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. (This is the conclusion of last week’s column on the Victoria Street bridge in Elora. The first bridge at this site was built in 1843.)
Beauty bridge – The fourth Victoria Street Bridge, photographed soon after its construction in 1899. The single-lane bridge remained Elora’s only bridge until 1954, when the bridge at the foot of Metcalfe Street was built and traffic diverted from the “old bridge.” – Wellington County Museum & Archives ph 18839
Wellington County councillors acted quickly in 1898 when the supporting beams of the 1871 Victoria Street bridge were found to be rotting.
Temporary repairs were made in late March, and in June of 1898 they decided to replace the bridge with a steel structure.
The new bridge would use the piers and abutments of the 1871 bridge, which were still in excellent condition. The design consisted of four spans of the type engineers call the Pratt truss. The roadway was to be 18 feet wide, with sidewalks on each side, suspended outside the trusses. The cost was estimated at slightly over $2,000.
This cost compared favourably with the $1,700 spent on the 1871 wood and wrought iron bridge that was much inferior to the new one in durability and strength. Great advances had been made in the intervening 27 years in metallurgy and bridge engineering.
The needs of railways had been responsible for much of the progress in bridge design. By 1898, steel bridges using various truss designs had become the normal style for new bridges. They used standardized components that could be made cheaply and assembled quickly on the site.
Construction of the new bridge began in February of 1899. It was believed winter construction would be easier, allowing crews to work on the ice in the river, and permitting traffic to cross the river at the foot of Metcalfe street, on the site of the present bridge.
The contractor, Kincardine Bridge Co., had planned to replace the bridge in 10 days, but immediately ran into difficulties and abandoned the job after assembling some of the components. No one wanted to risk putting the old bridge through another winter.
Another contractor was hired to complete the job and a temporary bridge was put across the river at the foot of Geddes Street. The contractor used parts of the old bridge for scaffolding. The new crew had no difficulty with the job. They completed the work in about six weeks, and the new bridge opened to traffic on Aug. 12, 1899, amid great rejoicing. The light, airy style of the trusses was considered the last word in modernity at the time
Like the 1871 bridge, the new one had a wood floor, and this continued to be expensive and troublesome to maintain. The first deck, of three-inch tamarack, had to be replaced in 1904, and the replacement was in bad shape by 1908.
County council decided to put an end to this expense permanently by putting a cement floor on the bridge. The temporary bridge at the foot of Geddes Street went up again in August of 1908 while the work was completed.
The county paid slightly over $600 for the work. The winning bid for the cement was $6.75 per cubic yard, installed. This compared very favourably with the cost of a wooden floor, which was in the range of $250 to $300. When the wooden decks were replaced, the old wood usually sold for $40 or $50.
The bridge received some reinforcing work in 1919. At the same time, it was raised another two feet. The structure was in danger each spring, when flood waters often rose to within inches of the deck, and ice threatened to pile up against it.
At the same time, stone and cement retaining walls were built at the north end of the bridge. Most of this work is still in place. As in 1871, adjoining property owners were displeased with the raising of the street, and some threatened lawsuits.
The Victoria bridge permitted only a single lane of traffic and by the 1930s it was becoming a bottleneck. It was the only bridge in Elora that crossed the Grand River and it carried, in addition, the traffic of an important county road. Plans were made to replace the bridge with a wider one, as part of a larger project involving the paving of some of the county’s roads.
In the end, the cost of replacement was found to be too high. Inspection of the bridge revealed some alarming deterioration, and the only work done involved repairs to some of the beams and the removal of the concrete floor, which had started to crumble. Once again, the Victoria street bridge had a wooden floor.
The bridge served another 20 years as the only link across the river at Elora. By the early 1950s, the narrow bridge and sharp turns at the north end of the bridge and at Metcalfe Street were creating major traffic problems, particularly for buses and large trucks.
In 1954, the county rerouted its road over a new bridge at the foot of Metcalfe Street, and the old bridge was turned over to the village.
For the next decade, a reasonable amount of maintenance was done to the structure, including the replacement of unsound wood on the deck and the painting of the steel trusses. However, nothing was done about structural deterioration. The weight limit on the bridge had to be lowered, and the sidewalk on the downstream side was removed in the early 1960s.
A few years later, in 1969, the bridge had deteriorated so much that the roadway had to be closed to traffic. The remaining sidewalk stayed in service for another couple of years.
The bridge remained out of service through the 1970s, and continued to deteriorate. At the same time, many people began to recognize the heritage value of the structure. It was, by this time, one of the oldest surviving steel bridges in the province.
Interest in the bridge peaked during sesquicentennial year in 1982. Elora’s LACAC (local architectural conservation advisory committee) became involved, and made the designation of the bridge its major project of 1983.
Though it received the historical designation, no one wanted to foot the bill for the restoration or rebuilding of the bridge.
Many in the village were delighted when MGM showed an interest in using Elora to masquerade as Butler, Pennsylvania, circa 1900. The filmmakers agreed to pay about $35,000 of the estimated cost of restoring the bridge. When the filming was finished, the bridge was turned over to the village for use as a foot bridge.
Elora embraced the offer enthusiastically. In retrospect this decision was far too hasty and ill-considered. The work on the bridge did not involve restoration, but rather the placing of two large steel beams over the old superstructure, and the laying of a wooden deck on top of it.
The work did not involve any repairs to the old trusses, or even the use of preservative on them to prevent further deterioration. The sidewalks, on the outside of the trusses, were not replaced. The effect of the new beams was to raise the bridge floor another two feet above its former level, detracting further from the appearance of the adjoining buildings.
The use of a wooden deck has meant that costly and continuing maintenance will be necessary to keep the bridge in a safe condition. The village, LACAC, and Mill Street merchants have done their best to keep the bridge in an attractive condition. Local businesses have donated thousands of dollars to complete the work necessary for reopening the bridge, and equipping it with historical lighting.
The work done in 1983 was, in reality, the construction of a new bridge on top of the old one. The old superstructure now performs only a cosmetic function, and supports nothing but its own weight.
After over 35 years of deferred maintenance, it may have deteriorated so badly that it is beyond restoration.
The Victoria street bridge is a significant feature of downtown Elora. Its ultimate fate will be one of the most important heritage decisions that Elora will make in the next few years.
Note: In spite of its significant historical value, the Victoria Street bridge was demolished in 2006.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 1, 1991.