders had full use of the approaches on both sides of the river for marshalling their heavy equipment and prefabricating the trusses.
We first thought of prefabricating the trusses on the eastern approaches and sliding the spans out continuously as they were built, somewhat like building a Bailey Bridge. This would have required re-routing the Wakefield Heights Road, continuous use of heavy equipment on both sides of the river, and the use of a barge to support the spans as they moved across to the centre pier and then on to the western abutment. We rejected that concept as too disruptive, risky and costly.
The next idea was to construct the wall trusses in the village yard and then move them individually, either launching them on barges at a site near the new bridge, or using cranes to lift them into position from either riverbank onto the abutments and central pier. There were also many problems with this concept. Hydro lines would need to be temporarily removed, the river bank would be disturbed, the flow of the river would require very careful handling to prevent the barges or trusses from hitting the abutments, and there was no maneuvering room on the west bank for a large crane. All of these issues added up to uncertainty and unmanageable costs.
Finally, we hit on the idea of constructing the four wall trusses and assembling the two boxed spans in the village yard, before moving them out of the yard and a quarter of a mile down the railway right-of-way to the river bank beside the Wakefield General Store. The spans could then be loaded sequentially onto barges and pushed up-river by tugs to the site. This approach seemed feasible, although there were still major issues to address. First, we would have to raise and position all four wall trusses so they could be cross-braced to form the two spans. Next, we would have to find a way to move these long and heavy structures from the yard to the river bank.
A lucky break came when we found CDS Building Movers in Stittsville, who were up to such a challenging project. Their manager, Ed Allsop, quietly assessed the situation and quickly agreed to take on the job for a remarkably reasonable fixed price. He showed us how his crew had already moved far larger structures. All that we were required to do was to build a temporary road out of the yard and onto the railway right-of-way.
Once the two spans were moved to the river bank, the next question was how to load them onto barges so that they could be delivered to the bridge abutments and placed on them. The bridge abutments are 16 feet above the river so David Laflamme and Ed Allsop worked out a system to jack up the spans on the river bank, and slide them at that height out onto scaffolding on a large barge. The displacement and stability of the barge for such a large and heavy load had to be calculated, as well as a way to roll the span out while keeping the barge steady. The two contractors worked out the details and these plans were approved by our engineering "brains trust." It looked like we had an affordable "go" situation!
A last challenge was to work out how to move the barge up the river, through the rapids and into a position where the spans could be lowered into place. Laflamme felt sure that his tugboat had sufficient horsepower, but we needed to find a safe channel, avoid the rocks, overcome the currents and ensure that the relative heights were such that the spans could be lowered into place.
Working with Hydro-Québec, we undertook trials to measure the extent to which we could raise the river level using the Chelsea dams while slowing the river current using the upstream Paugan Dam. We found that we could reduce the current by 50% but after two hours the water levels at the bridge site dropped below a workable level. A further complication was that the Paugan Dam can only hold back water for a short period. To give us two or three consecutive working days at Wakefield we needed to have the flows managed from the Mercier Dam, three days' flow above Paugan. That is, Hydro-Québec could regulate modest changes, but these had to be planned long in advance.
The weather was yet another variable, and the winds would have to be monitored carefully. Strong winds would be disastrous, since the span would act like a giant sail and could seriously jeopardize control of the barge.
The final plan
By late July 1996, we were confident that the four trusses would be completed by mid-August and we had sufficient sawn lumber to complete the spans and the roofing. This was a crucial decision point: should we await further fund-raising or proceed to complete the bridge in the expectation that it would be easier to raise the final balance once we had demonstrated our competence? Thanks to the flexibility and support of our general contractor, David Laflamme, the Committee gave us the go-ahead. It was now a race to get it all done before the fall.
There were only three days in early September when the Hull to Wakefield steam train had no scheduled runs and we could use the right-of-way. This set our window of opportunity for September 3-5. The two contractors agreed to those dates and Hydro-Québec agreed to manage the flow of the river, starting with reductions at Mercier Dam on September 1 in order to have reduced flows at Wakefield beginning September 4. The basic plan was to start on Tuesday and complete the first move from the yard to the loading of the barge. It was left open whether to attempt the run up the river that afternoon or whether to try early the following morning-we knew that we needed a two-hour advance warning to Hydro-Québec in order to cut the flow at the Paugan Dam at Low. The final word was given: weather permitting, we would complete the move and the bridge erection during the first week of September.
