Broadway Bridge damaged during spring break-up — occurred just four days after grand opening

by Bruce Cherney

At one time, Broadway didn’t abruptly end at Main Street but continued on to the Red River. Where Broadway met the Red a bridge was built connecting the picturesque avenue with Provencher Boulevard on the St. Boniface side of the river. It was a logical place to erect a bridge, since Broadway was directly opposite Provencher, the main thoroughfare of St. Boniface.

In the years before the new bridge was built, a ferry transported people and freight from St. Boniface to Winnipeg. An 1876 map of Winnipeg shows the ferry crossing the Red starting near St. Boniface Cathedral and reaching Winnipeg at The Forks. 

With the completion of the Broadway Bridge in April 1882, Winnipeg had three bridges spanning the Assiniboine and Red rivers. The Louise Bridge was built in 1881 as a rail crossing over the Red for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Winnipeg’s first Main Street Bridge over the Assiniboine was built in the same year as a private toll bridge. A year later the Main Street Bridge was taken over by the city.

The Winnipeg Daily Sun on February 15, 1882, reported work on the Broadway Bridge was rapidly progressing. The newspaper predicted the new bridge would “be second in importance only to the Louise Bridge, and is destined to make the distance to St. Boniface much shorter and to materially increase the value of property at either terminus.”

Work on the $100,000 toll bridge began on November 1, 1881, under the direction of engineer E.W. Jarvis. The contractor was C.W. Dean of Cleveland, Ohio, where the iron work was cast,  while the Red River and Assiniboine Bridge Co. owned the bridge. The president of the local bridge company was the appropriately named Charles John Brydges. As the land commissioner for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1879 to 1889, Brydges adopted a policy of selling HBC’s land in Winnipeg which became highly profitable for the Company. It also helped that Brydges sold much of the HBC land during the Winnipeg land boom of 1881-82, a time of wild speculation in city property which saw fortunes rapidly made and just as rapidly lost.

It was in the midst of the land boom and an exuberant spirit of civic boosterism brought on by the arrival of the CPR that the decision was finally reached to build the Broadway bridge. 

Describing the bridge, the Sun said it was 900 feet long with an 18-foot roadway and two six-foot sidewalks.

“The bridge itself consists of five stationary spans each 140 feet long and one pivot span 200 feet long. The bridge stands 34 feet above the present ice or low water mark and will be about 17 feet above (the) high water mark.”

It was estimated that between 400 and 500 tons of iron would go into the making of the bridge.

The 200-foot pivot span was meant to swing open or closed through the exertions of just “one man by hand” to permit the passage of “any river craft.” The time required to open or close the span was a mere minute.

One thing the newspaper did point out, which would later have dire consequences, was the unusual construction technique used to secure the bridge to the riverbed.

“The piers under each span consist of two huge iron tubes, called cylinders, which rest on the piles, and are filled with concrete. Under the first span rests seven of these cylinders ...”

While the Sun writer praised the cylinders for possessing “extraordinary strength,” just two months later, it would be shown that mighty structures built by man can quickly fall prey to the fury of nature.

The builders of the bridge did not include works to bolster the cylinders holding the piers. 

In April, reports were arriving from south of Winnipeg that the fury of the Red River was being unleashed in the form of a flood. While people from Emerson to Fargo braced themselves to battle water spilling over the banks of the Red, Winnipeggers flocked to the grand opening of the Broadway Bridge on April 15, 1882.

“The new Broadway Bridge was inspected by multitudes of people,”

reported the Manitoba Free Press. “Residents who have witnessed the opening of former springs here, greatly admired the contrast, and those who experienced it (as) it used to be to get to and from St. Boniface by means of boats, planks, ice, etc., at the imminent risk of their lives, contemplated the improvement with lively satisfaction. A gentleman who has been in a position to know the facts says that, to the best of his recollection, this has been the first spring in 10 years in which there have not been some drowning accidents on the Red River during the breaking up of the ice.”

People also commented on the strength of the new bridge, predicting it would easily stand up to the onslaught of the coming spring ice break-up.

The first indication of impending peril was news from Emerson. The April 17 International reported that people lined the banks of the Red near the Emerson Bridge to watch the water rise as ice built up and then began to run free.

