Sunday 22 January 2023

The Heffernan street footbridge 3.0

Early in the morning of 5 February 1913, Martin O'Donnell came across a grisly surprise, "the body of a dead man, frozen stiff, in the centre of the through siding near the C.P.R. freight shed, one arm being missing" (Mercury). The body was later identified as Carmillo Angelo, who lived in a boarding house in the "Italian colony" in the Ward.

Forty-two years old, Angelo worked at the Pipe Mill (later the Old Mill) and was probably returning to his boarding house when he was struck by the 8:30pm train from Toronto, which dragged him some distance and severed his arm. He had lived and worked in Guelph for five years and had become naturalized only a couple of months before. He left a widow and five children back in Italy.

The incident occurred in behind the CPR freight shed, formerly the Speed Skating Rink, near the Heffernan street bridge. Angelo's death illustrated the hazard to pedestrians of having a popular pedestrian route, fed by the pedestrian bridge, hard by a railway.

As noted in an earlier post, Guelphites seemed generally happy with the convenience and aesthetics of the second Heffernan street footbridge. However, the proximity of its southern entrance to the Guelph Junction Railway was always problematic.

(This view shows the proximity of the second Heffernan street footbridge to the Gueplph Junction Railway. Postcard published by the International Stationary Co., ca. 1910. From the author's collection.)

In the early 1900s, the Canadian Pacific Railway was spending money on improvements to its facilities and, in Guelph, aimed to build a new railway station to replace the decrepit Priory, the first building constructed on the townsite. In conjuction with this plan, the CPR made a offer to the City of Guelph: It would build gates at the Eramosa Road railway crossing, and erect a new Heffernan street bridge that went over the tracks, if the city would upgrade the crossing at Allan's bridge (Mercury, 17 November 1909). This would ensure that the CPR would be in a position to build a new railway station at the nearby Trafalgar Square site in the following year or so.

(Indeed, it appears that the board of the Railway Commissioners ordered a new footbridge to be built that passed over the tracks, though I have yet to find a record of the order itself.)

The city seems to have accepted the deal and the tender of Rutherford & Paten, of St. Catherines, was accepted to construct the new bridge.

This was duly not accomplished. The city's Board of Works returned to the old idea that a vehicular bridge should be built to carry street traffic over the river. This plan was not carried out, apparently because the city refused to drain the river for the purpose of construction, as the builders had assumed they would (Mercury, 15 April 1912).

So, the Board reverted to the scheme of having another footbridge constructed instead. New plans were drawn up and a call for tenders issued. Ever indecsive, the City's call for tenders listed two different designs for the bridge (Engineering and Contract Record, 23 April 1913):

Tenders will be received up to April 26th by Board of Works and Sewerage Commissioners for: (1) steel foot bridge, consisting of 2 97-ft. deck spans, 1 through truss at 100 ft. and 6 I-beam approach spans; (2) construction of concrete substructure for the above; (3) alternative tenders for a reinforced concrete bridge on same site. Plans, etc., from City Engineer. $5.00 deposit required for concrete bridge plans.
Option (1) seems much like the previous bridge, albeit with extra approaches and elevation on a concrete substructure. Option (2) was for a newer style featuring 100% reinforced concrete, perhaps reflecting a desire that the bridge might appear more "modern" than the earlier one.

Spoiler alert: A tender for option (2) was selected, from the company of Galbraith & Cate of Montreal. Construction seems to have begun in September and finished around November 1.

("Construction of the Heffernan Street Walking Bridge," 1913. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2013.72.77.)

Naturally, the third Heffernan street footbridge featured in many postcards of the post-Great War era. Its graceful arches and interesting slope were too much for photographers to resist. Consider the view below, taken from Eramosa street bridge upstream.

("Speed River, Guelph, Ont." Published by the Bulman Bros., B. C. Lithography & Printing Ltd, Vancouver, BC, ca. 1925. From the author's collection.)

Another picture taken from downstream shows the same interest in the juxtaposition of the river and the slanting angle of the new bridge.

("Footbridge over the Speed River, Guelph, Ontario." Published by F.H. Leslie, Niagara Falls, ca. 1930. The perforations on the left margin show that this card was sold in a booklet along with other cards, which could be torn out individually for use. From the author's collection.)

The elegant concrete arches of the bridge's substructure invite closeups, as they appear almost like the path a stone might follow if skipped over the river.

("Foot Bridge over Speed River, Guelph, Ont." Published by the Heliotype Co. of Ottawa, ca. 1920. From the author's collection.)

Note the original lighting system featuring inverted-J poles.

Guelphites took to the new bridge as they had with the previous one. It soon became home to the same sorts of uses, such as serving as a "dressing room" for youth taking dips in the Speed (Mercury, 5 August 1926):

A number of citizens have been objecting to the practice of a number of boys dressing and undressing under the Heffernan Street bridge. They state that the practice has become very prevalent lately and, besides being a danger to the boys themselves, is offensive to passers-by. One of the objectors said that while passing over the bridge last night, with a lady, the lads were using extremely bad language and when he remonstrated with them they only redoubled their efforts.
Plus ca change!

A few unusual events were also reported occurring under the bridge. Consider the picture below, showing Guelphites waving to the crew of the HMCS Swansea, the only naval vessel to pass under the bridge (Mercury, 1 April 1953):

The ship, on her way back from battle manoeuvers in the Georgian Bay area, nosed her way slowly down the Speed River to the cheers of amazed and sleepy-eyed early risers.
If you are similarly amazed, then take note of the date of the picture's publication.

Of course, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since its construction, and it experienced a few close calls as it aged. In 1951, the bridge underwent repairs to fix up the cracking and spalling that concrete structures tend to suffer over time. It was closed for four weeks while cracks and holes were sealed with steel mesh and additional concrete (Mercury, 27 July 1951).

In 1971, when the bridge needed further repairs, the Guelph City Council made plans to tear it down. Despite the urgency that was broadly felt to make Canadian cities more modern and shed vestiges of the past, there was a public outcry at the news and the Council reversed its decision, opting for repairs instead.

(Photograph of the Heffernan street footbridge by Gordon Couling, 1982. Courtesy of the Wellington County Museum and Archives, A1985.110, ph. 9510).

In 1990, the Heffernan street footbridge was declared a heritage site and the City Council decided to return it to its original appearance. Thus, the bridge was demolished and rebuilt. As Troy Bridgeman remarked (Guelph Today, 10 December 2019), it remains today one of the most photographed city landmarks. It is also a monument to the vagaries of civic traffic patterns and the survival of old structures in growing cities.

("Repair of Heffernan Street Walking Bridge," 1990. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2009.32.5402.)
("Heffernan street footbridge," 20 October 2019. Courtesy of Peter Burian via Wikimedia Commons.)