Then and Now: Johnson Street Bridge
By Ted Ross
Songhees plank houses once lined the shore along Pallastsis. Today we know this as Songhees Point. It lies on the west side of the harbour just northwest of the narrows spanned by the Johnson Street bridge. Pallastsis, or Place of Cradles, is sacred for the Songhees. Once a child had learned to walk, his or her cradle was ceremoniously placed along the shore on the point to ensure long life.
When James Douglas established Fort Victoria for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1842, it was his ambition to trade with the local people, the Lekwungen. Eventually the Songhees and Esquimalt traded knowledge, food, labour, and land for the the HBC's thick, warm, wool blankets. Water crossings to the fort were made by canoe.
In 1845 a footbridge was built to connect Fort Victoria with the Songhees territory and the Esquimalt navy yard, some four kilometres to the west. This link was well used, but it was an impediment to marine traffic moving in and out of the upper inner harbour and Victoria (Gorge) Inlet. In 1862 the footbridge was removed and ferries began running across the harbour just south of the gap.
1887 saw the Esquimalt & Nanaimo railroad construct a hand-operated swing-bridge, which could be opened for marine traffic, across the same narrow gap between Fort Victoria and what is now Victoria West and the Township of Esquimalt. The E&N wanted to move coal south from Nanaimo into Victoria. The bridge only carried rail and foot traffic. The structure opened in March 1887 with a half-holiday declared for the occasion. Many attended the ceremonies.
As early as 1913, planners in Victoria began to consider a new bridge. It would carry the railroad, street railroad, carriages, and the motor vehicles, which were beginning to appear in Victoria, across the gap.
The Johnson Street Bridge was to spend some time on paper before work began. Council decided early that the work would be done by Strauss Bascule Bridge Co. of Chicago. The financial downturn of 1913 and the Great War delayed the project. It finally went to the voters in January 1920, and won by a huge margin. The plan called for a single span to be shared by the railway, vehicle traffic, and pedestrians. In the end, however, two bridges would be built, one for the railway and the other for pedestrians and vehicles.
The crossing would have two independent, heel-trunnion bascule+ bridges. One would be a three-lane road span, the other a single-track rail span.
E&N agreed to contribute $100,000 to the project and cover one-third of the operating costs. The province would add $200,000, leaving the city to borrow $420,000 to finish the work. After the necessary by-law was approved, Joseph Baermann Strauss was hired to design the bridge. Lumber for the caissons* arrived on the ground, and construction began on January 11, 1921.
On March 25, 1922 a bridge construction cement-worker apparently left work and was never seen again. The body of Vincent John Haile was spotted in the waters of the Inner Harbour a month later on April 24. Police recovered it at daybreak. Haile, aged 31, was presumed to have fetched a load of cement, missed his step, and was carried down below the water's surface before he could release his hold. This was the first fatality on the project.
By May 1922 money was running short. Costs were growing as work progressed. Victoria held another vote to secure the extra funds. "Increase Over Estimates On Johnson Bridge Construction Demands Additional $110,000," declared the headline in the Daily Colonist on May 12. The following day the headline was, "Bridge By-Law Passes Easily," putting the funds in place to finish the job.
On Monday, October 2, 1922, the southern span of the bridge was opened. Although it would be the highway span, it opened with rails in place for the E&N. Pedestrians would continue to use the old swing-bridge which still sat alongside the new bridges. The railroad would use the south span until the rail span was complete in a few months. The span was declared open at 5:30 a.m. Fifteen minutes later the regular inbound express train of the E&N railway steamed across the new bridge for the first time.
Work continued on the north span for another fourteen months. The headline for the Victoria Daily Times on January 11, 1924 was, "Mayor Opens Bridge Across Harbour to Public Service." The highway section of Johnson Street Bridge was officially placed in use. The opening not only gave direct communication to the western suburbs, but also gave a thoroughfare from Oak Bay to Esquimalt harbour.
F.M. Preston, City Engineer in 1920, directed the design of the double-bridge. The Strauss Bascule Bridge Company prepared the plans for the 45m bascule spans and the operating machinery. The bridge's superstructure was fabricated in Walkerville, Ontario. 100 tonnes of steel were used. The sub-structure was built by the City of Victoria Engineering Department. 9,144 cubic metres of concrete were used. Final cost was $918,000.
Originally, the road span had street-car rails in its centre. They were never used and were removed later. The original road deck was made of timber. Eventually the deck became heavy with absorbed rainwater, and unbalanced the bridge, putting a strain on the lifting gear. In 1966 the wood was replaced with a steel grid to alleviate the problem.
