saluting a century of successful structures

There has been a furious bout of bridge building going on in Whitehorse, and they will soon be reduced to rubble.

There has been a furious bout of bridge building going on in Whitehorse, and they will soon be reduced to rubble. It’s for a good cause, however – it’s the annual bridge building (or should I say “wrecking?”) competition to be held at the Porter Creek High School Gym tomorrow, April 6, starting at noon. You will have an hour to view the various designs before the carnage begins.

I have attended this annual event before, and it’s great fun to watch. It is sponsored by the Association of Professional Engineers of Yukon. The challenge is for competitors, all using exactly the same materials, to design the lightest bridge possible, then to see which one can support the heaviest load before collapsing. There are three categories in the competition – one for students, grades 4-12, an open category, and a new one, called the All Can, for teams of more than four contestants.

We take bridges for granted – until one of them collapses. Only then do we really appreciate how important they are to us. My personal collection of photographs illustrates the point admirably – I have plenty of photos taken from bridges, but very few taken of bridges.

The first actual bridge constructed to cross a body of water in the Yukon that I could find documented was one built at the gold mining town of Forty Mile in 1895. Part of Forty Mile was on an island, and high water created an impressive moat that isolated those living on the island from the rest of the town.

The bridge across this channel was captured in several photographs of the era, and it’s a good thing, too, because the bridge was washed away in the breakup that occurred the following spring.

Dawson City was born and a suspension bridge, the first ever constructed in the Yukon, was built in 1898 to span the Klondike River between Dawson and Klondike City on the opposite shore. It was privately owned and everyone paid a toll to use it. It was still in use seven years later.

The government built the Ogilvie Bridge, named after the second commissioner of the territory, William Ogilvie, in 1901. It collapsed in 1959 after being struck by a White Pass truck. A temporary bridge was in place within three weeks. Its replacement, which is crossed just before coming into Dawson City today, spans the Klondike River, only a stone’s throw from the original.

Next time you are in Carcross, take a close look at the railroad bridge that crosses the channel at the outlet of Bennett Lake. It had the unique capacity to swing open to allow steamboats to pass through, but once the railroad was completed, lake transportation died a rapid death and this special feature has not been needed for more than a century.

When the Klondike Mines Railway was constructed in 1905, a triple-span steel bridge was constructed at the mouth of the Klondike River to link downtown Dawson City with the goldfields. The bridge survived the end of the railway, which ceased operation in 1914, by more than a decade. Serious damage inflicted upon the structure in several floods during the 1920s brought it to an end and turned Klondike City, across the river from Dawson, into an abandoned hayfield.

West of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, you will cross the Aishihik River. You probably don’t remember what that bridge looks like, but you will recognize the recently restored historical bridge visible just north of it. This old log bridge was originally built in 1903, reportedly by Sam McGee and Gilbert Skelly and rebuilt by the Jacquot Brothers 20 years later. This elegant little span served the residents of the Kluane region well for 40 years, until it was bypassed during the construction of the wartime road.

Lord Minto, then Governor-General of Canada, officially opened the Robert Lowe suspension bridge across Miles Canyon in August of 1922, making it the first recreational bridge in Whitehorse. Today, several more bridges have added to the recreational opportunities for residents of this city. The best example is the Rotary Centennial Bridge, just below the dam.

The Yukon relied upon its river transportation network for supplies from the Outside until the 1940s when, with the entry of the United States into the Second World War, The Alaska Highway was built. Before that, the wagon road from Whitehorse to Dawson was used mainly during the winter months for freight and passenger service when the rivers were frozen and the sternwheel riverboats were pulled up on the ways for the season.

There were no bridges back then, so between the time when river travel ceased and the rivers had frozen solid, the link with the Outside was severed. The same applied during the spring break-up period. More than one party travelled by Model T Ford to Whitehorse in the early days during this in-between season. To do so, they had to disassemble their automobile to cross the Stewart, the Pelly and the Yukon Rivers through the ice floes in small boats.

The construction of the Alaska Highway during the war brought about a major transformation in the development of the territory. With it, and the connecting roads that followed, bridges were essential. Hundreds of temporary bridges were constructed between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks, and then replaced with more permanent structures by the Public Roads Administration (PRA).

A magnificent suspension bridge spanned the Peace River until a landslide in 1959 caused its collapse. The Nisutlin Bridge at Teslin is the longest bridge (more than half a kilometre) on the Alaska Highway today. The bridge that spans the Teslin River at Johnson’s Crossing is the territory’s third longest. Completed in 1944, it took two years to build and is the only original PRA bridge that remains on the Alaska Highway.

Sturdy bridges spanning the Slims, the Donjek and White Rivers have recently been replaced by sleek concrete and steel structures with simple, graceful lines and a lifespan projected to last nearly a century.

Thousands of motorists travelling the Alaska Highway won’t think twice about the work required to build these engineering marvels, and because the engineers have done their work, these bridges won’t collapse any time soon. To witness that kind of devastation, you will have to attend the bridge building competition in the gym at Porter Creek Secondary School tomorrow. Viewing starts at noon, and the carnage commences at 1 p.m.

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

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