The four wall trusses had been completed by mid-August and Dulepka Cranes used two hydraulic mobile cranes, a 65-ton and a 35-ton, to make the lift on August 23. It took 15 hours of jockeying and careful lifting to raise the trusses and to support them upright so that we could complete the cross-bracing required to make them into transportable spans. This was nerve-wracking work as the 144-foot trusses were difficult to handle and only strong when held in the vertical position. Getting them upright, into the correct position and then secured was an epic day's work. The following week our crew, aided by many volunteers, worked long hours to install the heavy cross braces, attach the steel cables and remove all the temporary bracing. Local contractors made the exit road and we were ready for the move, with no time to spare.
Bob Phillips, a local resident and well-known newspaper columnist, aptly described the sudden arrival of all the moving equipment, tugs, barges and cranes, as akin to D-Day in Wakefield. The quiet village had never seen so much activity!
Early on the day after Labour Day, the CDS crew arrived with an amazing fleet of trucks and specialized equipment. In no time they had raised the first span, hooked-up with a large truck hauler in front, and placed a double set of eight-wheel steerable dollies about two-thirds back from the front. The key to the move was this hydraulically steerable unit, which had its own hydraulic compressor and was operated by a driver seated within the span. The operator, working in direct conjunction with the truck driver, could individually steer each of the eight-wheel sets, plus raise or lower each side in order to compensate for an uneven roadbed. This rig was rolling by 10:00 a.m., proceeding out of the yard and south on the tracks to the Wakefield General Store. Here the truck had to turn 90 degrees around the train's water tower and into the parking lot beside the store. It was a tricky maneuver, as the rear of the span had to swing slowly around, with the rear wheels ending up at right angles and parallel along the edge of the river. The movement was slow but continuous with the CDS crew ready for any contingency.
Just as the rear half of the span began to swing out over the river there was a sickening crunch and the span jerked to a stop. One of the dollies had collapsed into a hidden culvert, causing the support beam to rotate and the hydraulic leveling ram to break off from its upper support flange. It sounded ominous and the crowd of bystanders could sense the tension. The CDS crew swung immediately into action and in short order the span was raised, the beam reinstalled and the hydraulic leveller repaired. It took a bit longer to fill in the hole, but then we were moving again. The sense of relief was palpable and all those present were impressed by the seamless professionalism of the crew.
Now that the span was poised on the river's edge, it dwarfed the Wakefield General Store, reaching from the roadway to 40 feet beyond the river bank. The next stage was to raise the span to 18 feet above the river level and place it on two steel roller beams reaching 75 feet out to the barge. Using the truck hauler, CDS then backed the span slowly out, across the gap and onto the barge. As the truck backed up, the crew had to build a wood ramp higher and higher so that the span remained level at 18 feet above the river. This was obviously a very delicate maneuver but it went without a hitch.
Watching the barge take on the load was a moment of reckoning as we had increased our earlier weight calculations for the span. Using text book weights for fir we had originally estimated one span to weigh about 30 tonnes, but after we noted difficulties with the crane lifts, we raised the estimated dead weight to 57 tonnes because our "boom-log" fir was still quite wet. Fortunately, the Laflamme barge system was sufficiently robust to hold this weight and to maintain stability. Quite a challenge when the span was to be supported on scaffolding 18 feet above the water line, and the 144-foot length protruded 42 feet at either end! We were also concerned about keeping the barge stable while the load was rolled on, and whether the tug would be able to move the barge if it grounded on the rocky shore. It was a real relief when the tug finally eased the loaded barge out from the shore.
The river passage
Once the barge was loaded, our concerns shifted to weather and river conditions. We decided to start the trip up-river early the next morning when wind would be minimal. We were given a direct line into the Ottawa Weather Office to monitor any changes. As it happened, during that week not one, but a series of three, hurricanes were moving up the east coast of the U.S.; luckily they did not negatively influence our weather.
At 9:00 a.m. on a perfectly calm morning, a large part of the Wakefield populace lined the river bank to watch the tugs move off. Students from the Wakefield Public School were there to witness the historic event, and a young volunteer engineer, Dent Harrison, gave them a presentation about how the bridge was built. By 10:00 a.m. the load was deemed secure and our two back-up tugs supplied by Gerry Charron had arrived from down-river. The Laflamme tug moved under the span, was firmly cross-braced to the main barge, and pulled away from shore, easing into the current. A few volunteers manned small boats to ensure that all other craft kept well clear of the convoy. This extraordinary and ungainly looking barge moved steadily up-river until just below the break-line in the rapids. At this point, steel cables were paid-off by the barge to another large tug supplied by Gerry Charron of Chelsea. His tug carried the cables up the rapids and secured the cables around the centre pier, as a precautionary move. Then, with diesels roaring, the main tug pushed up through the rapids and gently into the back eddy behind the centre pier. A moment of relief-at least the barge had made it past the La Pêche rapids!
