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Romancing the bridge
Jan 20, 2017

With last year’s announcement that the Arlington Bridge will be closed permanently in 2020, and a new bridge built to replace it, I was reminded of one of Winnipeg’s more famous urban legends. For whatever reason, it has become accepted knowledge that the Arlington Bridge was built to originally span the Nile River in Egypt.

The bridge is clearly beginning to show its age, and the only real upgrade to the bridge in over 100 years has been the addition of traffic lights to make the bridge safer.

According to city spokesman Ken Allen, “The signals on Arlington Bridge are to provide control for vehicles proceeding off the bridge. During icy conditions, stopping on the down slope approaching Logan or Dufferin is very, very difficult.”

Indeed!

Any vehicle operator poised on the edge of the down slope in either direction looks on in horror as the bottom of the roadway appears to drop away into a heart-wrenching void.

Years ago, the drop was regarded with such fear that streetcar operators refused to venture onto the bridge.

“Another chapter was added to the long-drawn out controversy to get street cars operated over the Arlington Street Bridge,” according to a May 12, 1916, article in The Voice. The article quoted the views of Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company employees and union representatives, company lawyers and city officials appearing before a Public Utilities Commission.

Union lawyer T.J. Murray expressed the belief that the employees felt it was unsafe to operate streetcars over the Arlington Bridge using then existing brake equipment. The fear was for a possibility of a runaway rumbling down the bridge’s slope creating untold havoc as it careened along the tracks.

“Elements of danger include the narrowness of the bridge, the steepness of the grade, and the fact that either end of the approaches run into the intersections of the streets upon which other lines of street cars operate,” according to the 1916 article.

“(MLA) R.A. Rigg quoted the report of G.L. Guy, the commission’s electrical engineer, arguing that the engineer himself was not satisfied with the experiments conducted under his direction.

“John Lodge (referred to as an ‘expert motorman’) stated that in thirteen years’ experience with the Westinghouse magnetic brake, he had never known it to fail. He recommended it for use on cars operating over the bridge.”

Another motorman, Sam Mccauley, who had 17 years experience across the world and was a “Hill pilot” in Britain, claimed the bridge was “more dangerous” than any other hill he had ever operated on, and that added brakes would not eliminate all the danger.

“All agreed that weather and rail conditions here were worse than anywhere else.” Another expert for the company claimed adding magnetic brakes would not make the slightest difference in stopping streetcars as they plunged over the precipice.

“If you order us to operate cars over the Arlington Street Bridge, we will do our best to operate,” said lawyer Edward Anderson on behalf of the Winnipeg streetcar company. “If you order us to put further equipment on the cars in order to operate them, we will put on that equipment; but we want to place on record that we take this position — no matter what equipment we put on the cars, nor how we operate them upon the bridge, serious accidents are bound to occur.”

All records indicate that only one trial crossing of the bridge was ever attempted, despite the city applying for service over the bridge in 1914 and an order being issued by the Utilities Board to lay tracks on the bridge. The 1916 article referred to a test made with a weighted car that showed the existing streetcars lacked adequate braking equipment to carry a load over the steep grades on the bridge.

The Arlington Street Bridge originally came into existence as the Brant and Brown streets bridge. The Brown Street approach to the bridge was later renamed Arlington. In 1907, the city approved a debenture not to succeed $240,000 for the construction of a bridge over the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. Until the bridge was actually built and opened in 1910, the CPR tracks and yards had effectively cut off much of the North End from the rest of the city. One alderman said the earlier completion of the main Street subway was inadequate to serve the needs of 40,000 people living north of the CPR tracks.

The origin of claim that the Arlington Bridge was at first slated for use over the Nile is attributed to city engineer William D. Hurst. Hurst was a Winnipeg-born civil engineer first hired by the city in 1930. He became Winnipeg’s chief engineer in 1944, according to the Winnipeg Tribune. In discussing his career with the city after being named its chief engineer, no mention is made of the claim that the Arlington Street Bridge was originally intended to span the Nile.

An article in the Manitoba Historical Society magazine Manitoba Transactions (1958-1959) said the bridge was bought at an auction at Darlington, England, from the Cleveland Bridge and Iron Works of Birmingham, England. “The bridge had been built to span the Nile River in Egypt, but the people who ordered it failed to take delivery. It was transported over here and erected across the CPR tracks at what were then Brown and Brant streets in 1910-11.”

The problem is that there is no evidence in city records or newspaper accounts from the 1910-11 period to substantiate this claim. In fact, the bridge was far too short to have possibly spanned the Nile.

The reality is that the bridge had been prefabricated by the Cleveland Bridge and Iron Works under specifications to span the CPR tracks and subsequently transported to Winnipeg for installation.

The oft-repeated Nile story has a romantic ring to it and provides inspiration to those with an artistic streak, but is nothing more than an urban legend. Still, it is a legend that persists and is even related by Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin. In his film, My Winnipeg, Maddin said the Arlington Bridge is “a vast span of frosted steel girder arching over the city’s sprawling train yards” bought “at a knock-down price to bargain-crazy Winnipeg.” In his description of the bridge in its so-called “foster home,” it dreams “of the lush and joyous setting originally planned for it — and pops a girder out of place.”