|When it was first erected it was known as the river crossing in the East End, but considering the role H.J. Dawson had in getting it built, its fitting that today we know it as the Dawson Bridge. Dawson, who founded the Dawson Coal Company in 1907, gave city council a kick in the pants in 1910, telling them to bloody well build it - as they promised the would in their election campaigns.|
You gentlemen were elected last year upon the distinct understanding that this bridge would be built, the Edmonton Bulletin quoted him as saying to councillors at their October 18th meeting. Up to the present nothing has been done. In a few weeks your term will expire, and we, who elected you, look to you to implement your promises. We ask you to give to the citizens of the city before that time the chance to say whether they will build this bridge or not.
It should be noted that the entrance to Dawsons mine was on the east side of the river and that his business would profit greatly from the bridges construction. The lecture to councillors apparently had the desired effect and within a few months, work on the bridge -- Edmontons second low level river crossing -- was underway.
No longer would employees who lived in the city have to travel across the Low Level Bridge or find another way across the river. Sometimes that other way meant getting young Fred Marshall to row them in his boat from one side to the other.
And thats a story unto itself. Fred was just 16 when he began offering the service in 1909.
Historian Tony Cashman writes that Fred and his family had emigrated from Somerset, England while Fred was still recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. The doctor recommended fresh air and exercise and, when the Marshalls moved into a home in Riverdale right along the river, someone suggested Fred get a rowboat and ply the river.
The only drawback to this idea was that Fred had never been in a rowboat in his life and had never seen water as dark and swift as the stuff that was flowing past the house, Cashman writes. For three weeks, Fred, with the help of his 13-year-old sister Norah, worked to master this riverman business, with Norah walking along shore with a rope, just in case her brother got into trouble.
He plied the river on a triangular course, Cashman explains. Starting from his home he would go one block across and one block down with the current. Then hed row two blocks upstream in the backwash under the Forest Heights cliff. Then hed strike out into the current again, going one block across and one block down to land at home again.
Fred made the crossing hundreds of times a month, charging five cents a person. In an average summer month, he made seven or eight dollars, which was big money for a teenager of that time. He offered the service for the next three summers and then, when the bridge was under construction in 1912, he parked his boat and worked as night watchman on the project.
Information at the City of Edmonton Archives reveals the bridge was nearly built further east, but this location was chosen for its proximity to downtown and favourable slopes at either end. In a 1914 presentation to the Edmonton Engineering Society, city bridge engineer H.F. Christie explained that the present site was found to be the most desirable, as the banks of the river at this point are stable and the roadways leading to bridge have a suitable grade for street railway traffic, the roadway on the east side having a maximum grade of eight per cent, and that on the west side a maximum grade of six per cent.
In comparison with Edmontons Low Level Bridge, opened in 1900, the new East End Bridge was longer and wider. While the Low Level measured 694 feet long and 17-and-a-half feet wide, the East End Bridge was 776 feet long and 41 feet wide.
A Dominion Government requirement that the channel span of the bridge be 45 feet above the low water mark necessitated five Pratt Truss Spans -- one more than the Low Level and two more than the Fifth Street Bridge, which was also under construction. The three approach spans of the East End Bridge were sloped at a three per cent grade.
The potential effect of the new bridge on property values and development wasnt lost on real estate speculators. With the bridge under construction, Windsor Realty Limited began trumpeting plans for the new Forest Heights subdivision. Where Your Profit is Sure, read the banner advertisement in the Edmonton Bulletin August 23, 1911. This Beautiful Sub-Division is Directly Opposite the New East End Bridge and all traffic over this bridge must go through our property, the ad continued.
Buy now and you will reap the harvest when the bridge is completed next June. A word to the Wise is sufficient. Lots were offered at $150 and up, but didnt sell very well as the Edmonton economy fell into deep recession and the First World War broke out. It was to be another 30 years before development really kicked into gear in Forest Heights.
As work progressed, the local media waxed eloquent about the technology and the achievement. The bridge is of the most modern construction and is destined to carry the heaviest build of cars, reported the Daily Capitol in its June 14th, 1912 edition. The bridge is 41 feet wide, with two six-foot sidewalks and a 26-foot roadway. This is wide enough for teams to pass each other and a street car as well.
With piers of concrete, a steel skeleton and timber decking, the total cost of the bridge was placed at $145,000. It opened to traffic October 8th, 1912, with the Edmonton Bulletin reporting the first vehicle was a truck hauling a load of lumber.
Re-decking happened in 1926 and again in 1942 and the piers were rehabilitated in 1951. Records show the structure was repainted in 1938 and 1959, when the original black colour was changed to gray. The work took 600 gallons of paint - 300 of red lead base and 300 of the outer coat.
The Dawson Coal Company was to continue production until 1944, pulling 656 cubic tonnes of coal from the ground. Much of that naturally found its way across the Dawson Bridge and was burned in coal stoves, keeping Edmontonians warm in the days before natural gas.
The bridge itself has survived not only the march of time, but also several proposals to replace it with a wider, more modern structure. In 1967, Edmonton City Council approved the Dawson Corridor, which was to result in a new bridge. Neighbourhood protest eventually killed the scheme in 1984 and the bridge was closed for 114 days in 1986 for resurfacing.
Ninety-four years after H.J. Dawson gave city council a kick in the pants, his namesake is still fulfilling its original function.
Information for this article sourced with the kind assistance of the staff at the City of Edmonton Archives.