Redwood Bridge over troubled waters

Administrative and planning blunders delayed construction of span linking Elmwood to Winnipeg

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The Redwood Bridge, as most still refer to it despite it being renamed the Harry Lazarenko Bridge in 2014, is Winnipeg’s oldest functioning traffic bridge. It was meant to be a wedding gift, of sorts, to celebrate the union of two communities, but the sentiment was spoiled after an embarrassing administrative gaffe by the city saw the ten-month construction period drag on for two years.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/03/2018 (1793 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Redwood Bridge, as most still refer to it despite it being renamed the Harry Lazarenko Bridge in 2014, is Winnipeg’s oldest functioning traffic bridge. It was meant to be a wedding gift, of sorts, to celebrate the union of two communities, but the sentiment was spoiled after an embarrassing administrative gaffe by the city saw the ten-month construction period drag on for two years.

On Feb. 16, 1906, the community of Elmwood voted overwhelmingly in favour of breaking away from the Rural Municipality of Kildonan to join the City of Winnipeg. Its residents were seeking the better police, fire and streetcar service the larger municipality could provide. Most Winnipeggers approved of the union as it would open up hundreds of acres of land near the city centre for suburban development.

Before either side got what it wanted, access between the two communities had to be improved.

Archives of Manitoba The Redwood Bridge’s 250-foot long swing span was last opened to let a ship pass in 1979. It was decommissioned in 1985.

The only crossing between Winnipeg and Elmwood was the original Louise Bridge in Point Douglas. Built in 1881 as a railway bridge, it was near the end of its functional life, but a new link had to be completed before the old one could be torn down and replaced.

The city’s bridge committee held a special meeting in May 1906 to discuss the matter. It had been contemplating a “North End Bridge” somewhere near what was then Winnipeg’s northern boundary. The Elmwood vote gave the project a sense of urgency.

The committee approached Edward L. Drewry to discuss a land deal. He was president of the Redwood Brewery that was located on a large lot that ran from Main Street to the bank of the Red River.

Drewry agreed to donate the right-of-way across his property to the city on the condition his remaining land would not be charged the local improvement levy that would result from its proximity to a new roadway and bridge.

On the east side of the proposed crossing things were more complicated. The majority landowner was William Hespeler who agreed to give his share of the land if the city got the 41 or so smaller landowners to do the same. It took all summer for the city to track down 31 of them, which was enough to build the eastern roadway and approach.

Archives of Manitoba By August 1908, the new piers for the bridge were complete.

The announcement of the bridge deal set off an immediate land boom in Elmwood. Lot prices doubled in a matter of days and before bridge construction even started, numerous developments such as Glenwood Crescent and Bronx Park were being marketed to Winnipeggers looking to escape to the suburbs.

In October 1906, the city awarded the $31,000 contract for the construction of the bridge’s concrete piers to Kelly Brothers of Kenora, Ont. Dominion Bridge of Montreal later won the $88,800 contract for the bridge’s superstructure.

Kelly’s men began driving piles in early January and just two months later were putting the finishing touches on three giant piers when they were told to put down their tools.

On March 9, 1907, the city received a petition signed by dozens of ship owners and officials from companies who relied on the Red River for their trade. They demanded that the city cease work on the Redwood Bridge immediately.

The issue was the 73-foot distance between the central piers. The petitioners insisted it was too narrow as ships needed a wide berth at that point in the river due to the sharp bend.

Winnipeg Tribune Archives New neighbourhoods, such as Glenwood Crescent, Washington Park and Bronx Park were being promoted in December 1906, before construction on the Redwood Bridge began.

The petition was accompanied by a letter from a law firm stating in part: “… the bridge now being put in by the city at the end of Redwood Avenue is one which, if allowed to be erected… will not only endanger navigation of the smaller class of ships but will entirely prohibit the passage of the larger ones.”

The letter concluded by informing the city it didn’t even have legal permission to build the bridge in the first place.

