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.
[Editor’s note: During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Victoria-Street bridge was a subject of attention for Elora’s heritage buffs and a continuing headache for Elora council. The bridge at that time was the fourth one on this site, and dated back almost a century. As officials contemplate a new fifth bridge at this site, it is worth looking back, with Thorning’s help, at the historical roots of the Victoria Street structures.]
Bridge two – An early photograph looking north across the river shows the second Victoria Street Bridge, which was constructed in 1853 and replaced in 1871. This bridge rested on a single centre pier, the top of which can be seen in the photo. The stone buildings on Mill Street on the north side of the river housed J.M. Fraser’s store, left, and the Commercial Hotel, now the Gorge Cinema, right. Wellington County Museum & Archives ph 41993
When Ross and Co. took possession of the Elora mill site in 1842 and rebuilt the mills and opened a store, one of the company’s first projects was the construction of a convenient bridge across the Grand River. This decision fixed the location of what would be Elora’s main bridge for more than 100 years.
Other than its appearance on old maps, we know nothing about this first Victoria Street bridge. It lasted 10 years, not a bad life span for a structure made of untreated wood and subject to the forces of flood and ice on the river.
The replacement went up in the summer of 1853, just as Elora’s economy was enjoying its first important boom. The bridge rested on a single pier in the centre of the river, which was constructed of wooden cribbing and filled with stones for stability. The bridge itself looked very much like the Bailey bridges of the 20th century, with low, wooden trusses rising about five feet above the bridge deck. The trusses also served as railings.
The main supports consisted of large horizontal beams under the bridge deck. The bridge had to be strong, not only to withstand floods, but to support the traffic, which could be very heavy.
Beginning in the mid 1850s, cattle dealers drove large herds of fat stock over the bridge, and the wagons from Elora’s mills carted heavy loads of flour to Guelph. These freight wagons carried up to 22 barrels weighing about 240 pounds each. This weight, combined with that of a team of heavy draft horses, was a test of any bridge of the time.
The bridge surface was made of 4-inch pine planking, which had to be replaced every four or five years. There was no sidewalk, and the deck was only 12 feet wide. In winter, pedestrians had to wade through slush and manure on the bridge to get from one side of town to the other.
This bridge gave good service until 1869, when it sustained damage in a spring flood.
Elora’s council immediately made plans to replace the bridge, commissioning an engineer to prepare drawings for a new bridge, 24-feet wide, constructed of wood in the same style as the existing bridge.
Councillors were divided on the scheme. John Mundell feared the cost of a new bridge, and did not want the village to add to its already large debenture debt. Mundell’s opinion prevailed, and the project was postponed.
The bridge deteriorated further over the next winter, and was at the top of the village agenda in 1870. This time council decided to proceed, funding the bridge with a debenture issue and a grant from the county.
The contractors completed some of the stonework in the fall of 1870, but most of the work was done the following summer. The new design called for a bridge in four spans, resting on stone piers and abutments. The superstructure was to be made of iron and wood. Total engineering costs were $5.
Construction of the piers presented some interesting engineering problems.
The normal level of the river in 1871 was lower than it is now because the dam was lower. Also, water levels in late summer dropped considerably before the dams upstream on the Grand were constructed. Bridge and dam work was almost always done in August and September.
The first pier, toward the north bank of the river, was put in with little difficulty. Bedrock was close to the surface here, and the river is shallowest on the north side. The contractors built a coffer dam to divert the water around the sites of the other two piers.
The coffer dam failed to hold out the water, and more seeped into the excavations through the sandy, porous river bottom. In the end, a section of the dam was removed, and the factories along the river had to close for two weeks because they had no power. This allowed the piers to be built solidly on bedrock.
These piers turned out to be superb examples of the mason’s art. They are still sound and in place after 145 years of floods and ice jams. Each contains over 100 cubic yards of stone. The large facing stones were quarried at Guelph, and brought in by rail and wagon; the rest of the stone is local.
The new bridge was placed a few feet downstream from the existing one, and the stone was lowered from the existing bridge with a boom. The old bridge had to be removed to allow the upstream side of the piers to be finished.
The superstructure was constructed of wood and iron. With the masonry work complete, the rest of the project was finished in only three days, and the new bridge opened for traffic in the second week of September, 1871. Since much of the traffic to the north of the county passed over this bridge, everyone was anxious to have it in service as soon as possible. Total cost of the project was about $4,500, equivalent to perhaps $400,000 in 1991 dollars.
Unfortunately, we know little of the design of the 1871 superstructure, and amazingly, no photographs of it seem to have survived.
We do know that it was painted regularly in white, and that it had a plank floor that had to be replaced regularly, the first time in 1878 and the second time in 1882. The floor was three inches thick, and required over 15,000 board-feet of lumber.
There was controversy over the new bridge before it was finished. The floor was two feet higher than the old one, and necessitated the raising of the approach from Mill street, creating an embankment in front of the businesses at the southwest corner of the bridge. It had been possible until 1871 to reach the river’s edge from Mill street, down a short incline immediately to the east of the bridge.
Several property owners threatened lawsuits, but nothing came of them. The bridge, and Mill Street itself, would be raised again in later years.
The 1871 bridge served Elora for 28 years, with only minor repairs and maintenance. Problems did not arise until 1898, when some of the beams were found to be rotting. Temporary reinforcements were made, but it was clear that a replacement was necessary.
This time it was not Elora’s worry; the road and bridge were now under the jurisdiction of the county.
(Next week: A new bridge is built on the 1871 piers.)
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Sept. 24, 1991.