“About six o’clock a large field of ice came floating down, and gave what remained of the bridge a pretty good shock, but it stood nobly. At this time the water was within a few inches of the flooring of the bridge and this same floe of ice carried away the swing portion of the bridge composed of wood and iron, and after floating a short distance down stream, went to the bottom.”

Two piers and a span on the west shore remained intact after a portion of the bridge fell into the water.

The Sun reported on April 19 that ice on the Red River began to break up a week earlier and days later water was seen around the Broadway Bridge. “While the news of high flood at Fargo and the carrying away of the Emerson Bridge were exciting public attention here, the citizens were congratulating themselves that the river was going to empty itself without loss of property on its banks nor yet causing alarm for the safety of the bridges.”

The newspaper marvelled that people believed Winnipeg would “escape scot free when the river had to bear the floods on the upper stream and all the contributions of the streams between.”

Even the Sun predicted on April 14 that the”opening of navigation cannot be far off” because Red River ice was breaking into “cakes” swept away by the current. In anticipation of the new navigation season, Winnipeg’s shipyards were said to be a hive of activity with “artisans ... hard at work on the river craft.”

From Wednesday night until Thursday at noon, the Free Press reported that the “ice remained motionless — a rugged, sinister area, picturesque but terrible. From bank to bank, up and down the river for miles was one vast plain of grinding, troubling ice.”

At 1:15 in the afternoon on April 19 — just four days after its grand opening — the Broadway Bridge began to swing and sway with the impact of a massive ice jam covering the breadth of the river. As a result of its unnatural motion, one and then two spans plunged into the river and travelled downstream upon the ice at an estimated pace of six mph.

The only person on the bridge at the time of its collapse was a rancher leading an ox pulling a Red River cart.

“The gatekeeper said to a Sun reporter that at the time mentioned the ice came tumbling and plunging down the river and struck the piers. The arch seemed to sway back and forth for a few moments, then it toppled over on top of the pack, upon whose surface it was carried careening down the river as if its weight were no greater than a wool sack, instead of tons of iron.”

The rancher saw the arch disappear before his eyes, which stopped him in his tracks. He immediately began to unhitch his ox and hastened back to the Winnipeg shore, leaving his cart behind.

“In the time it took him to detach the harness he might have driven his vehicle back, but the poor fellow was too puzzled to make fine calculations when the ice was cracking all around him,” reported the Sun.

The first span disappeared around a bend in the river “with the second in hot pursuit, but people at the foot of McWilliam Street (now Pacific) saw only one span pass there, so it is supposed that the other slipped off the ice and lies at the bottom of the river near the shipyards (at Lombard Avenue).”

The reporter commented that the superstructure of the bridge must have been of exceptional workmanship since it sustained no damage after its 25-foot plunge onto the ice.

The ice sank under the burden until just two feet of the iron work was visible above water.

People lined the riverbanks and, despite the warnings of the toll-keeper, stood on the remaining spans of the Broadway Bridge to get a better view of the “seething mass of ice, boiling, twisting and writhing in the most fantastic shapes.”

As the remains of the Broadway Bridge rushed down river, many hurried to the Louise Bridge which they expected to suffer a similar fate.

At 2 p.m., an ice jam struck the breakwater on the south side of the Louise Bridge and raised up two feet.

At 2:15 p.m., a portion of the Broadway Bridge passed beneath the Louise Bridge without doing any damage. At the same time, trains continued to cross the bridge.

At 2:20 p.m., a jam formed about a mile below the bridge but the water level did not rise preciptiously.

The strong stone abutments withstood the pressure of the ice, but the Free Press reported “the breakwater of the Louise Bridge was almost instantly torn from its fastenings, and the angry waters spread themselves over the spot, and for a time nothing but an eddy indicated where the solid part of the cut-water was still anchored. This continued to do good service, splitting the heavier floe and turning aside the lighter ones, so that they swept clear of the piers ... The bridge itself received heavy shocks, and the concussions were plainly felt by those standing on the extremities of the bridge, but the solid stone piers remained immovable, and while ploughing through the rushing masses, gave no signs of weakness ... thanks to the magnificent masonry the bridge is still intact.”

The destruction of the cut-water, the forepart of the breakwater designed to make it easier for water to flow around it, resulted in the temporary loss of telegraph communications to the city as the telegraph pole rested on the structure. Lines carried across the still-intact Louise Bridge were soon restored to allow communications to the outside world.

