THE CITY OF
THE PONT DE QUEBEC
When you talk to most people about major bridge disasters, they respond mostly with the story of the "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" and how, despite William McGonagall's passionate plea that
"God will protect all passengers by night and by day"
"And that no accident will befall them while crossing the Bridge of the Silvery Tay"
74 - or maybe 75 - people, passengers and crew, were lost when the wind pressure exerted by a gale of unprecedented velocity coupled with the passage of a train just at the apogee of the storm combined together to bring down the bridge.
The death-toll in that disaster was matched (or maybe even surpassed) by the number of deaths in a disaster that is pretty-much overlooked these days - 29th August 1907 when the southern cantilever of the Pont de Québec crashed into the St Lawrence during its construction.
10 more lives (and some reports say as many as 13) were lost on September 11th 1916 when the centre section of the bridge collapsed into the river as it was being put into place.
All of this would make the Pont de Québec a good candidate for one of the most lethal bridges in history. With a reputation such as that, I'll have to go for a closer look at this bridge.
We've already had a couple of good views of the bridge earlier today, as you might remember if you were with us on our drive from Portneuf .
Using the extremely long-range 70-300mm zoom lens that I've recently bought, I managed to take a shot of the bridge from way up the St Lawrence from a distance of over 20 miles, and this will give you some idea of how big the bridge is. In fact, when it was built, it was the largest cantilever bridge in the world - longer even than the legendary Forth Bridge in Scotland.
The first thing that I need to do is to find a good spec where I can have a decent close-up shot of the bridge. But on my way round, I was distracted by the sight of yet another one of this most unusual phenomenon of the species of Canadian Marching Woman.
It really is most extraordinary the way that women march - instead of walk - in Canada and I've never seen this kind of thing anywhere else in the world. I'll have to acquire somehow a cheap video camera and take a film of it to show you what I mean.
This particular woman seemed to be of Asiastic - Chinese or similar - origin and so I noted at the time that this Marching Woman Syndrome is clearly infectious.
As an aside - "you'll get used to this" ...ed - on my voyages around the major centres of population in Canada I've noted quite an unusually large proportion of people with Asian characteristics and being a European without too much idea of what is going on, I put it down to Canada's generous policy towards Vietnamese boat-people or refugees from Hong Kong. By the time I was half-way round my 2012 journey I had developed another theory about this - one that is probably much more accurate.
Meanwhile, my quest for a decent view of the bridge brought me to a standstill on the corner of the Rue Vautelet and the Chemin St Louis - St Louis of course being the French King Louis IX who led a couple of the Crusades - the Seventh and Eighth - to a spectacular disaster in the 13th Century.
Not a particularly good spec for a photo, unfortunately. I'm certain that we can do much better than this.
Our quest for a decent shot of the Pont de Québec is nothing new, by the way. I was having the same issues in early October 2010. I was on the southern side of the river back then and I managed to find some kind of side road where there was the possibility of something.
High fences and dead trees served to stump me on that occasion, but clearly the south side of the river seemed to promise the best possibility.
Yes, I was right about that. I eventually managed to find my way down to the south bank of the river and that was from where this photo was taken. From here, you can see the bridge in all of its splendour, and spendour is definitely the word. It's magnificent.
It looks so tranquil here that it's hard to believe that it's been the site of one of the largest construction site accidents in the world - an event that occurred on 29th August 1907.
When I found a decent place along the north shore to take a photo in November 2010 I wasn't so lucky. You can see what the weather was doing back then - a torrential rainstorm of the like that I have rarely seen and which was threatening to turn any minute to snow.
That's the reason for all of the street furniture in the photo. I was sitting in the car to take this picture. If you think that I was going to leave the comfort and safety of my vehicle to cross the road in this kind of weather you are very much mistaken.
September 2011 and the gracious co-operation of one of the many expensive motels in Québec (if you want to know where all of the cheap hotels are to be found in the city, stay with me for I'll be showing you), although they probably didn't realise it, brought me probably one of the best shots of the bridge. Right down onto the roadway.
