Covered Bridge Links the Past to the Future
Robert J. Galbraith Special to The Gazette
ELGIN – Huntingdon County received an early Christmas present this December. The 148-year-old Powerscourt Covered Bridge, (located 75km’s southeast of Montreal) has been restored to its original 1861 grandeur and opened to traffic, after being saved from demolition by the wrecker’s ball.
What was at stake was the oldest covered bridge in Canada and the only remaining example of this style of bridge in the world,.
But it could have all been lost, only to be replaced by a cement prefab, if not for the initial efforts of one man and his love of the wooden bridge, and his community’s heritage.
James Gavin is a quiet man of 62. A retired dairy farmer and member of the local volunteer fire department, he rarely raises his voice or harbours a negative thought about anyone or any situation. But that all changed on a March evening in 1983, when his bridge was threatened. That night, he became the mouse that roared.
At the time, Gavin was the mayor of the village of Elgin (population 500). He was attending a meeting of the Huntingdon County Council, when an official with Transport Québec announced that they would be demolishing the Powerscourt Bridge and replacing it with a cement structure.
“When I heard this I got up and slammed my fists on the table and told them in a rather loud voice, ‘there’s no way in hell you’re taking our bridge down; you don’t own it! Their attitude was, ‘who the hell cares, we can put up a cement bridge if we want?”
But what Transport Québec didn’t realize is that small town didn’t necessarily mean a pushover. The Elgin municipal council, as well as Roland Greenbank, the mayor of neighbouring Hinchinbrooke (population 1500) and a member of the Châteauguay Valley Historical Society, rallied their support around Gavin and, after two years of endless letter writing, research and lobbying to save the bridge by its supporters, the Federal then Provincial governments, declared it an historic site because of its national historic and architectural significance. These classifications put a stop to the demolition, ensuring that the bridge would be stabilized and restored.
Now, twenty-six-years later, the bridge is finally restored, except for a few finishing touches to be completed this spring. It was a long process but the restoration had to be put off until this June due to a lack of available funds for the million-dollar project, which was financed by the province.
“I might have been the one to pound my fist on the table but as important as our desire was to preserve this important heritage site, it wouldn’t have been possible without the hard and dedicated work of many supporters, especially the secretaries of Elgin and Hinchinbrooke who went well beyond the call of duty by pushing this forward.” explained the former mayor.
Covered bridges have always captured our imagination and take us back to a gentler, slower time, when life ebbed and flowed to the cycle of sunrise and sunset.
Also known as kissing and wishing bridges, they strike up a romantic chord in many of us. They received the name kissing bridges because they were a place where stolen kisses took place inside the concealment of their boarded sides. This was a time when dating rules were a lot more rigid, compared to our present dating free-for-all of digital and cyber-date relationships and matching. Many believed that if you made a wish while travelling through a covered bridge; the wish would come true.
Covered bridges were also a meeting hub in the local rural area and besides carrying traffic, they served as a gathering place for the community where special events like dances, and public meetings were held and announcements of interest posted. They also gave refuge to those caught by sudden storms.
It is easy to realize the local attachment to these structures and the special place the Powerscourt Covered Bridge (also known locally as the Percy Bridge) occupies in the hearts of those who live near it. A recent example of this is a funeral service that was held on the bridge in 2005 for a local resident who adored the bridge. Over 150 mourners attended.
Covered bridges were built to protect the main bridge structure from wet weather, which would rot the exposed wood. By covering the structure, they would last decades longer than an uncovered bridge.
In other parts of Quebec, covered bridges were built in the 19th and 20th century as part of an effort by the now defunct Provincial Department of Colonization, to open up the interior of Quebec to settlement, where wood was an easily accessible building material. That settlement initiative ended in the 1960’s.
The Powerscourt Bridge was originally built by local blacksmith, Robert Graham for $1,675. “Nowadays you wouldn’t be able to buy the paint needed to cover it for $1600,” explained resident and carpenter/timber framer, Danny Deschambault, the sub-contractor and owner of Heirloom Timber Frames who, along with his team of 7 framers worked on the restoration project, (under contract from Projexco, the general contractor from Ste-Luce, near Rimouski).
The Powerscourt Bridge is the only McCallum Inflexible Arched Truss bridge (patented in 1850 by American, Daniel Craig McCallum) remaining and the only one known to have been erected exclusively on a roadway in North America. Of the 150 McCallum Inflexibles built in North America, all but this one were built as railway bridges because they were designed to be strong enough to handle the heavy loads of the early locomotives and their cargo.
Why this style of bridge was erected on a roadway is still somewhat of a mystery bathed in the local folklore of Huntingdon County. A lighter, cheaper and easier to construct bridge could have been built in its place, but according to project engineer and restoration specialist, Michael Grayson, his account of the story seems about as close to reality as any other offered up. “I was told by a local that one of the councillors at the time had a cousin who worked for the railway and he had the plans. So it was a sort of family connection. They wanted something that would last forever,” explained the engineer.
“Until recently there was an active quarry and a lot of traffic crossing it. In the early days of the bridge there was a grist-mill, a saw mill and the regular farm traffic. So there were a lot of heavy loads on it.”
James Gavin explained that early settlers started homesteading the region in the 1820’s and 30’s. “My ancestors were one of the founding families who arrived here from Scotland in 1823. These pioneers built things to last. I believe their thinking was that this type of solid structure would help the bridge last longer, so they built it heavy. If you look at their stone homes and log houses, they were built to last. The stone homes that still dot this landscape have walls 3-4 feet thick.”
As a child, Gavin didn’t really take note of the bridge. “But it seems that as you get older, you come to realize the hard work done by those who are gone.”
The bridge is much wider than most covered bridges and measures over 6 metres across. This allowed for horse-drawn wagons to pass through in both directions at the same time and attests to how busy the route once was.
There is also a little-known fact that Huntingdon County still has a bylaw that you can’t gallop your horse across the bridge. “The constant pounding of the horses’ feet and the buggy wheels would damage the edge of the bridge if they went too fast and the vibration could unsettle it. Also, this was a two lane bridge and I imagine there would have been a risk of a collision if the galloping bylaw was not adhered to,” explained Gavin.
The bridge consists of two McCallum Inflexible Arch Truss spans (one 24 metres long and the other 26 metres), which rest on a centre and two end piers. Shelter panels at both ends keep driving rain from entering the main portals onto the deck and bridge. With the exception of the piers (the originals were wooden cribs filled with rock that washed out in the annual spring flooding), the cedar shingle roof covering, and the floor beams of one of the two bridge spans, the present bridge differs little from the original structure.
Compared to other covered bridges, the curved roof line distinguishes the Powerscourt Bridge from all others, as well as several other features, including vertical side boarding, whereas other bridges tend to have horizontal siding.
There were at least nine other McCallum Inflexibles built in Quebec, but by the 1870’s, the introduction of pre-fabricated iron truss bridges sent the plans for any more timber truss railway bridges the way of the dinosaurs.
Covered bridge construction in Canada was mainly confined to Quebec and New Brunswick. There were seven built in Ontario (only one remains) and upwards of ten in Nova Scotia (the last one was torn down in the 1960’s). Several hundred were built in New Brunswick and over a thousand in Quebec, of which sixty-four have survived in New Brunswick, and 88 still stand in Quebec.
As for the restoration of the bridge, Gavin confides that, “I am truly pleased to see our ancestors’ history saved. We live at such a high speed nowadays and to see this level of craftsmanship and dedication put into the rebuilding is just incredible. It’s been absolutely fabulous seeing them restore the bridge. It’s absolutely beautiful.”