Derek Russell’s book chronicles ‘The Bridge – One Hundred Years Across to Little Current’

Mr. Russell, with family roots in Tehkummah on Manitoulin, has added one more volume to the growing number of books devoted to Manitoulin history. The subject of this commentary is, in fact, Mr. Russell’s third book of history. The first two deal with the development of Tehkummah and area.

His topic for his newest book, appropriate for 2013, is the venerable swing bridge across the North Channel at Little Current. In Little Current, as well as the Island in general, 2013 has been designated the year of the bridge. It has been a century since it first went into service in the late fall of 1913.

The book covers a lot more than just the construction of the swing bridge. It goes back well before that time. The author gives the background of Little Current and Manitoulin even to pre 1862 days when the Island was a homeland for the Anishnaabek.

He hearkens back to the time of George Abotossway and his stockade and business ventures that existed in the mid 19th Century. Mr. Russell goes on to portray life on Manitoulin after the treaty of 1862 opened up the Island to settlers. Some of the early personalities he refers to include such political figures as R.A. Lyon and S.J. Dawson. Others include business and professional men such as G.B. Abrey, David Miller, Jabez Sims and especially A.P. Kilganin.

Mr. Kilganin came to town in 1885 as an engineer in charge of dredging the channel at Little Current. At the time, it was scarcely deep enough to handle average size vessels.

He became a permanent resident and in 1888 applied for a charter to build a railroad from Little Current to the intersection of either the CPR or Grand Trunk Railway on the North Shore. The charter called for commencement of construction in three years and completion in six years. In view of subsequent events those objectives seem absurdly optimistic to the point of being comical. Subsidies from governments were sought for the Manitoulin and North Shore Railway (MNSRR).

Before he died at age 43 in 1895, Mr. Kilganin was instrumental in building the first telegraph line between Little Current and the CPR on the North Shore. The achievement was heralded with great enthusiasm since it was the first all year means of communication with the outside world.

After his death his widow, Ella, later to become Mrs. C.R. Atkinson, sold the charter to investors from New York State and Toronto.

The new holders of the charter did very little if anything of a substantial nature. They also sought and received more extensions in the times required for commencement and completion of the railroad.

Manitoulin and especially Little Current residents compared the charter holders to the extraordinary entrepreneur and industrialist Francis H. Clerque, who was in the process of transforming Sault Ste. Marie from a sleepy town to an industrial hub.

It was with great expectations that Islanders greeted the news in 1900 that Mr. Clerque and his Ontario Lake Superior Co. had acquired the charter for the MNSRR. The offer of federal and provincial subsidies in both money and land grants were very substantial. As the years passed the planned railroad had become significantly more grandiose including a cross Island route, a train ferry from southeastern Manitoulin to the counties of Bruce and Grey as well as a railway in those parts of southern Ontario.

Time passed with no signs of construction; the company asked for extensions of the charter again and again. On Manitoulin the people became disillusioned with Clerque who in fact was losing control of the company in the early years of the decade. Islanders became contemptuous of him and demanded that no extensions from government be given.

The resentment of Manitoulin leaders resulted in the formation, in 1905, of a “Citizens Union” to lobby governments to require action on the part of the charter holders. By then control of the Ontario Lake Superior Co. had passed to new executives. More extensions were given but by 1910 serious work was going on building the railroad.

To add to the disgruntlement of Islanders, the official name was changed to the Algoma Eastern Railway—no mention of Manitoulin and as one resident put it, the Manitoulin needed all the publicity it could get.

Part of the charter included construction of a swing bridge across the channel at Little Current. The design of the bridge was drawn by a prominent engineer, A.P. Boller. Unfortunately he died at his home in New Jersey in December 1912 and never lived to see the completion of his last swing bridge—at Little Current. It was said that he combined engineering principles with elegant design. The town’s swing bridge attests to that.

As we all know the iconic bridge has served for over a century belonging, in turn, to the Algoma Eastern Railway, the C.P.R. and finally the provincial government. Although it has been repaired and refurbished over the years, it’s longevity and graceful looks bear witness to Mr. Boller’s engineering and artistic talents.

Throughout the book there are excerpts of official documents relating to the railroad and the bridge. There are a good number of illustrations. For those with a yen for details there are plenty of specifications and dimensions for a lot of the components that make up the bridge.

The book contains an intriguing account of the bridge construction in regards to the method of riveting the steel members. A heater turned the rivets red hot. A worker called the “heater” then picked up the rivet with tongs and tossed it up or over to the “stick in” who caught it in his metal can. A temporary bolt was removed by the “bucker up” and the “sticker in” inserted the still red hot rivet. When the rivet was completely through the steel members, the “riveter” on the other side of the steel used a pneumatic hammer to put a “button head” on it. The “bucker up” used a “dolly bar” to press against his side of the rivet while the “riveter” on the other side hammered the still malleable steel rivet securely in place. The “heater” could toss red hot rivets up to thirty feet to the “sticker in.” They must have been a good pitcher and catcher team.

Mr. Russell concludes his book with an overview of more recent history of the bridge including modern trends in transportation including the demise of the railway from Sudbury to Little Current. The highly lauded service of 1913 lasted scarcely eight decades. Only the swing bridge remains as a reminder of those exciting times.

Derek Russell’s and Bill Caesar’s books on the bridge complement each other and would be a good combination for a 2013 Christmas gift to the history buff in the family. They are available in Little Current at The Expositor Office and at Turner’s of Little Current for $45 each.

Alexander (Sandy) McGillivray, is a well-known Manitoulin Island historian. This year, he published to great acclaim the 816 page The Little Current Story, the definitive history of Little Current and area in the context of the development of Manitoulin Island.

Sandy McGillivray