Extensive repairs were made to the corroding superstructure in 1979. The bridge, which had always been painted black, came out of the rehabilitation painted blue. The Blue Bridge was born!
The bridge has had its moments over the years. A Victoria Daily Times article in 1977 related, "Usually the bridge didn't stay up for long but...there was that steamy afternoon in July, 1951 that the old girl went up...and didn't want to come down again. It seemed the day was so hot, 34oC (92.1oF), that when the bridge got free of its other side, it expanded to a point that it wouldn't fit back together again! All the king's horses and all the king's men...just laid it down as far as it would go and warned the traffic to drive slowly."
Abnormally high temperatures in 1995 caused the steel decking to expand to the point the bridge would neither open nor close properly. 25mm were removed from the length of the decking to put this right.
Operating the bridge could be complicated. In an interview in Beautiful British Columbia Magazine, Fall 1987, operator Tom Rowbottom said, "The bridge is raised and lowered by gravity. It's a big see-saw. The 635 kilo counterweights pivot each span like a massive trap-door. An experienced operator can actually 'feel' the bridge. Trip the electric locks and move the throttle to 'drift' and a light bridge will pop up a few feet as if eager for the sky. But snow weight or high winds can make a bridge heavy, hard to lift and control – even with the emergency brake – coming down. One thing you don't want to do is drop a bridge."
Rowbottom went on to say, "Operating the bridge involves more than sitting in a chair and punching a button when a ship calls up. First you must peer through a maze of girders for city buses, upper harbour shipping, and day-dreaming pedestrians. Things can happen fast on the bridge. Once I had a Seaspan tug following another outbound tug towing a lumber barge. Just when both vessels were committed, along came a third tug inbound, towing a pile driver. Suddenly there was no place to turn. I radioed the tug skipper and told him to keep coming. I waited breathlessly as all craft met out of sight beneath the middle of the bridge. A moment later, tugs and tows popped out on either side unscathed. Seaspan thanked me for the lift!"
For the last 76 years of the 20th Century, the Johnson Street Bridge served the city well. With proper care and maintenance, and periodic renovations, it has lasted into the second decade of the twenty-first century.
On April 9, 2009, the preliminary results of an overall condition assessment of the bridge were presented to Victoria City Council; Council gave approval-in-principle to replace the 85 year old bridge.
On September 24, 2009, City Council decided on the Rolling Bascule Bridge as the design for the new Johnson Street Bridge. The Province of B.C. declined to contribute funding for the project. In November 2009 the federal government approved a $21 million grant for the project. In February 2010 citizen protest caused a referendum to approve the borrowing of the money to build the bridge. The mandate passed, and work could begin.
The rail span was closed to rail traffic in 2011 after a routine inspection found serious corrosion damage. The railway span and approaches were removed in February 2012 to make room for the new bridge.
By now, April 2018, the new bridge is open. After several years of construction, the span is in place. Cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and scooters cross both ways in their designated lanes. With smiles on their faces, residents of Greater Victoria enjoy the new crossing.
*watertight chambers used in construction work under water.
+an apparatus or structure in which one end is counterbalanced by the other on the principle of the see-saw or weights.
Wikipedia, 'Johnson Street Bridge,' 2018; Victoria Harbour History, 'The Esquimalt and Songhees Nations,' 2017; Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada - British Columbia Indian Treaties In Historical Perspective, "The Significance Of The Vancouver Island Treaties," Ottawa, 2010; Daily Colonist, 'Vote Today on Bridge Plebiscite,' May 12, 1922; Daily Colonist, 'Bridge By-Law Passes Easily,' May 13, 1922; Daily Colonist, 'Traffic Passes Over Bridge,' October 3, 1922; Victoria Times, 'Bridge Worker Lost Life on City Contract,' April 24, 1922; Victoria Times, 'Viaduct Officially Opened Today,' January 11, 1924; Daily Colonist, 'Getting Off on the Old Lady of Johnson Street, 'December 12, 1977; Beautiful British Columbia Magazine, 'Blue Bascule,' Fall 1977; Victoria News, 'Council Rethinks Plans For Fix to Blue Bridge,' February 19, 2010; Times-Colonist, 'Bridge Buildup Starts in June,' May 8, 2013; Wikipedia, 'Times-Colonist, 2018; Times-Colonist, '90 Years of the Johnson Street Bridge,' January 12, 2014.