After a nine decade slumber, one of the mysteries of Cornwall recently emerged from its watery tomb. The old swing bridge wheel (near the bicycle path at Domtar), for but a few hours in April, breathed the first fresh air and saw the first direct sunlight since it violently migrated to the spot in the early summer of 1908.
Like an aquatic beast emerging from its murky lair, the massive ring of metal slowly rose as the water of the St. Lawrence descended. As it broke through the waterline and cleared a few inches of the liquid, it remained seemingly buoyant, reluctantly presenting itself to the terrestrial world.
Despite my personifying narrative, it was the nearby Robert Saunders Dam that had temporarily resurrected the historic artifact from its natural habitat. Ontario Hydro had been holding back water so that communities downstream would not be further stressed by rising floodwaters. The local effect was to create the lowest water levels in recent memory.
Coincidentally, it was exactly ninety years ago this year that the metallic beast was deposited in the river. It was on the morning of June 23, 1908, in a nearly-unprecedented accident, that both the canal wall and the swing bridge pillar fell into the river. The canal was breached and the railway link destroyed. As the swing bridge toppled over, it dropped the great wheel (which rotated the bridge) into the river bed, where it has remained ever since.
Eileen Merkley, in her book The Friendly Town that Grew aptly described the sunken wheel as she knew it while swimming in the area in the 1930s: "From the bank, it was just a big wheel," she wrote. "If you went over it, face down in the water, with your eyes wide open, it suddenly became a grotesque octapusian monster lying with tentacles spread to catch you as you hurtled past!" At the time of Merkley’s encounter, the wheel was under as much as six feet of water.
The wheel’s recent appearance on the upper side of the waterline has presented us with more details of its demise. A large chain fastened around one side must have been affixed after the accident, since it could not have been there during the operation of the bridge. Thus, an attempt must have been made to extract it from the depths. Luckily, the attempt was unsuccessful; the curious relic remains in its proper place as an important element of the historic riverscape.
Hours after the wheel made its resurfaced, it slowly descended beneath the lapping waves of the mighty St. Lawrence. Enveloped by the cold water, it began yet another ninety-year hibernation.
Caption: THE BEAST EMERGES - Last April’s low water levels presented local historians with a unique treat: an unobstructed view of a piece of city history. For ninety years the old swing bridge wheel has piqued the curiosity of many a passer-by. (Photo/Manson)