Quesnel's Historic Fraser River Footbridge
For many years the only means of crossing the Fraser River at Quesnel was a canoe which operated as a ferry. In 1911 the provincial government financed the construction and operation of a reaction ferry.
As the community grew, citizens and the board of trade continued to lobby for a bridge. After the provincial election in 1928 the new Conservative government lived up to their election promise to see the work carried forward, and within 10 days, the contractor in charge of building the substructure arrived in Quesnel.
Pile driving for the piers commenced on August 20 and the crew began to pour concrete for the first pier on October 13. A relatively mild winter allowed the work to continue, with the last pier poured in January. This schedule resulted in one fatality, however, as Stuart Wilson, who was employed dynamiting the large cakes of ice as they approached the bridge work, was killed on January 23 due to an ill-timed or defective fuse
On January 28 the river froze completely, making the construction of the superstructure easier. A second accident occurred in February when a timber fell from the top of the bridge hitting the deck and knocking over Joe Rousseau who fractured his ankle and his ribs. These events remind us of the very different working conditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you look carefully at the photos of the men working on the bridge, no-one is wearing a safety harness or a hard hat.
The original proposal had called for a steel bridge but by early 1928 the decision had been made to use wood. Although the Kersley Farmers’ Institute had petitioned to have the timber for the bridge cut locally, it was prepared in Vancouver and shipped by rail. Each piece was cut to size and shape according to a plan and numbered to identify where it was to be placed. The timbers were also treated with creosote. Unfortunately the foreman in charge of the framing was discharged before the bridge was built and took the key with him. Bert Allcock, who later became the Department of Public Works’ General Foreman for the Cariboo District, was able to recreate the key based on the numbered timbers and copies of plans for the Howe trusses. He was also responsible for filling the western approach to the bridge. In his memoirs he recorded that they had two dump trucks and loaded the dirt by hand from a nearby side hill a few hundred yards away. They moved enough dirt to make a flat piece of land large enough that subsequently two houses were built on it.
The early years
The bridge opened to the public on March 8th and the official opening was incorporated into the annual May Day celebrations.
At the time it was built, traffic was limited to pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles and only the occasional motor vehicle so the load capacity of 10 tons was more than adequate.
The bridge served the community’s needs for many years. The fall cattle drive was an annual event, when ranchers from Nazkko, Chilcotin, Batnuni and beyond, drove as many as 400 cattle across the bridge to auction.
Quesnel was the northern terminus of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. During the Second World War, birch was harvested from the west side of the Fraser and was shipped from Quesnel to make plywood for Mosquito bombers. The construction of the bridge had stimulated the growth of West Quesnel. As the lumber industry grew in the post-war period, the bridge became inadequate for the increased traffic and large logging trucks. In 1954 stop lights, the first in Quesnel, were installed at each end of the bridge to allow one lane of traffic to cross at a time.
An aging community link
Apart from being re-planked in 1941 the bridge received very little maintenance. In 1948 the Fraser River rose to within a foot of the decking and in 1961 the ice once again had to be blasted with dynamite to break up the huge floes and save the structure. By the early ’60s it was badly in need of repair, as well as being too narrow. Erlene Wilkins and Bernice O’Connor wrote a satirical poem capturing the inadequacies of the bridge. Bob Lebeck, a high school student and local performer set the poem to music and played it on air at CKCQ. The song was a hit and became part of the campaign to secure a government commitment to build a replacement. The promise was made in 1966 and the Moffat Bridge was opened in 1971.
The bridge today
The original bridge was maintained for pedestrian use and as a backup for emergency vehicles. The footbridge is now the centerpiece of the Riverfront Trail system and recognized as the longest wood truss walking bridge in the world. In 2010 this valued community asset required further structural repair. Much of the decking and many of the truss members and metal connectors were replaced and a programmable lighting array was installed.
The bridge at a glance
- Built in 1928
- Opened to the public on March 8
- Supported on five concrete piers.
- Three spans are 177 feet long and two are 150.
- Total length = 831 feet.
- Power required to operate the new lighting system? Less than that needed for two hair dryers.
The first public use
As the bridge was nearing completion the ice on the river began to break up. Mrs. Sydney Allen and her newborn son Frank were the first citizens of Quesnel to make use of the bridge. Mrs. Allen had crossed on the ice bridge from her home in West Quesnel to reach the local hospital, but when it was time to return home the ice was unsafe. She and the baby were loaded onto a sleigh and escorted across the newly completed decking. The bridge opened to the public on March 8.
The famous "Bridge Song"
By the early ’60s the bridge was badly in need of repair, as well as being too narrow. Erlene Wilkins and Bernice O’Connor wrote a satirical poem which delightfully captures the inadequacies of the bridge. Gill McCall, an announcer at the local radio station CKCQ, persuaded Bob Lebeck, a high school student and local performer to set the poem to music and played it on air. The song was an immediate hit and became an effective weapon in the campaign to secure a government commitment to build a replacement. The promise was made in 1966 and the Moffat Bridge was opened in 1971.
To listen to the song, click here.
A sign of the times
The bridge was the site of the first posted speed limit in Quesnel. A sign, preserved in the Quesnel & District Museum and Archives, indicates that “HORSES MUST NOT EXCEED WALKING PACE.” In the Howe Truss system the members are not bolted but are pinned and held together by balancing the forces of compression and tension. There was a concern that galloping horses could set in motion vibrations which would weaken the structure.