Friday 11 August 2023

Gow's bridge

We tend to think of bridges as keeping people dry when they cross over rivers. For the most part, this is true but not always. At its inception, what Guelphites call Gow's bridge today reminded its makers of this fact (Mercury, 1 Sep 1897):
Got a ducking.

City Engineer Hutcheon was inspecting the new stone bridge at Gow’s dam yesterday. Mr. D. Keleher, the contractor, and Mr. J.K. Weeks were along with him. They got on to a rather rickety scaffold. It gave way, and the three men were plunged into six feet of water. Then there was a scramble for the shore. Keleher, it is said, floated on one of the broken planks until it struck on an obstruction and saved him from being floated over the dam. The trio got a good ducking, but nevertheless went on with the inspection of the bridge, if not with the same eagerness, with far more carefulness.
The scaffolding was intended to help laborers to build the bridge. In the absence of safety regulations, these structures could be rather unsound, as the inspector was here reminded.

Gow's bridge is perhaps Guelph's most noted and picturesque bridge (though the Heffernan street bridge is also in the running for that title). For this reason, no doubt, postcards of the bridge were quite popular in the Edwardian era.

("Gow's bridge, Guelph, Canada," published by Waters Bros., Guelph, ca. 1910.)

Technology scholar Langdon Winner is noted for arguing that technology can be "political" in the sense that it can enforce political goals. His most famous example is a set of bridges built by urban planner Robert Moses over some Long Island parkways. These bridges were designed with low clearances, which had the effect of impeding the passage of buses beneath them. Moses's critics argued that this arrangement suited Moses, who didn't want busses to use the parkway because they were the main means that poorer New Yorkers, especially black ones, would use to reach public beaches up the coast from New York City, something that Moses viewed with disfavor. The veracity of this argument has been disputed but it illustrates how the design of technologies, such as bridges, might further particular political preferences.

(A print of the photograph from which the postcard above was made. It is labeled, "Gow's bridge, Guelph, ca. 1875." Of course, this date cannot be correct as the stone bridge was not built until 1897, as noted above. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library, C6-0-0-0-0-1168.)

Gow's bridge was also "political," not because of its design but because of its location. As Johnson (1977, pp. 95–100) explains, Dundas Road (now Gordon street), the only main road leading south from Guelph, was operated by a Commission that charged tolls in order to recoup the costs of its construction and maintenance. In 1852, the Commission raised its toll charges substantially in order to stay in the black.

Of course, higher charges substantially raised the costs for Guelph businesses to ship their goods south to market.

To say that Guelphites reacted negatively to this development would be to put it mildly. Citizens attacked the integrity of the Commission in print and physically attacked the toll gate south of town. In order to break the monopoly that the Commission held in southward routes, the Town Council set out to build more bridges over the Speed River, so that teamsters transporting goods to the south could circumvent the Dundas Road bridge. Its first effort focussed on the foot of Wellington Street, which, at the time, was at the Gow property a little west of the Dundas Road.

("Hon. Peter Gow, Member of the Ontario Legislative Assembly for S. Wellington," ca. 1870; courtesy Library and Archives Canada/MIKAN 3216191.)

Peter Gow (1818–1886), owner of that property, had immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1842 and arrived in Guelph two years later. Following his father's profession, Gow set up a boot and shoe store in town. He went into partnership with his cousin James on the latter's arrival in 1851.

Ever the go-getter, Gow built a tannery, a woolen mill, an oatmeal mill, and a quarry on property he purchased on the shore of the Speed. (The property had a propitious history: In 1830, it was the site of a distillery built by one Andrew McVenn.) A dam was built to provide power for the mills, which became known as Gow's dam. The convenience of this site to the centre of Guelph, along with the presence of the mills and dam, probably explain why the Gow property was chosen as the site for Guelph's new, Commission-busting bridge.

(Detail of the map of Guelph from the 1877 Atlas showing Gow's bridge and properties where the west end of Wellington street intersected the Speed River. This section is today part of McCrae Boulevard.)