The Sun said if the breakwater had been built like the “strong stone abutments” of the bridge, which met the onslaught of ice “without any strain,” and not of a wooden “cribwork” filled with stones “it would have stood better.”

By 2:30 p.m., the bridge was again opened to pedestrians and horse teams.

The Broadway Bridge suffered another indignity when the steamboat Victoria broke loose of its moorings and struck the bridge’s second pier. The steamer remained in place long enough for the people aboard the vessel to scramble onto the remaining portions of the bridge. The Victoria’s entire superstructure was wrecked by the collision with the bridge. When the vessel finally was swept away, its anchor managed to  hold onto the river bottom and it remained in place to be rescued from more damage.

During the height of the flood, the river rose 26 feet above its normal level, the highest level since the 1852 flood. But within five hours, the water had subsided an estimated eight feet. 

Meanwhile, the Main Street Bridge was not in jeopardy as ice had not jammed on the Assiniboine. Newspapers said the ice on the Assiniboine was rotting away and breaking into small cakes which presented no danger, although floodwater from the west — Portage la Prairie and other communities along the Assiniboine had flooded — would reach Winnipeg and add to the water burden in the Red River.

Shanty Town on Hudson’s Bay Company reserve land along the banks of the Red River was another victim of the flood. “East of Main Street in the lower levels everything is inundated,” reported the Sun. “the Icelandic camping grounds (Shanty Town on the Hudson’s Bay Flats was first established by squatters who arrived from Iceland) have had to be abandoned.”

Newspapers said small boys were seen amid the ruins of Shanty Town having a great time paddling about the flats on logs.

In Winnipeg, water advanced up Notre Dame Street (not yet named an avenue). As was the case with Broadway, Notre Dame at this time went right up to the west bank of the Red River instead of abruptly ending at Portage Avenue as it does today. Along its route to the Red in 1882, Notre Dame crossed both Portage

Avenue and Main Street.

The Free Press said Notre Dame was “covered with a considerable depth of water, sufficient to float quite large saw logs. Scores of these, after the water subsided, were left on the ground, covering the whole width of the street.”

To break up the ice collecting downstream and contributing to flooding by preventing water from flowing freely to Lake Winnipeg, men were dispatched by the city to “dynamite” the ice jams. At St. John’s, three kegs of powder were used to break up an ice jam.

On the north side of St. Boniface, nearly two-metre (six-feet) deep water forced people to abandon their homes and move their furniture to higher ground.

“Between the cathedral and the hospital there is no traces of fences or anything to show that that portion of the place had even been anything else but a large bay,” reported the Sun.

The Sun reported on April 24 that water kept rising to the point of flooding the west side of Main Street. Land flooded across Main Street all the way to Dufferin Park where “parties could be seen ferrying their families across ‘the raging waters.’”

Skiff owners directly benefitted from the flood and the collapse of the new Broadway Bridge. The Free Press reported that the toppling of a section of the bridge into the Red was a “blessing to the number of skiffs now plying between St. Boniface and the city.” The skiff owners charged passengers 25 cents for the crossing which the newspaper claimed should only cost a dime. A few days later stiff competition resulted in the fulfillment of the newspaper’s desire for a 10-cent boat ride across the river.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of the 1882 flood was the land boom, leading to the financial ruin of many people.

In the spring of 1882, the tracks of the St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railway were blocked by huge snowdrifts resulting from a “blizzard of unusual fury.” Trains between St. Paul and the Manitoba border were delayed for days, which hindered the influx of speculators needed to maintain the boom. Before the snow could be cleared, it began to melt and floodwaters struck.

The high water and resulting washouts stopped rail traffic, as well the raging waters prevented steamboats from travelling on the Red River. At one point, the stock of goods normally brought by train and steamers to Winnipeg ran so dangerously low that there was a possibility that the food supply would soon be exhausted.

The land boom faltered  as news reached Winnipeg of flooding to the south. On April 12, Arthur Wellington Ross, one of the leading Winnipeg speculators, began to advertise lots in Edmonton, “the future Golden City of the Dominion.” At first, people flocked to his Winnipeg office to buy the lots, but within days there wasn’t anyone willing to purchase the lots at any price.

