Long-time P.E.I. bed and breakfast owner recalls life-long fighting ...
Peers Alliance set to host annual poetry slam and have some wacky fun ...
UPEI student to share her experiences as an out, queer woman in China
Making East Coast workplaces more inclusive for LGBTQ2+ community
Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Visit SaltWire.com for more of the stories you want.
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
What you need to know about COVID-19: August 6, 2020
In 1887, the Galt-based bridge contracting firm Isbester and Reid took the contract to build the Grand Narrows Bridge across the Barra Strait.
This is the longest railway bridge in the province. The bridge was completed for $530,000, a massive sum in 1890.
Robert Gillespie Reid was a Scottish stonemason. Reid came to North America, specifically California, to work as a contractor and an engineer of bridges. He developed a reputation for being able to construct bridges in the most difficult places. Regardless of the terrain, he was known to always complete his contracts.
In 1883, his attentions turned to Canada and work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. During this time, Reid was contracted to complete the Intercolonial Railway across Cape Breton. It was said that during the construction of the Grand Narrows Bridge, while overseeing a particularly difficult phase, he spent most days standing in the ice cold water, often up to his neck, and as a result he developed the rheumatism which would plague him for the rest of his life.
After Reid completed the Cape Breton contract, he moved on to build the Newfoundland Railway. That project included many spans and bridges over the difficult Newfoundland terrain.
Reid took the contract to build the Grand Narrows Bridge because no one else wanted it. The water was very deep between Iona and Grand Narrows, around 164 feet deep. The depth was further complicated by the Strait’s erratic tidal currents and heavy ice in the winter. For most, Grand Narrows was not an ideal place to build a bridge. Some felt it was an impossible task.
The construction of the Grand Narrows Bridge was also complex because it could not restrict navigation. Most importantly, they could not impede the ferries that used the Bras d’Or Lake as conveyance.
So, Reid had to build a swing bridge that could open and close to let either rail or water traffic pass. The swing bridge was a relatively new idea at the time and the length of the Grand Narrows Bridge was 1,700 feet. It was no simple structure.
The laying of the masonry for the bridge was a great feat of construction. Timber cofferdams were built on shore, blasted and floated out to the channel. (A cofferdam is a water-tight enclosure built in the water and pumped dry to allow access to the lake floor).
The cofferdams were sunk where the bridge piers would later be constructed. These sections were added to until they the breached the surface. They were made watertight and the water was pumped out. The men then went down into the cofferdam and began excavating the lake floor until they hit bedrock. Once bedrock was reached the men quarried out the area and sank long anchor bolts into the bedrock.
The seven cut stone bridge piers were constructed inside the cofferdams. The large pieces of cut stone were lowered inside each cofferdam and mortared together. These piers extend from the bedrock to four or five feet above the surface of the water at high tide.
The next step was to install the girders. Each one weighed more than 1,000 tons and was built on site.
The bridge trusses were built in Montreal by the Dominion Bridge Company. The construction team built an iron forge at the site of the bridge to produce the rivets that would be required to construct the bridge.
The assembly of the trusses began onshore and then moved to scows floating in the channel. They were moved into place and lowered on to the completed piers.
On Oct. 18, 1890, a five-car train belonging to Gov. Gen. Lord Stanley, of Stanley Cup fame, left Halifax headed for Cape Breton. They were ferried across the Strait of Canso and set on tracks at Point Tupper. Once at Iona, Lord Stanley declared the rail line open for traffic and then personally drove the Intercolonial Railway’s locomotive No. 166 across the Grand Narrows Bridge.
By 1915, the loads of goods that were being shipped from Sydney to the mainland by train grew heavier, mostly due to shipments of iron and steel from the Sydney and North Sydney steel plant. So, the Grand Narrows Bridge was upgraded.
Again, no one wanted the job so Isbester and Reid won the contract to upgrade the bridge. The spans on the bridge were replaced, all the while ensuring that rail traffic over the bridge was never interrupted for longer than eight hours at a time. The new bridge, however, was built on the original cut stone piers.
Reid had his men build new scows that would allow the span to be built on them. He would have the scow and new span placed under the existing span. Then by pumping out the scows and using hydraulic jacks, he would lift the old girder out of position and slide the new one in and back down again. Apparently, this technique was very fast and successful.
The rail bridge that stands over the Barra Strait rests on the same piers that were so painstakingly built in 1890. Although there has been some recent concern as to the structural integrity of these piers they are nonetheless a tribute to the perseverance and ingenuity at a time before power tools and heavy machinery.
Vanessa Childs Rolls is a local historian who lives in Sydney. Her column appears monthly in the Cape Breton Post.
- VANESSA CHILDS ROLLS: Diana Sweets: Feeding the hearts and stomachs of the people of Sydney
- VANESSA CHILDS ROLLS: Rev. Norman McLeod was followed to the ends of the Earth
- VANESSA CHILDS ROLLS: Moose management: How a Cape Breton icon became Albertan
- Vanessa Childs Rolls: United Negro Improvement Association and the power of community