It was rush-hour then and you can see the traffic streaming across the bridge. Two lanes going south and one lane going north. I'm glad I'm up here and not down there in all of that.
So what I'll do now is to tell you the story of the bridge, and for that we shall have to return to the story of the railway line.
As I said when we were at Vieux Cap Rouge this morning this bridge has its origins in the success of the Canadian Pacific Railway from Montreal to the Pacific Coast, which opened in 1885.
Charles Hays, the president of the Grand Trunk Railway, reckoned that he would like a share of the traffic and so he proposed a line from Winnipeg to the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, afraid that any transcontinental traffic on the Grand Trunk might be siphoned off onto the Grand Trunk Railway's lines in the USA, persuaded Parliament to authorise a line from Winnipeg to Moncton near the New Brunswick - Nova Scotia border, where it would link up with the Intercolonial Railway to Halifax.
Not only was this decision controversial, the terms of agreement provoked uproar. Laurier's proposal was that the Canadian Government would finance the building of the part of the line from Winnipeg to Moncton and lease it to Hays and his company at no cost for the first 7 years and subsequently at 3% of the construction costs per annum.
Laurier's Minister of Railways, Andrew Blair, resigned in horrified protest, making a fiery speech
"I do not see why the people of this country should be saddled with an obligation of $100,000,000 and an addition to their liability … of an amount exceeding that …" and called for public ownership of the line. There were also all kinds of allegations of corruption, but nevertheless, in 1903 the agreement was confirmed.
Although the modern-day VIArail train, which we encountered in Halifax , doesn't pass through Québec (you need to alight on the southern shore of the St Lawrence and catch a connection), back at the turn of the 20th Century Québec in its role as the Province's capital was considered to be a vital stop on the route. Consequently it was considered necessary to bring the railway across the river and so a bridge became a major part of the plan.
There had been a great deal of talk about building a bridge across the St Lawrence during the halcyon days of Victorian engineering and in fact four projects - 1852, 1867, 1882 and 1884 - had been openly discussed. Nevertheless, it was in March 1897 that a local newspaper, the Quebec Morning Chronicle announced that
"the bridge question has again been revived after many years of slumber, and business men in Quebec seem hopeful that something will come of it".
As an aside, the newspaper reckoned that a budget of $8,000,000 would be sufficient.
Once the railway proposals had been agreed, the contract to build the bridge was passed to the rather unfortunately-named Phoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville in the USA, a decision considered as bizarre by many casual observers who had observed that the company, although being something of an innovator in its field, had had little experience of large-scale projects.
Employees of the company designed the bridge themselves, with the assistance of a well-known engineer called Theodore Cooper and incredibly, despite their lack of experience on a project such as this, appear not to have had their calculations checked by any outside experts. Even the much-maligned but very experienced Sir Thomas Bouch, designer of the fated First Tay Bridge in Scotland, was able to produce at the Public Enquiry into the collapse of his bridge a stream of witnesses from academia to whom he had submitted for verification his calculations and assumptions.
And so with the alarm bells already ringing in the backs of the minds of a few more perspicatious observers, construction began and the cantilever (where an unsupported span is held in position by the effect of a weight on the other side of the fulcrum) bridge began to inch its way across the river.
As another aside - "you'll become accustomed to this" ...ed - the bridge was to be built as two cantilever spans, one from each side of the river, with a central section placed between the two to hold the spans in tension. You can see this by looking at any one of the photos above.
Of course, with a project such as this, there would always be design faults and errors that would not become apparent until construction was under way and which would require rectification, but in mid-1907 the engineering superintendant, Norman McLure, observed that several of the main structural supports of the bridge were distorting as more weight was being applied to the bridge. In his opinion, the bridge was massively overweight for the supports that had to brace it.
McLure contacted Theodore Cooper and the company but his worries were dismissed as being of little importance. Nevertheless, the distortion continued and on 27th August McLure detailed his increasing concerns in a letter to Cooper.
