A new look at an old bridge
By Danda Humphreys
The current Johnson Street Bridge came about after a referendum. (Hint hint, nudge nudge.)
The current Johnson Street Bridge under construction c. 1924.
Hands up—how many bridges have spanned our harbour in the vicinity of today’s Johnson Street Bridge over the past 160-odd years? If you said four, you guessed correctly. From the first simple crossing between the Songhees area and Fort Victoria to today’s massive steel-and-concrete span, these bridges have served in turn as cultural and commuter connectors.
Apparently the 1840s footbridge intended to give First Nations people access to the HBC trading post soon washed away. It was not replaced until 1854, when the Victoria Bridge— a low trestle designed to handle wagon loads—was constructed to link the fort with Vic West and beyond. The bridge spanned the harbour just north of today’s Johnson Street Bridge. It was a short-cut but a shaky one, being so rough and rickety that most people preferred to cross by boat or take a roundabout route.
In 1861, two new bridges, one at Rock Bay (long since demolished) and one at Point Ellice (now Bay Street) provided vehicular traffic access to Esquimalt from downtown. A year later the Victoria Bridge, all but destroyed by the same marine worm that ravaged wharves up and down the coast, was demolished. Now, for the first time, ships that had been blocked by its low span could sail into the Upper Harbour.
In the mid-1880s the Dunsmuirs, of Nanaimo coal-mining fame, constructed a railway that would carry their coal while serving the lower half of the Island. Regular service via the E&N (Esquimalt & Nanaimo) Railway started in September 1886. Passengers embarked and disembarked at Russell’s Station in Vic West (just west of Catherine Street and Esquimalt Road). Eighteen months later, a railway bridge was built across the harbour, and the terminus was moved over onto Store Street.
The new crossing was a hand-operated steel swing bridge. Its wood deck supported a single track and a pedestrian walkway—great for the train and anyone who wanted to walk across. But safety issues—one hapless pedestrian was killed by a locomotive—along with heavier engines, the advent of streetcars, and the promise of automobiles demanded a sturdier structure. A new bridge was proposed.
After years of haggling, negotiating and posturing, the issue was decided by referendum in early 1920. Construction carried on apace, and in January 1924, hundreds of citizens and assorted dignitaries gathered at the foot of Johnson Street to see the new bridge declared officially open. Columbus, Ohio native Joseph Baermann Strauss made no apologies for his design, matter-of-factly describing his trunnion bascule (see-saw) bridge as “a utilitarian structure, practical but unlovely.” Few would argue with him, but no matter; it did what it was supposed to do—accommodating trains, motorized vehicles and pedestrians safely on its wide, side-by-side decks, and providing optimum space for shipping to pass underneath.
Problems with the balance mechanism, caused by rainwater affecting the weight of the road deck, were solved by replacing it in 1966, with the open steel grid deck that we see today. Thirteen years later, major repairs to the superstructure offered an opportunity to change its appearance with a new coat of paint. The colour was chosen because it doesn’t fade much over time. In fact with each year that passes, there are fewer people around who remember when the Blue Bridge wasn’t blue.
The Upper Harbour was once home to six shipyards as well as several lumber mills, railyards, sealing operations, boathouses, a brewery, pickle factory, the Victoria Machinery Depot, and workers’ cottages. In the midst of it all, somewhat incongruously clustered at the east end of the Point Ellice Bridge, stood four elegant homes, their gardens skirting the waterfront. Today only one, the former residence of the O’Reilly family, remains. Most of the industries are gone, replaced by modern live-work environments. As new development continues to change the face of our Upper Harbour, the Johnson Street bridge is an interesting reminder of its once-thriving industrial heritage.
Beloved by some, derided by others, admired by open-mouthed tourists who happen to witness its graceful one-step, two-step dance, the Blue Bridge has been with us for 85 years. Can it survive another 85 in its present state? No, it can’t. Can it be refurbished and repaired? Yes it can, and it would likely last longer than most of us reading this story. Some say it should be replaced. But with what, and why, and who’s to decide? Maybe it’s time for another referendum.
My hunch is that despite all the hustle and the hoopla, “Big Blue” will still be around a number of years from now. I’ll write my guess on a piece of paper, put it in a sealed envelope, and you can check this column in 2014 to see if I was right!
Danda Humphreys is a confirmed two-wheeled Blue Bridge user, local author and historian who has written several books about Victoria’s early days.
This story was published in the October 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.