Bridge builder Richard Boyle had an inventive mind

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


For a long time, 19th century engineering and technology have held a strong fascination for me.

A couple of months ago I was delighted when Bonnie Callen at the county archives showed me a new acquisition: a blank printed contract for a bridge to be built by Richard Boyle of Parker.

The contract specifies the various components of the bridge, and it includes some engineering diagrams. The design is specified as “The Boyle Patent Bridge.” Anyone familiar with 19th century engineering will immediately recognize this as a Howe truss (timber diagonals and iron verticals). There is no date on the document, but it includes testimonials from a number of reeves in Wellington County in 1896 and 1897.

I haven’t had time to look up the patent to see what exactly was unique about Boyle’s bridge. The Howe truss came into use in the 1840s, and was particularly useful for railway work. There were numerous variants over the following decades. I was more interested in Boyle himself: his background, the nature of his contracting business, and the extent of his work in Wellington County and elsewhere.

Richard Boyle left a memoir, written in 1912 on his 77th birthday. Unfortunately, only the first four pages have survived. These pages give his personal and family background.

Richard Boyle was born in 1835 in Pilkington Township, one of seven children. The family moved in 1842 to Peel Township, just north of Alma. At the age of 18 Boyle took a job chopping and logging, and in the fall of 1853 he took a better position with Thomas Ross. It is possible that this was a subcontract for the Elora and Saugeen Road, which was built through Peel Township over the winter and spring of 1853-1854.

In the summer of 1854 Boyle was working with his father and brother Tom framing barns. That fall Tom and Richard Boyle bought a threshing machine, and did well working in the Cumnock and Arthur area.

In the meantime, Boyle lived on a succession of farms. He chopped and logged some of the land on each of them. I suspect that he and his father used some of the heavy timbers in their barn building contracts, and he may have supplied material to bridge builders.

Richard Boyle started his own contracting and bridge building business in 1860, at the age of 25. I have been able to discover nothing about his training and education. A couple of sources claim that he was illiterate, but I think this highly unlikely.

It is true that when he was young the family preceded the opening of schools. The memoirs are not a help: they appear to have been dictated, and written by someone else. In later years, Boyle was often hired to produce plans and specifications for bridges built by others. It would have been difficult for him to do business without being able to write, since many of his contracts were negotiated by mail.

Boyle’s technical training is more of a mystery. He had no formal training in engineering. Obviously, he was a quick study, with an inventive turn of mind. His father, as a barn framer, knew something of basic engineering principles. I think it likely that Richard Boyle learned much by looking over the shoulders of the bridge builders in Peel in the 1850s, whom he supplied with timber.

Boyle’s first major bridge contract was for the first bridge at Salem, which he constructed in partnership with Robert Kilpatrick.

By the 1870s Boyle had become a major bridge contractor in Wellington County and in the adjoining counties. The road bridges of the last third of the 19th century almost invariably used a combination of timber and iron. The wood components were usually painted, but this did not prevent rapid deterioration. Major repair work was often needed within five years, and complete replacement in 12 or 15.

It was rare for any township not to have a major bridge project each year. There was plenty of work, and Richard Boyle did as much of it as anyone. Wrought iron was much more durable, but iron bridges cost at least four times as much as wooden ones. There was also a danger of spring floods. No council wanted to have an expensive new iron bridge wrecked by an ice jam.

In 1876, Richard Boyle bought the Robert McKim farm, at the southeast corner at Parker in Peel Township. McKim had operated a large saw mill here, but it had burnt down. There was still a blacksmith shop, which provided some of the iron components for Boyle’s bridges.

As well as bridges, Boyle also did major structural work for buildings. He did much work for “Honest” John McGowan, both at the flax mill at Alma, and later at Aboyne, where McGowan rebuilt the old flour mill into a linseed oil mill at the turn of the century.

Boyle liked to advertise that his bridges used sound engineering principles that saved on materials. On many of his bridges he enclosed the trusses with vertical planking and a roof made of cedar shingles. This lengthened the life of the trusses, although the decks and supporting components were still subject to rapid decay.

A few pictures of Boyle bridges under construction have survived. They show some of his employees, but I have not been able to discover how many were permanent employees, and how many were temporary labourers or carpenters. It is likely that he employed a core group of skilled workers in order to complete the projects quickly and competently. Boyle worked fast: he usually had the new bridge completed within a month of the letting of the contract.

The period from 1885 to 1900 marked the peak of Boyle’s activity. It was in these years that he developed his patented design. He displayed a model of it at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and he received a gold medal for the design from an engineers’ society in Paris, France.

Richard Boyle’s bridge building activity dwindled after 1900. Declining prices for steel made metal bridges more attractive for larger projects. Concrete culverts, using cheap portland cement, replaced some of the smaller bridges. Also, he was getting old. Ill health forced Richard Boyle to retire in 1919, after 59 years in the construction business.

(To be continued next week.)

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Dec. 18, 1996.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015