Work was halted as city officials searched for the federal government’s approval of their plans, which was required by law as they were building in and over a navigable waterway. It was soon discovered someone forgot to submit the paperwork to Ottawa.

The city scrambled to turn in its application after the fact, but were told by A. R. Dufresne, the local engineer for the federal department of public works, even if his department accepted it, the petitioners’ concerns were valid. In his opinion, the piers had to be at least 100 feet apart.

Mayor James Ashdown, who had a city-related business trip to Toronto and Montreal scheduled for the last week of March, worked in a side trip to Ottawa to plead the city’s case in person. He met with acting federal public works minister Sydney Fisher who said he would have departmental officials there study the plans and give their opinion.

Winnipeg Free Press files The media took the city to task for errors affecting the bridge's construction, as this headline from an April 1907 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press illustrates.

A few days after returning to Winnipeg, Ashdown got Fisher’s response: “The bridge as now being constructed would seriously interfere with navigation… I must say at once that the plans must be changed to meet the judgment of the resident engineer and the department, which concurs in his views.”

The finger pointing started immediately.

The city engineer said he provided the plans to the city solicitor in early January but didn’t know if that was too late for submission to Ottawa. The board of control, an extra layer of elected officials that oversaw the city’s finances, lashed out at the solicitor, but were reminded Dufresne attended the board’s January meeting, when the piles were still being driven, to warn them about the spacing of the piers. Rather than follow up, the board ordered construction to continue.

Amid the uproar, a Winnipeg Tribune editorial demanded those responsible not only be fired but fined the cost of the error. It concluded that it was: “… not only surprising but disgusting to see the aldermen and controllers calmly paying out public money for such a purpose.”

In the end, it appears the only one to pay the price for the blunder was the taxpayer.

An 1890 ad for the Redwood Brewery.

It doesn’t appear a final figure for the cost to correct the error was ever released. Tallying up the additional fees awarded to contractors to demolish and rebuild two piers, produce a new set of bridge drawings and make minor changes to the steel superstructure came to around $20,000.

New plans for the Redwood Bridge, featuring 100-foot spaces between the middle piers, were submitted to Ottawa in May 1907. Once the river froze in late December, Kelly’s men started on the demolition work.

On the morning of Jan. 21, 1908, Dufresne appeared at the board of control’s meeting to inform them that “after mature consideration” the federal government had approved the city’s new plans.

Work got underway immediately with the promise of a Nov. 11, 1908 completion date, but this second attempt at building the Redwood Bridge had its own set of challenges.

Kelly faced labour strife when it was discovered he was not paying his 161 men the guaranteed minimum wage set out in his contract with the city. This led to a slowdown in work and saw Kelly and the city countersue each other over the matter.

The original Redwood House, circa 1920

This also pushed back Dominion Bridge’s start as the 700 tons of steel only began arriving on the site in August. An early start to winter hampered their work and that of other contractors struggling to complete the project.

The Redwood Bridge was opened to vehicular traffic on Jan. 12, 1909, more than two years after construction began. Some work, such as the sidewalks and installation of the swing span motor, waited until spring to be completed.

It appears civic officials had no stomach for a formal ceremony to mark the occasion. Newspaper reporters were simply told of the opening by the city engineer.

Even the “first crossing” of a citizen, which was usually good for a photo op or a warm sidebar story in the papers, was anticlimactic. John Thompson Jr. of Thompson Funeral Home was on his way to Elmwood Cemetery the day before the bridge opened and thought he would try his luck. When he arrived at the approach, workers waved him through.

Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The Harry Lazarenko Bridge — as it was renamed in 2014 — has been serving vehicular traffic in Winnipeg since it was quietly opened as the Redwood Bridge in 1909.
Christian Cassidy

Christian Cassidy
What's in a Street Name?

Christian Cassidy believes that every building has a great story - or 10 - to tell.

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