Posted by: Robert Passfield
On March 6, 1894, John G. Haggart, the Minister of Railways and Canals, received a petition from the citizens of Ottawa and residents of the Township of Nepean, Carleton County, requesting the erection of a bridge across the Rideau Canal near its outlet into Dow’s Lake, on a line with Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) in Ottawa.
The petition stated that there was a considerable amount of traffic from south-western Ottawa and the Townships of Nepean and Gloucester traveling north on Concession Street to the manufacturing establishments at the Chaudiere Falls; and that traffic was much impeded as the closest bridge crossing was at Bank Street, which involved a 1-1/2 mile detour. The petitioners further stated their belief that once the canal was bridged, the County of Carleton intended to bridge the Rideau River on the concession line, and to open up and improve the roads south of the canal to connect with Concession Street.
In response to the petition the Department of Railways and Canals initiated a study of the proposed Concession Street bridge site. Although there were high banks on both sides of the canal cut, it was decided that a low-level swing bridge would be much less costly to construct than a high level bridge. Ultimately, it was decided to postpone the construction of a swing bridge over the canal until the County erected a bridge across the Rideau River on the concession line to provide access to the proposed canal bridge site from the south.
With the change of government in the General Election of June 1896, other matters came to the fore. The new Liberal government, under Wilfred Laurier, was committed to improving the canal lands as part of a broader effort to make Ottawa an attractive capital city – “the Washington of the North”. To that end, the new government established the Ottawa Improvement Commission in 1899; and engaged Frederick G. Todd, a Montreal landscape architect, to prepare plans for the beautification of the city through the establishment of public parks, broad avenues, and scenic drives, and the cleaning up and landscaping of the canal lands within the city. In that endeavour the Ottawa Improvement Commission converted the canal lands into a linear urban park, and constructed a scenic driveway (Queen Elizabeth Drive) and a walkway along the west bank of the canal from New Edinburgh to Dow’s Lake. Picturesque rustic pavilions and trellised arches added to the park setting, as did the ornamental Minto Bridges erected over the canal just upstream of the Rideau Falls.
In 1903 with the new driveway approaching completion, the Department of Railways and Canals decided to construct a swing bridge on Concession Street to provide an alternative route to the Hog’s Back from the new driveway, and to serve farmers from Nepean and Gloucester townships, who were bringing produce to market in west Ottawa each week. The following year a steel pony truss swing bridge, on stone masonry piers, was erected across the canal on Concession Street. Thomas McLaughlin of Ottawa constructed the masonry substructure, and the Dominion Bridge Company of Montreal erected the swing bridge superstructure. It was an unusual swing bridge in that it was built on a skew, at an angle to the canal channel. Sometime thereafter Concession Street was re-named Bronson Avenue. The original steel swing bridge remained in service until 1938 when it was replaced by a new electrically-powered steel plate girder swing bridge with a wider deck to meet increasingly heavy traffic demands. The new bridge was erected on the same alignment, and on widened piers, by the Dominion Bridge Company.
In September 1958 an agreement was made between the City of Ottawa the Federal District Commission (successor to the Ottawa Improvement Commission) and Her Majesty’s Government, whereby the City agreed to undertake the construction of a high-level, fixed bridge over the Rideau Canal on Bronson Ave. in return for a financial contribution from the federal government. The new reinforced-concrete bridge was erected in 1959 on a straight alignment, beside the existing plate girder swing bridge which served as a pedestrian bridge until February 1961 when it was removed.
Robert W. Passfield is a public historian working in the fields of technology and industrial archaeology. He had a 30 year career in the federal public service. Most recently he was a Senior Historian, Historical Services Branch, Parks Canada. Mr. Passfield can be reached at www.passrob.com.
In 2008 and 2009 the City of Ottawa is undertaking a major rehabilitation of the modern day high-level reinforced-concrete bridge to upgrading the structure for code compliance and extending the service life of the bridge.
View the Ottawa Citizen article “Old Bronson Bridge Going” from February 17, 1961, of the dismantling of the old swing bridge.
Originally published in the July 2009 OSCAR.