On 29th August, as a result of his letter, McLure travelled to New York to meet Cooper and following their discussion, Cooper sent a telegram to the bridge ordering work to be stopped until he could see things for himself. However, before the telegram arrived, the southern part of the bridge suddenly crashed into the St Lawrence at 17:37, just 23 minutes prior to knocking-off time.
Some say 71, some say 75 and some say 76 people were killed as the bridge collapsed. Of these, some say that 33 and others say 35 members of the Mohawk tribe from the Kahnawake reservation on the southern shore of the St Lawrence opposite Montreal who were working on the bridge were amongst the victims.
I'm not quite sure why every account of the disaster should specify that first-nation Canadians lost their lives in the disaster. It smacks to me of what I call "token-womanism", where in every modern-day disaster you hear that "so many people, some of whom were women and children … ", almost as if a white male is of absolutely no importance in the world today - and that's discrimination if ever I saw any.
I once asked one of these "political correctness" (or "cultural Marxism" as it was originally called) freaks about this. She replied that it was all about recognising the contribution that minorities make in everyday life. I did point out that according to the last World Health Authority statistics, there are more black people on earth than there are white people, and that there are more women on earth than there are men, and so it is white men who are in the minority and so maybe we ought to be much more forward in recognising their achievements, but that remark was met with a frosty silence - the typical response of a hypocrite.
So after yet another good rant, we can return to the bridge. It was quickly decided that a new bridge would arise like a phoenix from the ashes of the old one, but the Phoenix Bridge Company would take no further part in the proceedings. Instead, the Canadian Government created a board of engineers to oversee a new project. Chairman of the board was Charles Monsarrat, and particularly notable amongst this impressive team of engineers was Ralph Modjeski, described by one source as "the greatest bridge engineer in the history of the United States", Charles Schneider, who had worked on the Niagara cantilever bridge, Phelps Johnson, the president of Montreal's Dominion Bridge Company, and George Duggan, also of the Dominion Bridge Company and who carried out most of the design work for the new bridge.
A variety of different types of bridge was considered, most of which were of the cantilever type, and it was indeed a cantilever type that was chosen - albeit one that was much more substantial than that designed by Theodore Cooper. There was no thought given to the possibility of road traffic - it was to have two railway tracks, two footpaths and a tram line.
And so construction began, and continued apace, setting all kinds of records along the way. All went well until 11th September (it's quite astonishing how often that date crops up when major catastrophes are being discussed) 1916 when the centre span was being hoisted into position, in front of a crowd said to be in excess of 100,000. Suddenly, with a tremedous crack, one of the hoists collapsed and the whole lot fell into the river.
This latest accident cost the lives of 6, of 10 or of 13 people, depending upon which report that you read, but this time the builders remained undaunted. They scrounged some more steel from the War effort (the practice of re-using steel that had received a ducking such as this had been roundly condemned in the 1880 enquiry into the Tay Bridge Disaster) and on the second occasion, they managed to complete the bridge.
It was declared open for traffic on 3rd December 1917.
As for the fallen span, on the bed of the river there is certainly a huge pile of metal which many people say is the fallen centre span. With modern river management techniques, about which I talk as nauseam elsewhere , reducing the flow of water in the river these days, this metal can apparently be seen at very low tide.
A few interesting statistics in the construction of the bridge are contained on a plaque. Its total length is 3229 feet, round about 1000 metres, and the main span is 1600 feet in length. It was therefore the longest cantilever bridge in the world when it was built. There's 106,000 cubic yards of masonry in the bridge, and the total weight of steel comes to just under 60,000 tons. It's on average 150 feet above the water;
As for the cost? the Quebec Morning Chronicle estimated in 1899 that it would be about $8,000,000 would be sufficient. When the accounts were completed, it came in at round about $25,000,000.
In 1929 a roadway of a width of about 15 feet was added, being opened on 22nd September. As it was known that the tram-line disappeared from the bridge at some time, it may well have been at that date, and the road built over the tracks. A toll of 50 cents per vehicle and 10 cents per passenger was levied until 1st April 1942 when it became free to cross.