The final blow came after a party of Winnipeg speculators, headed by Jim” the Real Estate King” Coolican, travelled south to Minneapolis to sell lots.  Coolican successfully sold $100,000 worth of lots at St. Vincent, Minnesota, but was trapped for days on the American side of the border due to the washed out rail connection. 

To the displeasure of investors, many of the lots he sold were inundated by floodwater — news that couldn’t be kept from potential Winnipeg investors. In fact, a Sun reporter, who made the journey north to Winnipeg from the U.S. first by rail and then by the steamer Selkirk, described the flooding south of the border to Emerson in an April 28 article. St. Vincent may have stood higher than West Lynne, Pembina and

Emerson, he wrote, “yet for three miles we plowed along (by steamer) on what was a month ago comfortable homesteads, while the water on either side of us, waved for half a mile over the plowed lands, barns, fences ...”

With the wash-outs, it would be three weeks before the rail link was restored, but by that time people realized the bubble had burst.

When Coolican finally got back to Winnipeg by steamboat on April 28, he took out advertisements in local newspapers proclaiming, “Coolican’s Return! and the Boom Returns Also!” In his ads, he said: “Having returned from St. Paul and Minneapolis, where over $100,000 worth of St. Vincent lots were sold, I will offer the people of Winnipeg another opportunity to secure this valuable property. The great flood has shown St. Vincent is the highest point of the Four Corners ... St. Vincent is now actually booming in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Now is the time to secure these lots, as they are sure to advance in prices to five times their present figures.”

Despite Collican’s attempt to drum up enthusiasm in St. Vincent lots, there were no takers. People did not believe Coolican when he said 400 Americans were “already on the ground with material and stocks waiting for the water to subside to commence building and open business.”

When Coolican did sell Rapid City lots at his Portage and Main auction house, the properties were at modest prices ranging from $45 to $90; rather than selling for the hundreds of dollars at the height of the boom. The irony is that even these lower-priced lots were purely speculative. 

Reporting on the modestly-priced  lots, the Sun said on May 3, “The paper town bubbles having burst, public confidence in legitimate business is now being restored ...”

“The boom was purely speculative,” Ross later wrote. “The operators went into it on the presumed requirements of the coming summer and overdid it. The floods came, and then the whole thing collapsed.” 

It is estimated that only about five per cent of those speculating in property made money. 

Robert Hill wrote in his book Manitoba (1890) that men who had been “deemed honest and good for any amount were turned out of house and home, their goods and chattel liened on and sold by the sheriff, in many cases not bringing the latter’s fee.”

“Banks and other financial institutions which had encouraged and fostered the reckless inflation of boom days,” according to the Winnipeg Board of Trade (now the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce) 1884 report, “were now mercilessly exacting in their demands, and many a man, who in a more confident state of trade could have weathered the pressure with honour was forced to insolvency.”

Meanwhile, the Broadway Bridge underwent temporary repairs and was quickly reopened. A second Broadway Bridge was constructed in 1883 to replace the first bridge damaged by the 1882 flood.

Having learned a lesson from the 1882 disaster, the piers that withstood the flood were encased by heavy pine logs and filled with broken rock. The Sun reported on February 1, 1883, that 100-foot-long ice breakers were built “in front” of four new piers.

“The contractor, Mr. Guy Campbell, says that if the piers, instead of being pointed, had been provided with these ‘ice breaks’ they would not have been carried away. Instead of cutting it, the ice is forced by the break up, and falling over the top, drifts away without striking the piers.” 

Other 60-foot-long by 30-feet-wide ice breaks were built directly opposite the pivot piers. “The piers are built of heavy pine logs sheeted with thick oak planking with an iron plating. The filling is stone. Around the two piers opposite the pivot pier, piles are being driven in order to keep the ice from getting between them. There are seven piers in all.”

 With the completion of the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern Terminus Grounds in 1908, Broadway in Winnipeg for the first time since the early 1870s ended at Main Street. With its safety called into question and public and political pressure to build a new bridge, the Broadway Bridge’s upper structure was demolished in 1917, and construction on a new bridge began. On July 22, 1918, the Provencher Bridge, slightly north of the former bridge, was officially opened. Meanwhile, the piers jutting out of the river were all that remained of the Broadway Bridge. Although a hazard to navigation, the piers were not removed until the 1930s.