Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beloved BDI span turns 100 years old

Politicians, old-timers mark anniversary

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Britney Bell (left) and Kaeley Gould enjoy ice cream at the Bridge Drive-In on Saturday.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Britney Bell (left) and Kaeley Gould enjoy ice cream at the Bridge Drive-In on Saturday. Photo Store

The iconic BDI bridge was last crossed by car in 1974.

But for many years before that, the narrow little toll bridge was a popular link across the Red River: a local landmark through two world wars and the 1950 flood.

Its centenary was marked with an official ceremony Saturday.

Two city councillors, a couple of area MLAs, history buffs and old-timers gathered at the centre of the bridge.

An official plaque was covered in the requisite black velvet-like drape to be drawn away on a sunny 30 C day -- the hottest in months, drawing about 40 onlookers. After the event, the city councillors treated the crowd to free ice cream cones from the Bridge Drive-In -- where a much larger crowd is always gathered during the summer.

"This is a historic event," St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes said as the unveiling got underway shortly after 1 p.m.

In 1914, the bridge, officially named the Elm Park Bridge, opened to traffic. It was a swing bridge, so large boats could pass beneath.

These days, it's best known as the Ice Cream Bridge or the BDI Bridge, and the bulk of its traffic is busy licking and slurping ice cream delicacies from the Bridge Drive-In.

"The bridge is a public space iconic to the city," said Jenny Gerbasi, city councillor for Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry. "Who in Winnipeg hasn't come to the BDI?"

The councillors shared the official duties Saturday because the bridge links their two wards. NDP Education Minister James Allum, whose riding of Fort Garry-Riverview includes the bridge on the Fort Rouge side, represented the province. Christine Melnick, the former cabinet minister removed from the NDP caucus in February, was on hand for the Riel riding.

The day belonged to memories, with old-timers recalling the days of early auto traffic dating back to the 1930s.

Joseph Snowden drove the first car across the bridge. He owned one of the first two houses built on Kingston Row, at 371.

On Saturday Kaia Sigurdson, 5, bicycled across to mark the centenary. Her family now lives in the home Snowden once owned.

The city resurfaced the bridge about a year ago, and it looks brand-new, said the owners of the BDI, Wanda and Allan Rutherford.

They recalled the bridge nearly went on the chopping block years ago when the cost of repairs outstripped the city's willingness to pay for them. Wanda recalled getting a phone call from a reporter back then, asking if the BDI owners wanted to buy it from the city. "Not on your life!" she recalled saying.

The ice cream stand is nearly as iconic as the bridge, and the Rutherfords were on hand Saturday to show the bridge and the ice cream share a history that's become a marketing brand.

Meanwhile, as Laurie McGregor, 91, sat with his daughter on the bridge for the unveiling, his mind went on vivid rewind to a forgotten chapter in the bridge's history.

To the shock of listeners, the senior recounted how a young man lost his life on the bridge before the Second World War.

As a kid, McGregor recounted making it a summer pastime to ride the Red's swift currents. He'd straddle a 16-foot wooden plank with his trusty Scottie dog perched in front like some ship's figurehead, and the pair would pass through the bridge's cement buttresses.

One day in 1938, he was on the riverbank at the bridge when he watched a man climb to the highest girder.

The man was young and looked ready to tempt fate with a daredevil dive.

"He was at the girder at the top and there was an east wind blowing that day," McGregor recalled to a clutch of people.

"The wind blew him back and he hit the handrail. It must have snapped his back," McGregor said.

McGregor and others on the bank searched the water for hours. Authorities were called in but they didn't find the man either.

"We looked for him. He didn't come up. Three days later, they found him, downstream. He washed up dead. I'll never forget that day," McGregor said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2014 A3

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