Tuesday, February 28, 2012

At 88, Victoria's Blue Bridge begins to come down

Workers complete the wood decking of a bridge in Victoria in 1924. For 88 years, the Johnson Street Bridge, popularly known as the Blue Bridge for the colour of the paint used to match the oxidation of the structure, has spanned a narrowing of the Inner Harbour in Victoria. The bridge was designed by the same man responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 27, 2011


The barge Arctic Tuk was anchored in the still waters of the Inner Harbour with one end tucked beneath a bridge whose days are numbered.

The barge held a Manitowoc 4600 Series III, which is the formal designation for what is a super-duper, heavy-duty crane from what looks like the world’s biggest Meccano set.

On the bridge deck, men in hard hats wearing reflective vests and special breathing apparatus, their eyesight protected by shields, completed the severing of a venerable bridge from its terrestrial mooring.

The Johnson Street Bridge, better known as the Blue Bridge, a longtime city landmark, designed by the same man responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge, is to be replaced.

First, though, a structure that has safely transported generations across the water needs to be removed. On Friday, crowds gathered in a downpour to witness the first stage of demolition, the removal of a parallel railroad train deck.

For some, it was a happy day in which to herald the future of the city. For others, it was a time to bid adieu to an old friend, a sad moment in which an historic landmark was discarded like a pair of worn-out shoes.

Ross Crockford, who organized a spirited but ultimately failed campaign to preserve the bridge, looked crestfallen.

“Not a happy day,” he said. “Not a day to celebrate.”

Mr. Crockford and others urged the old bridge be refurbished instead of replaced. They gained enough signatures on a petition to force the city to hold a referendum, only to end up losing at the ballot box.

“As soon as I heard the referendum results, I knew this day would come,” Mr. Crockford said.

The 88-year-old bridge was painted blue some years ago, a colour choice made to match the oxides of the corroding structure.

The Blue Bridge has inspired the naming of a local repertory theatre, a batch of India pale ale, an anthology of memoirs (“Beyond the Blue Bridge”), as well as a song by The Bills titled, “Old Blue Bridge.” It is a bluegrass number, of course. “The old bridge is coming down,” the Bills sing in the tune’s opening line, recorded seven years ago.

The bridge enjoyed cameos in several Hollywood films, as well as a more prominent role in the 1997 action comedy Excess Baggage, starring Alicia Silverstone, Benicio Del Toro and Christopher Walken.

The steel bridge depended on counterweights to lift either deck for passing vessels. The bascule (from the French for “seesaw”) design had been patented by Joseph Baermann Strauss, a Cincinnati-born engineer whose university thesis described the construction of a railroad bridge across the Bering Strait.

When lifted, the road and rail bridge spans seemed to imitate the beak of a traditional Kwakiutl mask.

(For the past several months, the rail portion has been left in the lifted position. Some thought it looked as though the city of Victoria was giving a blue finger to the residents of Esquimalt.)

The removal of the bridge deck on the weekend also severed a rail link to downtown Victoria that had existed since 1888, when the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was constructed as part of the fulfillment of a promise when the colony of British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871.

The replacement bridge, which is to be built slightly to the north and expected to be completed by 2016, does not include a rail component.

The old railway deck is to be barged to the Ralmax yard further along the harbour. Some of it is to be retained for sculptural pieces, while most of it will be dismantled and barged to the Lower Mainland, where it will be melted down.

A local radio station joked the Blue Bridge ought to be recycled in blue boxes.

As the rain fell, 26 students from James Bay community school arrived for a real-life lesson. They walked two wet kilometres from their schoolhouse to see a simple machine in action.

The Grace 5 class was led by vice-principal Scott Clazie, who leaned in to explain the science of levers and cranes.

“Public safety announcement,” Mr. Clazie bellowed in his loudest voice. “Do not put your fingers under the bridge.”

The teacher grinned broadly. One of his pupils rolled her eyes.

As an entertainment, the dismantling of a bridge is more exciting in imagination than it is in practice.

Watching part of the famous Blue Bridge being removed turned out to be as exciting as watching blue paint dry.

CBC Radio's On the Island aired a terrific documentary on the Blue Bridge and its lore. You can hear it here.

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