By the end of October, 1852, a bridge apparently sporting stone abutments and piers with a wooden superstructure spanned the Speed River, connecting Wellington street to the mean streets of Brooklyn, the section of Guelph on the river's south bank.

It seems that the new bridge, which was inevitably known as Gow's bridge (though sometimes called the Wellington street bridge), was a success.

Exposed to the elements as they are, particularly ice and floods, bridges tend to wear out and require periodic repair. When the maintenance bills come due is when we see how attached people are to their bridges (or other structures).

By 1872, Gow's bridge was in a "dangerous and dilapidated state" (Mercury, 4 June) and there were calls for its replacement. Helpfully, Wellington County chipped in $500 towards the project, evidently considering the structure an important regional asset. Plans were drawn up and tenders sought. However, at $1400, the lowest bid involved more money than the Town of Guelph wished to spend. Pivoting to Plan B, the town simply had the existing piers raised by a foot and a new wooden deck built. This project cost only about $650, which was much more to the council's liking.

A significant, though unintended, consequence of the presence of Gow's bridge was that it facilitated the practice of swimming or "bathing" in the river. There was a bylaw that prohibited bathing in the river near bridges, so the papers occasionally related stories of people who were caught in the act by authorities.

The perspective of the authorities is nicely conveyed in an article in the Mercury (5 August 1887), which lodges a complaint against the practice in general:

Bathing at Gow’s bridge.

Numerous are the complaints that are made about young men and boys bathing at Gow’s bridge in broad daylight and in the evening. They run around the bridge, and dive from the parapet as naked as the day they were born and the language they use is most offensive beyond imagination. Ladies living on the other side of the river, and whose direct road home is over this bridge, are compelled to walk around by Dundas bridge.
Of course, to the perpetrators, what was shocking about this scenario was the behaviour of the police attempting to catch them in the act. This perspective is nicely conveyed by John D. Higinbotham in a reminiscence of his childhood in Guelph in the 1870s (Higinbotham 1933, p. 21):
An excellent exemplification of the fact that "conscience makes cowards of us all" was seen in the terror of the very name of "Kelly" inspired in the hearts of the small boy. The town police force consisted of Chief Jonathan B. Kelly, and Sergeant Dooley. The former was a small man with dark piercing eyes; yet at the very sight of him every urchin sought cover. The principal duty of the Sergeant during the summer months seemed to be to parade the waterfront from Goldie's Mill to Gow's bridge and apprehend all small boys who, in violation of the town ordinances, insisted on bathing in nature's attire. Occasionally the boys outwitted him by throwing their clothes into an empty barrel and swimming with it to the opposite shore.
Which party was finally in the wrong is left for you, dear reader, to decide.

This second version of the bridge continued to serve the community for another couple of decades. By 1893, wear and tear had brought it to condition of being "unfit for traffic" (Mercury, 7 September) and calls for a new bridge were made once again.

In 1896, the City Council took action. In August of that year, the water had been drained from in front of Gow's dam, meaning that the riverbanks and bed were more than usually accessible, and at no extra cost! The council decided to have abutments built immediately and have a deck designed and built later on (Mercury, 18 August 1896). The tender of Dundas & Cape was accepted and masonry abutments, 22 inches higher than the previous ones, were constructed.

Of course, the superstructure then had to be built. The council could not decide on a type and solicted tenders for a stone structure, an iron one, or a wooden deck (Mercury, 8 March 1897). The stone option won the day, over the strong protests of Alderman Clarke, who favored the cheaper option and called the stone structure, "that costly stone bridge" (Mercury, 16 March 1897). He was certainly correct about the difference in price, with the bid for the stone bridge by D. Keleher coming in at $2197, while the bid by Richard Boyle for the wooden structure would come in under $500.

("Gow's bridge, Guelph, Canada." Postcard in bookmark format printed by Rumsey & Co., Toronto, ca. 1915; courtesy of the Guelph Civic Musemus 2004.32.17.)

Construction began on 16 July and the inspection, complete with the immersion of the inspectors, took place on 1 September. Guelph then had the romantic stone bridge that it continues to enjoy today!

