The Johnson Street Bridge under construction in 1921. (photo/ Victoria archives)

BRIDGING THE GAP: Harbour span’s history reflects city growth

Blue Bridge not without its challenges through the decades

The first bridge over the pinch point in Victoria Harbour was built in 1855 as a short-lived structure to allow for wagons to cross from downtown to the former Songhees Reserve lands. But the bridge blocked marine traffic to the Upper Harbour and after an outcry from mariners, it was dismantled in 1862 and replaced by a ferry service.

In 1888, a hand-operated swing bridge was built to allow for rail and foot traffic only. While the bridge accommodated the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway cars, it did not leave room for wagons. Not only that, pedestrians had to walk along the railway tracks; an arguably unsafe situation.

The bridge had a limited load capacity and was deemed inadequate for the rapidly developing city.

Rock Bay Bridge as an alternative?

While city council seemed anxious to replace the rail-only swing bridge, the debate went on for years. In a classic bit of putting the cart before the horse, it was decided even before a bridge was approved that the span would be built by the Strauss Bascule Bridge Co. of Chicago.

While that debate raged on, money was requested to improve the Rock Bay Bridge, a fragile wooden structure located at the foot of Store Street. City council objected to “spending any money on a rotten bridge,” a stance that saw the Supreme Court of Canada take them to task for not rebuilding it. The case was thrown out and the bridge was eventually allowed to rot and be washed away.

New Johnson Street Bridge finally approved

After years of debate and delays caused first by the financial crisis of 1913, then by the First World War, the Johnson Street Bridge issue went to voters in 1920.

The project was approved by a huge margin and it was determined that the city would borrow $420,000 for the work, while the province contributed $200,000 and the E&N Railway $100,000 for the project.

Even then, bridge planning was an uncertain science. The initiative put to voters called for a single span to be shared by the railway, vehicles and pedestrians. That changed to dual, side-by-side spans.

The plan to hire Joseph Baermann Strauss for the contract went ahead and, just over four years later, the bridge was ready. Dignitaries gathered for an official opening ceremony and a new age was heralded for Victoria.

The twin spans could open to allow the Upper Harbour’s sawmills, shipyards and other industries to have water access for their operations.

The bridge itself also offered land access for freight service between the E&N yards and the warehouses and industry on the Store Street side of the waterway.

It also allowed for improved travel between municipalities, giving citizens a direct connection to the western suburbs and, as reported by the Jan. 11, 1924 Victoria Daily Times, a thoroughfare between Oak Bay and Esquimalt.

The streetcar rails that ran down the centre of the vehicle span were never used and were removed a few years after the bridge’s opening but otherwise it seemed the structure was living up to expectations.

By 1966, however, it was determined that the bridge’s wooden decking had developed an unfortunate propensity to absorb rainwater; not a good characteristic for the Pacific Northwest.

The additional weight of the absorbed water unbalanced the bridge and put extra strain on the electric motors that lifted the spans. The wood deck was replaced with a steel grating.

By 1979 the superstructure had become severely corroded and extensive repairs were made. It was then that the Johnson Street span became the “Blue Bridge,” after the entire span was painted with the same light blue as the City’s trademark lamp standards, a colour that resisted fading.

Additional repairs were required in 1995 when the expansion of the steel decking during a particularly hot summer saw the bridge experience difficulties in opening and closing.

By 2009, council began discussions on the replacement of the bridge, a move that marked the beginning of the end for the iconic structure.

Find a collection of Johnson Street Bridge stories by clicking here.

editor@vicnews.com

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The old wooden Rock Bay Bridge was inadequate and was left to eventually rot away to nothing. Courtesy City of Victoria archives

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