Once in this position another line was secured onto the east bank abutment and the final maneuvering began. Air winches at either corner of the barge provided steady movement as the barge was swung broadside to the current and then slowly edged sideways between the piers. This required delicate movements as sudden impacts could topple the span off the scaffolding. Simultaneously, the main tug provided a steady force, holding the barge against the current.
Although the first run took more time than expected, everything went according to the plan. The move up the river and through the rapids proceeded smoothly and was an extraordinary sight. It took some time to perfect the various moves with the steel cables but the system worked. The weather cooperated except at the final stage. Just as the span was being edged over the two abutments, a strong southerly gusting wind forced the tug to switch from pushing to pulling, as the effect of the wind on the span easily overcame the force of the current against the broadsided barge! With David Laflamme on the eastern abutment and the tug skipper, Yvon Proulx, at the helm, they managed to hold the barge steady as the span was edged slowly into place.
To assist the push up-river the barge had been loaded so that the bow was slightly higher, but we now found that as the stern was pulled around to the east abutment, the end of the span was below the footings while its other end was high above the centre pier. Muscle power and chain come-alongs could complete the lift but would the rising wind give us the time?
As luck would have it, we spied a back hoe parked on the road and realized that somewhere, among the hundred or so people gathered on the shore, there must be an operator! In a moment we located him-Bruce Diepenveen was enjoying the spectacle in mid-river from Ray Beaudry's houseboat! He was the man of the moment to lift the span up a few inches and onto the abutment. The fit was perfect and its east end was secured in no time. Lowering the span onto the central pier took several hours of hard work, but by 4:30 p.m. the first span was in place and secured. With relief, we stood back and admired what we had just accomplished. It was a pretty sight, especially as the curvature of the bridge had been maintained with no apparent loss due to its own deadweight.
One more time
Erecting the first span had taken us longer than anticipated but the only unwelcome surprise had been the wind and its effect. This just reinforced the wisdom of making the river move as early as possible in the morning. We were now two days behind our original schedule, so we needed to make some changes. First, an unexpected Thursday train had to use the railway turntable before we blocked the tracks with the second span, but on Friday morning our last span was loaded onto the barge without a hitch, and we all took a break until the following morning.
Saturday was yet another fine, misty morning and the fleet set off before 9:00 a.m. The last span was taken up the river and was in place and secured by midday. The experience gained from the first run had surely made this time seem relatively easy. The spans fitted perfectly, describing two delicate arcs across the river. As the noon wind set the flags fluttering from high on the new bridge, the assembled crowd lining both banks and those who were part of a colourful flotilla of boats, canoes and kayaks cheered. We had done it!
Our fall weather was unusually fine and our crew and weekend volunteers made good progress. The balance of the underfloor braces were installed and the floor planking laid, with two days of nailing by volunteers to complete the job. Next the 148 roof trusses and the roof purlins were installed, followed by the steel roofing. Roof braces and steel bracing plates were drilled and bolted on. The regular crew of volunteers worked each Saturday. They were justly satisfied by the results of their work as well as impressed by the heights to which they clambered when working on the roof. By early November 1996, the bridge was completed except for siding and painting.
To rebuild a large bridge is an extraordinary achievement for a small community. This project demonstrates just what can be done, using ingenuity and community resources plus modest support from government. The interest and generous support of the main contractors were crucial, and local businesses made an important contribution toward the success of our venture. Our small dedicated work crew stayed with the project despite minimal wages, because they believed they could do it, and they really wanted to be part of such an historic project. We depended on the many loyal volunteers and contributors who believed that the project was worthwhile. As a member of the Bridge Committee, I think that I speak for all of us in saying that we feel fortunate that we could be at the centre of this work. We had moments of doubt and exhilaration, but none could beat the sense of amazement and pride we felt when the new bridge was finally in place.
- A. de L. Panet, "Early Transportation in the Gatineau Valley," Up The Gatineau!, Vol. 13, 1987.
- Joanne MacDonald, "Summer Bridges: Early Ferries on the Gatineau," Up the Gatineau! Vol. 6, 1980.
- See section on Design
- Edouard P. Laberge, "The Story of a Bridge," Up the Gatineau! Vol. 5, 1979.