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For many years the Sioux Narrows bridge has been an important centre piece in the community and a popular point of interest for travellers. Built in 1936, the bridge is believed to be the longest single span wooden bridge in North America, and after sixty three years the bridge remains a distinct and vital structure linking Long Point Island to the mainland making road travel possible for the Lake of the Woods region. Today we think little of the reasons for building roads and bridges. Automobiles and the infrastructure to support their use have became a necessity. The primacy of the vehicle, however, was not always the case. The creation of roads and bridges in our area needs to be examined within the context of the development and evolution of personal and commercial travel.
Following the First World War fundamental changes began to take place with respect to the transportation industry. Automobile traffic was on the rise, bus lines and trucking firms began to compete with and supplement the railway industry. New and influential lobby groups such as the Central Canadian Highway Association working out of Toronto and the Canadian Good Roads Association in Ottawa did much to press government to pass legislation and provide financial support for road development.
The lobby groups’ initial success was generally confined to eastern Canada and within townships. Prior to the First World War communities like Kenora, Dryden, Fort Frances and Rainy River had streets and local service roads to close outlying communities, (i.e. the Kenora-Reddit road), but good gravel roads connecting distant communities were still in the planning stage. By 1930 the road from Kenora to the Manitoba border was still incomplete, and the Kenora-Fort Frances link was only serviceable from Fort Frances to Nestor Falls. It would take the Great Depression of the thirties for federal and provincial governments to see public works projects like road construction as a useful way of providing financial relief to the unemployed while advancing their highway policies.
By the early 1930’s the provincial and federal governments cobbled together a funding package designed to alleviate the swelling municipal welfare rolls, and to develop roads and other public infrastructure. Peter Heenan, Minister of Northern Development and MPP for the Kenora-Rainy River District, played an instrumental role in ensuring road construction projects were carried out in the area. As a result, by 1934 a gravel road stretching from Fort William through Dryden and Kenora and ending at the Manitoba border was completed.
Road work connecting Kenora and Fort Frances appears to have started in 1934 as well. Construction was the responsibility of the Department of Northern Development, Office of Engineer of Construction under the purview of Mr. K.A. Kelly, District Engineer. The construction of the road was carried out by the Department and by the contracting companies of Dufferin Paving Company and McNamara Paving Company. Building a road through the rugged Canadian Shield was no easy task. Work crews were confronted with swamps, trees, rocks, rivers, and lakes. No less onerous were the swarms of mosquitoes and deer flies. The techniques were basic, road crews with picks, axes and shovel were assisted by horses, trucks and graders. The crews were a mix of unemployed locals and men from urban centres. Wages appear to have ranged from thirty cents per hour to five dollars per month depending on the job position.
Despite the obstacles by late fall 1935 the Kenora-Fort Frances roadway was well advanced. The last substantial obstacle to overcome was the Sioux Narrows gap. As early as October 1934 plans had been developed to span it. Initially, a 200 ft. (61m) timber truss deck with eight truss panels allowing a clearance of 27 ft. (8.23m) from the high water level to the bottom of the bridge was proposed. Evidently this plan was deemed inappropriate and was replaced the following year by a plan for a larger structure. The final plan featured a 210 ft. (64m) creosote timber through Howe Truss span with fourteen panels sitting on two concrete piers approximately 28 ft. (8.4m) high with reinforced bar lists. The timbers used to span the narrows were a dense structural grade of Douglas fir brought in from British Columbia. Several of the timbers measured over seventy-one feet with the largest reaching one hundred and five feet. The rest of the lumber (mostly pine) was supplied by the forests of Ontario. The road width was 24 ft. (7.32m) with a designed load capacity of 20 tons. At high water the bridge had a clearance of 32 ft. (9.7m) allowing for logging and lake steamer traffic. The wood, metal rod and steel braced overhead frame super structure was designed to assist in carrying the weight of the structure. The plan indicated that the bridge, apart from the main truss timbers, was to be built in accordance with a standard truss bridge plan which appears to suggest that a common truss bridge design was adapted to meet this situation. As part of the modification process the deck system was cambered, thus “if in time the middle should sink it could be raised up again by simply putting more tension on a series of metal rods underneath the deck. Also, because wood shrinks, the whole system was totally adjustable and easily tightened up.”
