The partially completed permanent bridge; and the temporary bridge across the Kitimat River to the townsite, in 1955. (Sylvia Anderson Collection - Kitimat Museum and Archives)

The partially completed permanent bridge; and the temporary bridge across the Kitimat River to the townsite, in 1955. (Sylvia Anderson Collection - Kitimat Museum and Archives)

It’s Our Heritage: Walter Thorne

Spanning the River for 67 Years

-Story by Walter Thorne

For sixty-seven years Kitimat’s Haisla Bridge has spanned the banks of the Kitimat River. It has been a reliable piece of municipal infrastructure, mostly taken for granted. The bridge emerged in 1954 as a connector between the old town at Smeltersite and the frontier Alcan Company town emerging near Riverlodge, City Centre, and Nechako. This bridge was not the first to span the river. A cable ferry was the first to cross the Kitimat. It was situated at the sandhill.

In those days the sandhill was enormous and came right down to the river. Some think the crossing was for one vehicle only. Ron Burnett recalls it was located where the new LNG Canada pump house is now emerging. This ferry was operating in 1952 and ‘53. Later on Alcan, (this was still when Kitimat was a company town), pushed a road past the sandhill into the present-day service centre, and Radley Park, to the current site of the Haisla Bridge. From the crossing, one could look across and view an already in existence, log Rod and Gun Club.

At first, a temporary wooden bridge was being used simultaneously while the new bridge alongside was taking shape. The temporary bridge had mid-river rock cribbed caisson supports, but as expected the bridge was blown out by high water a couple of times. In these cases, the wooden bridge decking would break off and trail off downstream, but still remain attached to the shoreline bridge abutments. Crews were ready with quick repairs when the waters subsided.

By January of 1954, the newly installed Kitimat council was sworn in. Amongst their challenges was paying for a completed bridge. The new Cadillac all-steel Kitimat River Bridge was a reality. It was expensive and had been nearly a year in the making. It was a big commitment for the Aluminum city of Kitimat. It was nearly 25 per cent of the budget for the new town. Reeve Wilbur Sparks and his council raised more than a million-dollar loan.

The original debenture was for $1,012,000.00, a massive amount in 1954.

Kitimat’s new river bridge was constructed on a bridge decking attached to three cement and steel caissons which had been drilled right down into the bedrock below the gravel. The crossing was nearly one hundred metres plus two 15 metre ramps attached to the specially fortified dyke abutments.

According to pioneers, Hugh Storrey and Bud Powell, who were just kids at the time, curious tourists from Smeltersite would get the odd opportunity to cross the new bridge and see all the changes in the emerging neighbourhoods of Kildala and Nechako.

One amusing feature when crossing over the pristine bridge was looking north up the river to Brassiere Island, named by locals for the symmetrical double pools made by the dragline buckets that had scooped up the river gravel to place in the cemented caissons and special rip-rap dyke bridge ramp approaches to the bridge.

From day one, folks remembered the strange effect of the steel mesh bridge decking on tires. It sometimes felt like you were driving on ice.

In the beginning, Bud Powell recalls that there was no requirement for driver’s licenses. Kitimat was still just an Alcan company town that had not yet been connected to the provincial road network. Everything depended on the goodwill of the Alcan Security Police. They were the law then. Even fourteen-year-olds like Bud could drive without any paperwork.

One great mystery about our bridge is, was there ever an official opening? We do know that it was being built in 1953 and they were driving on it at some point in 1954. Nowhere could we find any evidence of an official opening. We did check the Kitimat Museum and Archives and yes, they had many fine photos of bridgework and development, but none of an official opening.

Likewise, all the local pioneers consulted and archive Sentinel and Ingot newspapers came up empty. Perhaps there never was an official opening, something politicians assure us will not happen with the soon-to-be-started replacement bridge.

In 1977 the bridge was officially named the Kitimat Haisla Bridge. This was to clear up the confusion with the other Kitimat River bridge about 27 km up the road towards Terrace (17-mile bridge). By then the bridge was 23 years old and completely paid off. In fact, it had only taken ten years to do it.

In 1964, a very theatrical Mayor Sam Lindsay lit the paid-off debenture ablaze with the cigar he had been smoking. Fortunately, the Kitimat Museum and Archives has an excellent photo in their collection of the big event.

In the beginning, the bridge was rose-coloured according to Bud Powell. But by 1960 it was repainted a silver colour as recalls Adrian Tryssenaar, who was in a summer work crew which worked for Mr. Goddard, his Industrial Arts teacher who in the summer would take on the odd contract.

Painting the structure was a necessity as were weld repairs to the bridge decking. These two problems made for constant bridge maintenance. Furthermore, the paint was lead paint which in 2021 is not environmentally acceptable over an important watercourse.

Further limitations of our old Haisla Bridge are its capacities. Yes, it is two lanes wide with an extra sidewalk allowance. But at nearly seven and a half metres wide it has been rather limiting especially in recent months with many wide load industrial deliveries. Of course, the weight and height restrictions on the Haisla Bridge are further restricting.

In contrast, our new bridge will not have lead paint and it will be over three metres wider and will easily allow for two or someday, even three lanes. Its weight capacities will be over fifty percent greater. The new be:idge will be higher and thus further above the expected 200-year high water events.

The bridge deck will be cambered with a rise over a metre and a half to the middle of the bridge.

Both our historical Haisla Bridge and its replacement, transport more than people and vehicles. Attached to the structure will be sub-floor conduits for sewage and drinking water. Also, wiring for several services including phone and cable will be likely.

Our current Haisla Bridge, despite its limitations, has endured over 76 years. It has been a shining example of reliability. Yes, it has cruised through all the high water events with little damage. It was good that the bridge design was meant to exceed the 200-year projections. During all those years, floodwaters never came close to our bridge decking.

Hopefully, our new crossing of the Kitimat River will be as reliable as our old Haisla Bridge. Our Haisla Bridge is one of the few 1954 structures which have stood the test of time. Yes, there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

READ MORE: The marvellous and treacherous parts of the Douglas Channel and its adjacent waterways