Has Yukon government gone a bridge too far?

The Ross River suspension footbridge is in sorry condition and at imminent risk of catastrophic failure, according to the September 30, 2013 recommendations of a structural engineer at the firm of David Nairne and Associates.

The Ross River suspension footbridge is in sorry condition and at imminent risk of catastrophic failure, according to the September 30, 2013 recommendations of a structural engineer at the firm of David Nairne and Associates.

“The north tower head beam is in a critical condition and is at the point of failure and can collapse at any time without warning. The collapse of the head beam will result in the collapse of the bridge deck and possibly the collapse of the north and south towers. The north tower head beam is structurally unsafe in its present condition and we recommend that no further inspection or any repairs to the head beam be carried out.”

This warning sounds dire – and it is. If you look at the condition of the head beams on the north and south towers, you will see for yourself. Video clips of these features are posted on the Government of Yukon website at: www.infrastructure.gov.yk.ca/newsroom.html.

It’s grim viewing:

the beams are twisted out of alignment where clamps on the suspension cables have pulled against them for decades. Menacing cracks and deformation reveal the imminent failure of the beams.

Imagine that the head beam on one of the towers finally fails and the load of the cable and the span across the river comes down upon the aging tower. It starts to crumple and the cables, ramp and other features collapse onto the ice.

Things could be worse. If a catastrophic collapse were to take place during the summer, the span would fall into the Pelly River. Then, the inexorable force of the river current would pull everything down into a chaotic jumbled mess that would be dragged downriver.

But it could be even worse. Just below the bridge is the cable ferry across the Pelly. If it were crossing the Pelly with a load of vehicles at the time of the collapse, it would become entangled in the mess, possibly capsizing in the process.

One could readily understand how a responsible elected official would not allow the structure to remain standing, given the possible consequence of inaction, or delayed action. If there was a loss of life as a consequence of a catastrophic collapse, then the lawsuits would be costly, given that the engineering reports warned of the imminent failure. Political careers would be shortened considerably under such circumstances.

The logical course of action: tear it down. Any politician conscious of protecting his posterior, as well the lives of citizens, would say so.

But the problem is not as straight-forward as it would seem, because of its historical value. For decades after the gold rush, Ross River was one of the most remote communities in the Yukon Territory.

A trading post was first built on the north shore of the Pelly River shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Soon, there was a competing post on the opposite bank. Within a dozen years, First Nation people were attracted from as far away as the Mackenzie River to come here to trade seasonally. Taylor and Drury operated a trading post, and the Mounted Police kept an officer here as well.

The Second World War changed everything. Ross River found itself in the middle of a strategic wartime initiative known as CANOL – a pipeline and service road from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, to carry oil to a refinery that was being built in Whitehorse. When first constructed, the pipeline was temporarily laid across the ice of the frozen Pelly River, and then soon supported on the suspension bridge spanning the river.

Although the CANOL project was short-lived, the event was recognized as having national significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The bridge survives as perhaps the most tangible symbol of the event.

After the pipeline was removed, the span was modified for foot traffic and continued to be used for that purpose until recently. Over the decades, the bridge, said to be the longest such span in Canada or the United States, acquired iconic status in the community. In fact, the Department of Tourism and Culture included the bridge as one of the stopping points in the Yukon Gold Explorer’s Passport program.

Then-Community Services Minister Elaine Taylor announced in June of last year that the suspension bridge was to be revitalized. Upgrades worth $1.1 million were to be completed by the end of the year.

The engineer’s report at the end of September brought an end to that. Because of the imminent danger posed by the condition of the bridge, a decision for emergency demolition bypassed any process of community consultation and environmental assessment. Members of the community have become active in voicing concern for the future of the soon-to-be-demolished bridge.

Letters have been written by concerned citizens. A Facebook page has been set up. The Yukon Historical and Museums Association has added its concerned voice to the issue. The Heritage Canada National Trust wrote a letter of concern for the future of the bridge. In it, they referred Minister Brad Cathers to the federal government’s recently announced Legacy Fund as a possible source of funding to aid in the restoration of this World War II construction. Even CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi recently talked about the bridge in the introduction to his popular radio program, Q.

In a last-ditch effort to save the structure from demolition, Ross River residents blocked access to the bridge by the contractor assigned to do the demolition. Minister Cathers reiterated his determination to see the bridge come down – but – he added that the span and cables would be saved and the towers left standing until they decide what to do next. Perhaps he should turn to Parks Canada, whose interventions on Dredge Number 4 National Historic Site averted potential catastrophic failure of that massive structure.

I hope that Minister Cathers is wise enough to listen carefully to the wishes of the community about what to do next. The community, for its part, is going to have to commit to long term engagement in the process. One of the major challenges will be to pinpoint those key values that define the physical and historical importance of the bridge.

Lack of proactive maintenance of this important historical feature brought it to the brink of destruction. The community has had to assert its passionate feelings for the bridge in a last ditch effort to save it. Let’s hope that government and community will be able to work together to a mutually satisfactory solution.

The government has made a compelling case to dismantle the bridge for reasons of public safety. The big question is this: Once the public safety issue is addressed, will the commitment still be there to address the heritage values and restore this iconic structure, or will it simply be forgotten?

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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