Prior to arriving at the job site, the wood was marked, incised and treated with 8 lbs of No. 1A.R.X.A. creosote oil by the Canada Creosoting Company located at Sioux Lookout and Sudbury. Based on order reports from the company the bridge contained 223,688 f.b.m of timber costing approximately $26,000 for the creosoting process.
According to reports in the Kenora Miner and News bridge construction seems to have started in the winter of 1936. In a March 20th article the reporter stated: “Work is well under way at Sioux Narrows on the construction of the last bridge and only gap that remains in the newly constructed Fort Frances-Kenora highway…. The foundation work is now sixty per cent completed, the concrete on the north side being two thirds finished and the footing excavated on the south side ready for the concrete pier.” Fortunately it appears that most of the ground material covering the bed rock consisted of loam, broken rock and gravel approximately three to four feet deep. This overburden was removed and replaced with concrete to further enforce the piers. In less than three weeks both concrete piers had been poured and set. Timber supports were in place at the north foundation in preparation for bridge work.
The rapid completion of the piers coincided with the arrival of the pretreated timbers. On March 12, the shipment of wood from the Canada Creosoting Company’s plant in Sioux Lookout was delivered in Kenora via railway. During the course of the following week the material was transported over an ice road from Kenora to the construction depot camp on the north shore of Long Bay known locally as “Samson’s”. For a time, Rene and Marie Mantha and their daughter Cecile resided at the depot, but as the road developed the Manthas built another camp on the south side of Long Bay now known as Lebron’s Long Bay Camp which served as a road crew camp. The engineering headquarters was located at Quaquak Quay, or Peaceful Harbour. From the depot, the materials were apparently moved over the ice, to the highway work site. It seems likely that the wood for the Sioux Narrows bridge would have followed a similar route over the ice to a short feeder bush road linking to the new gravel highway to Sioux Narrows where it was unloaded. Bridge construction required a separate camp located on site; the proximity of Crawfords’ Sioux Narrows’ Camp undoubtedly greatly enhanced the quality of road camp living.
With the concrete piers completed and the timber supports for the bridge in place at the north end, work was well underway by the middle of April on erecting the massive “false work” required to put the main span in place. To that end, four large trestles were erected to facilitate the placement of the Douglas fir timbers measuring 70 to 105 feet. Trestles were placed near the north and south piers, and were anchored to the pier for added stability. The two remaining trestles were located closer to the middle of the narrows. Large cribs weighted with stones approximately forty-eight feet squared were sunk into place. They provided the anchor for the trestle structure which appears to have been about seventy feet high. Once in place the trestles were bolted and guy cables added to each trestles in order to strengthen the “false work”.
In a little under six weeks (April 14-May 22) with a work crew of sixty men the false work was completed, the Douglas fir timbers spanning the narrows were bolted in place, and part of the bridge decking was laid down. The speed and craftsmanship with which the bridge was constructed has earned praise from modern day observers. “Every one of the thousands of pieces had a little lead tag stating what it was and where it went, since every member was unique in both its length and the angle at which it was cut …the bridge was built in place like a giant jigsaw puzzle, …there is no evidence of field cuts, it obviously just went together and fit like a glove. So my impression is it was built by carpenters not engineers! And it’s a masterpiece of wood construction.” The brisk work pace continued once the main span was in place. By June 3, 1936 half of the overhead super structure was finished in time for an inspection tour by the Honorable Peter Heenan, Minister of Lands and Forests. Twelve days later on June 15 the Sioux Narrows bridge was completed.
By the end of June all the trestles and support structures necessary for the construction phase of the bridge were removed. With the final link in the Kenora-Fort Frances highway completed, a road opening ceremony was held on July 1, 1936 in front of the Rainy Lake Hotel. Premier Mitch Hepburn officially opened the road and named it the “Heenan Highway” in honour of Peter Heenan, Minister of Lands and Forest, and former Minister of Northern Development.
The successful completion of the Sioux Narrows bridge, the largest timber span bridge in Canada, connecting Long Point Island to the mainland was a critical link in the Heenan Highway. The bridge secured the only Canadian road to Fort Frances from Thunder Bay. Perhaps more importantly, the road and bridge opened the area to travellers and adventurers looking for a semi-permanent summer retreat or a business opportunity. By successfully spanning Sioux Narrows the fledgling community of Sioux Narrows and Lake of the Woods entered a new era.