New swing bridge gets nod from MTO

MANITOULIN—Manitoulin Islanders finally have an answer on what will replace their beloved 108-year-old Manitoulin swing bridge after four years of studies and public consultation by the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), alongside engineering firm Stantec, but take heed, dear readers, this is not an early April Fool’s joke: the recommended swing bridge replacement is a near identical swing bridge that has the bonus of featuring double lanes. The new bridge will be located slightly to the west of the current bridge and will touch land halfway between where the current bridge lands and the dock located to the rear and below of the Manitoulin Welcome Centre.

The original bridge has a total length of 172 metres, 112 of which make up the iconic swing portion of the bridge. The new swing bridge is almost identical in length to the original movable piece, 113 metres, but has a much greater span of 160 metres—80 metres to the north and 80 metres to the south.

Feedback from the public consultations, both in-person and online, showed that tourism and heritage were top-of-mind for many respondents who shared that the swing bridge should be maintained as it is a symbol of Manitoulin Island, a tourist attraction and has historic meaning to the people of the Island. It would appear the MTO took these directives to heart.

Out of 10 alternatives, the double-lane swing bridge rated the highest, at 74 percent, on Stantec’s evaluation chart that factored in environmental impacts, the community and engineering. The lowest rating went to the tunnel and fixed skyway-style bridge options.

The MTO and Stantec note that the swing bridge is the preferred option because: the new bridge accommodates two lanes of traffic; maintains existing grades for active transportation users, such as pedestrians and cyclists (a sidewalk will be featured on the west side of the new bridge as is the case with the current model); minimizes impacts to the existing roadway network; has no impact to existing utilities; boasts a lower construction cost compared to the other alternatives; has the lowest impact to existing residential properties; has the lowest impact to noise sensitive areas; there is no change to access the Little Current business area; it minimizes impacts to existing viewscape from Little Current and the North Channel; it has the lowest potential to impact wildlife habitat and species at risk; avoids impacts to the “high quality alvars” nearby; and, with the exception of the bascule (lift) option, the swing bridge is anticipated to impact the smallest area of lakebed during construction.

The plan also includes provision for the removal of the existing bridge and will explore the feasibility of using salvaged materials to “commemorate, interpret or pay homage to” the existing bridge. (The bridge was given its historic status by the MTO in 1987.)

The report also states that salvaging and relocating the 108-year-old bridge, in whole or in part, to a publicly accessible location with opportunities for the public to offer input into long-term conservation and commemoration of the bridge is also part of the long-term plan.

As for next steps, MTO will undertake a transportation environmental study report over the summer months.

The Expositor did not learn what the anticipated construction start date of the new swing bridge is by press time Monday.

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The bridge has significant meaning for many Islanders, but in 1913, the year the bridge was built, it perhaps had even greater significance—it meant that Manitoulin had an easy outside link to the mainland and to the rest of the world, one that was available all year ‘round. The perils of crossing the ice, having access to markets all year long and a safe means of travel was everything to the people of over a century ago.

The cry for Manitoulin to be connected with the North Shore and beyond began in earnest in the 1880s with the first Royal Assent granted by the House of Commons to the Manitoulin Island Railway Company. This assent was given in March of 1882. In 1905, over 20 years later, a bill was passed to grant an extension of time to see the railway brought to Manitoulin by what was by that time known as the North Shore Railway Company.

An editorial from The Expositor in 1906 states, in part:

“The isolation of the Manitoulin, which had hitherto caused tears of sympathy to roll down the cheeks of the company and their agents, was no more thought of.

Days, week, months, years came and went.

Hope was continually turned to disappointment.

The people of the Manitoulin continued to struggle on in their beautiful isolation.

The country continued to suffer untold loss.

Farmers could not reach the markets except during the season of navigation.

Untold hardships were experienced in travelling the ice, in getting mail, etc.

Many loves of both men and beast have been lost.

Oh! That beautiful isolation! We have it today!

We have beautiful, fertile country languishing for an outlet to the markets.

We have farmers losing hope, selling out their property, and going where they can have the benefits of railroads.

How long is this to last? Are you going to sit idly by and not make another move?

Let the people of Manitoulin make another determined effort, this time we may win.

It is up to the people of Little Current to lead the way.

Let the motto be, ‘Build the railroad or get off the earth.’

Now down to business, a long pull, a pull altogether and we will get the railroad.”

Years passed and still no connection was made.

The April 23, 1908 Expositor reported that as a direct result of a lack of connection, and missed opportunities, families began to leave Manitoulin in droves: Howland lost 31 families to the mainland and “several young men,” numbering 110 in total; Assiginack lost 20 families (100 people); Sandfield and Tehkummah, 23 families (93 individuals). In 1905, The Expositor reported the population of Manitoulin to be 15,000.

By late November, progress was being made on what now the Algoma Eastern Railway and it was determined that a bridge with a draw span would be required for Little Current due to its “considerable vessel traffic.” This was in 1912. The bridge was designed by the famed Alfred Pancoast Boller who boasted many bridges, largely in America, to his name.

Work was carried out during the winter of 1913, a cold one by Expositor accounts. A freak hurricane in March caused much damage to the construction of the piers.

According to an Expositor article, on the day the centre pivot of the swing bridge was laid, with great formality, a copy of The Expositor was placed beneath “for some future generation to discover.”

The first swing was done manually on November 18, 1913, and required the efforts of eight men.

During the navigable waters season, the bridge was always open and only closed for trains. Someone would row out to the centre pivot and fire up the one-cylinder engine that would swing the bridge closed—an act that took about 7.5 minutes.

An account of the first swing was recorded in the November 20, 1913 edition of The Expositor under the headline ‘Railway Bridge Completed.’

“Amid a loud and long continued salvo of steamer, tug and railway engine whistles assisted by the peaking of at least one church bell and the tooting of a launch horn, the massive swing bridge that joins the Manitoulin to the North Shore easily and gracefully swung off the trestle on which it was erected and curved round into position shortly after nine o’clock on Tuesday morning. The first swing was done by hand as machinery is not all connected yet to permit the work being done by the engine erected in the tower, but a few days will see this completed. Everything worked perfectly. Not a single hitch occurred as it swung noiselessly into its place. Those standing near could not hear a sound as the bridge came into place. Although the bridge is massive, yet it has a very light, graceful and artistic appearance and reflects great credit on the designer, Mr. Boller of the firm Boller, Hodge and Baird of New York. The designer died last spring and did not see the completion of his work.”

It wasn’t until November 28, 1945 that the first car crossed the bridge.

The bridge underwent extensive renovations, beginning in 1999. After a series of breakdowns in the following decade, the MTO began exploring options to deal with the historic bridge which has led to this announcement of its eventual replacement.

‘The Bridge – One Hundred Years Across to Little Current’ by Derek Russell, ‘Bridging the Centuries: The Little Current Swing Bridge, 1913-2013’ by Caesar and Son and the archives of The Manitoulin Expositor were used as resources in the writing of this article.