Gow's bridge continued to be a favoured site for bathing but many other things, not always pleasant, occurred there as well. For example, the bank of the Speed at the bridge was a good place to pasture the Royal City's urban cows, a procedure that could occasionally be risky (Globe, 26 July 1916):

Frenzied cow gores woman attendant
Heat and flies madden animal and Mrs. Walker of Guelph is injured.

Guelph, July 25.—Frenzied with the heat and flies, a cow tossed and gored Mrs. William Walker, Birmingham street, this city, while she was endeavoring to drive the animal through the gate of a pasture field near Gow’s Bridge. Had two young men not hastened to her rescue it is altogether likely that Mrs. Walker would have been killed.
("Gow's bridge and mill, watercolour, 1910," by Effie Smith of Guelph. Courtesy of Wellington County Museum and Archives A1985.110, ph. 11243.)

Sadly, like many bridges, Gow's bridge was also the site of drownings and other unfortunate encounters with the Speed. Consider the example of Richard Hulme, a recent immigrant to Canada at the time of his death (Globe, 23 September 1924):

Depressed by lack of work young man takes his life

Guelph, Sept. 22.—Depressed and discouraged owing to the fact that he was unable to obtain employment, Richard Hulme, an English man, 30 years old, drowned himself in the Speed River. He is believed to have been mentally deranged. Before committing the rash act, Hulme placed his sweater coat and hat in a neat pile on the abutment at Gow’s Bridge, and then it is supposed waded into the water. A little girl in passing noticed the man’s clothing and on further investigation discovered the body in about 4 feet of water. Hulme had been out of work for over a month, and had been unable to secure a job. He leaves a wife and two children in Leigh, England.

Gow's bridge was designated a historic site in 1990 and noted as, "the only surviving example of several stone bridges which once crossed Guelph’s rivers."

There are intriguing mentions of a second bridge at the site of Gow's bridge around 1900. Consider this notice in the Mercury (15 July 1904):
Bad Bridge.

Residents in Brooklyn and farmers generally, who are in the habit of crossing Gow’s bridge, are complaining about the state of the wooden bridge adjoining the stone one. It was washed away last spring, and remained in an impassible condition for some weeks, when finally a plank footpath was erected. The fence on the righthand side from the city, between the two bridges, is also down. People who have to do business at the Grundy factory, at Cartledge’s woolen mills, and general delivery men are compelled to go by the Dundas or Wells’ bridges, considerably out of their way.
It sounds as though this wooden bridge connected the stone bridge to Wellington street, so that people crossing the river had to pass over both structures in sequence.

The Mercury (2 September 1904) later notes that this second bridge was replaced by another, "principally of cement".

("Gow's bridge from boathouse, July 1902 // July 10th, 1902 // Oil by Fanny Colwill Calvert;" courtesy of the Art Gallery of Guelph.)

An oil painting made by Fanny Colwill Calvert in 1902 shows not the stone bridge but one with a wooden deck. Could this be the adjoining bridge that was washed out in 1903?

("Gow's bridge, Guelph, Canada," printed by Rumsey & Co., Toronto, ca. 1910. Note the stone bridge on the left-hand side and another structure on the right. Courtesy of the John Keleher collection.)

It may be that this second, "adjoining" bridge stood on the section of Wellington street just north of the stone bridge, effectively connecting it to Wellington. A postcard of that period appears to show such a structure in that location. This structure is not wooden and so may be the one "principally of cement" built after Ms. Colwill Calvert's painting was executed.

The area between Gow's bridge and Wellington street was considerably altered in subsequent decades. The low-lying north shore was filled in with refuse and the buildings at the bridge were removed, making way for what is now Royal City Park. In place of an adjoining bridge, a third span was added to Gow's bridge and the Speed River was lined with stone walls, as part of a Depression-era works project.

("Speed River, from Gordon Street Bridge, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.—8;" postcard printed by Photogelatine Engraving Co., Ltd. and mailed in 1938.)
Works consulted include: