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.
(Note: This is the conclusion of a study of bridge builder Richard Boyle.)
The majority of Richard Boyle’s bridge contracts were within a 25 mile radius of his home base at Parker, north of Alma, but he sometimes ranged as far as 50 miles from home. By a wide margin, he ranks as the most important bridge builder in Wellington County in the last quarter of the 19th century.
I wanted to obtain some specific information on Boyle’s activities, so I decided to look closely at his work in Nichol Township. There is no reason to believe he did more or less work in Nichol than in other townships in the county. I chose Nichol simply because it is relatively small.
The major bridges in Nichol were the five over the Irvine River, two of which are in Salem, and the Grand River bridge at Aboyne. There were a number of small spans and culverts over Swan and Cox Creek, and others over lesser streams.
Richard Boyle initially worked in Nichol in 1861, when the first Woolwich Street bridge at Salem was constructed. This was a private venture, planned and financed by mill owner Levi Erb, who owned the floor mill beside it.
Nichol Township provided a $400 subsidy (probably half of the total cost) and insisted on approving the plans. Boyle worked as one of the subcontractors on the project.
Although Richard Boyle was in the contracting business from 1860, he did no further work in Nichol under his own name until 1874, and it appears that he did not even tender for any.
Nichol Township hired Richard Boyle in 1874 to rebuild the Irvine bridge at Concession 11-12, for $99. Between 1874 and 1914 Boyle completed 21 contracts for Nichol. Ten of these were new bridges; most of the balance consisted of rebuilding and major repair work.
Boyle submitted a tender for a new bridge at Aboyne in 1875, but was unsuccessful. A year later Nichol hired him to paint, inspect and do minor repairs on all its major bridges. In 1881 he was the lowest of 12 tenders for a new Irvine bridge at Concession 11-12, for $149.
Richard Boyle’s subsequent work in Nichol between 1885 and 1914 amounts to over half the major bridge work in Nichol over this time span. It also shows that bridges constituted the greatest headache for councils of the time. Ice and spring floods could and did severely damage bridges long before their normal expiry date. These unexpected expenses could severely strain budgets.
The Washington Street bridge in Salem proved to be particularly troublesome. Although a short span (it is now a large culvert), it frequently suffered flood damage. The next bridge upstream, at Concession 11-12, also suffered frequent damage. It was shifted and weakened on several occasions, and required some minor work almost every year.
Nothing delighted Boyle more than doing things the easy way. He pioneered in the use of the block-and tackle for moving and lifting heavy items, and he liked to use lever and cantilever principles during construction of his bridges.
Boyle never tendered on steel bridges. The first of these in Nichol was at Woolwich Street, Salem, in 1901. By this time steel had completely replaced wood for major spans. Most of Richard Boyle’s work after 1900, in Nichol and elsewhere, consisted of repair work to older wooden bridges.
Boyle was also getting on in years: he was 65 in 1900. Although by nature an energetic man, he was slowing down a little, and did not show much interest in acquiring skills in the new methods of bridge construction.
One of the new materials was concrete. Nichol commissioned its first concrete bridge in 1906. Contractor William Mortimer pioneered concrete bridges in this area. He soon had a competitor: Charles Mattaini of Fergus. After 1910 these two entirely supplanted Boyle as the important local bridge builders.
Another innovation was the galvanized steel culvert. Nichol installed one as a trial in 1908. It soon proved itself, and steel culverts eventually replaced the older wooden ones and some of the smaller bridges.
Today we have every confidence that a new bridge will last for many decades. This was not the case in Richard Boyle’s day. The wooden bridges of the 19th century required constant heavy maintenance and frequent replacement.
As well as his work in Nichol, Boyle worked regularly in 25 or 30 townships, and on occasion in others farther afield. His designs, economy and construction methods earned him a solid reputation among local governments.
Ill health forced Richard Boyle to retire in 1919, after 59 years in the construction business. By this time Boyle was living in Alma with his daughter, one of seven children. His wife had passed away in 1896.
On June 7, 1927 Richard Boyle succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 92. He had become a patriarchal figure well known and respected over a wide area. Old associates flocked to his funeral, which was conducted by four ministers.
It is unfortunate that Richard Boyle and his achievements are virtually unknown today. He was part of the last generation of the self-educated engineer/contractor. No one knows how many bridges he built, but the number must be at least 200.
Richard Boyle did not became a rich man, despite the extent of his work. He was happier to take pride in a job well done. His name deserves a prominent place in the history of Wellington County.
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Jan. 7, 1997.