15 feet is not very wide at all - two cars could pass each other if the drivers concentrated, but a bus or a lorry wishing to cross would cause traffic coming the other way to be halted by the tollbooth operators.
In 1948 one of the railway lines was removed and the other one was repositioned so that the road bed could be widened to about 30 feet to permit 2 decent lanes of traffic, opened for traffic in 1952, and in 1993 a third lane of traffic was squeezed in, as you can see here.
During one of these widenings, although I've not been able to find out which one, one of the pedestrian footpaths was "lost".
The lanes on the bridge are controlled by traffic lights as you can. Usually there is one lane for each direction, and the centre lane is switched in accordance with the volume of traffic.
There doesn't seem to be much traffic on there right now, but this is because a motorway - Highway 73 - has been built to by-pass Québec, and a new bridge, the Pont Pierre Laporte, was built in 1970 alongside the Pont de Québec to carry the motorway across the river.
In normal circumstances the Pont Pierre Laporte would merit a page all to itself because at 668 metres it's the longest suspension bridge in Canada, but here it doesn't even have a photo to itself because of its much-more-impressive neighbour.
One thing that you can't see in these two photos just here is any modernisations or reconstructions. This is because, unusually, there aren't any. Apart from the change of use of the bridge, it's pretty much exactly as it was built and that is quite rare for a construction such as this in North America. In fact, there are some who point to this fact as some kind of indication that sooner or later someone is going to have a very unpleasant surprise.
The bridge was declared a National Historic Monument on 24th November 1995 according to one source and 24th January 1996 according to another. One thing that does seem to be reasonably certain is that in 1993 the bridge was sold to Canadian National Railways for the princely sum of $1:00 and when the Canadian National was privatised in November 1995, the bridge also passed into private hands.
This privatisation of the bridge has led to all kinds of complications. The agreement for the sale included a provision that the Government would pay 40% of any repairs to the bridge. When repair and maintenance to the tune of $140,000,000 were deemed to be necessary, the new owners of the bridge set out to have the agreement modified (can't go upsetting the shareholders now by cutting down their dividends, can we?) and by the time they had spent $60,000,000 (of which only $24,000,000) had been recovered from central funds and with no sign of a change of heart by the Government, the owners downed tools and the affair went off to the Courts.
In fact, when I drove over the bridge in October 2010 the thing that struck me was that half of the bridge was in a deplorable condition, with rust everywhere and looking very sorry for itself. The other half, the Québec side, had been painted in a light grey primer but that work seemed to have come to a shuddering halt and the rust was coming through that as well.
Mind you, at least some money has been spent on maintaining the bridge, which is more than can be said for another National Historic bridge elsewhere and about which I have also written more than enough
So that's the Pont de Québec. Let's see if we can find another really significant site in Québec - the Plains of Abraham, site of the crucial battle of 13th September 1759.
One reviewing the notes that I made of my visits here, it did come to my attention that, like everyone else who has talked about the Pont de Quebec I've not said very much about the Pont Pierre Laporte.
Had it been anywhere else except at the side of the magnificent Pont de Quebec, it would merit a page all to itself because it was the longest suspension bridge in Canada (at 667.51 metres) when it was built (and, for all I know, it probably still is). It deserves more attention that I, and everyone else for that matter, have been giving it.
It's impossible to take a good photo of the bridge for the simple reason that it's overshadowed by its neighbour and so the best way to see it is by driving over it. In fact, I'm surprised to note that I haven't even taken the trouble to do that, and so that's something that I immediately put right during my visit here in September 2013
The bridge took four years to build and was opened to traffic on 7th November 1970. The deck is supported by two cables which are 62cms thick. These cables consist of 12,580 individual strands of steel and that if all of these were placed end-to-end, they would go three-quarters of the way around the planet.
And as for Pierre Laporte himself, he was a politician who was murdered by Quebecois separationist terrorists in October 1970. His name was accordingly given to the bridge, which had originally to have been called the Pont Frontenac in honour of our old, enigmatic friend Louis de Baude, Comte de Frontenac, about whom we have spoken before .
So maybe now we can resume our quest for the Plains of Abraham.
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