The Canadian Northern Railway Rideau River Bridge, Ottawa [1]

Travelling by train from Ottawa to Toronto, passengers are treated to a good view of the Rideau River as they pass over a high bridge just before diverging towards Smiths Falls at Federal.  Many have enjoyed the view but few are aware of the controversy that surrounded the bridge and which nearly resulted in its removal.

The Canadian Northern Ontario Railway, which became part of the Canadian Northern in May1914, was the last main line railway to enter Ottawa.  The routes were opened as follows:

- Montreal to Ottawa via Hawkesbury on 5 December 1909.
- Ottawa to Toronto via Smiths Falls and Napanee on 10 August 1914.

- Ottawa (Rideau Junction, now known as Federal) to Pembroke, North Bay and Capreol on 23 November 1915.

Construction of the line westwards out of Ottawa started in 1911.  This is the route used today by VIA trains from Ottawa to Smiths Falls.  The exit from Ottawa required some quite heavy earthworks and bridges over Bank Street and Prince of Wales Drive as well as the Rideau River Bridge at Hogs Back.  Work on the 400 foot long Rideau River Bridge started on 16 November 1911 (Ottawa Journal same day). 

A reporter from the Ottawa Journal visited the work and wrote on 6 July 1912:

Spanning the Rideau River, about four miles and a half from the city, the Canadian Northern Railway has a few span bridges under excellent headway.

“The cement piers, four in number, are already finished, also the abutments on the eastern side.

“All that remains to be done at present, to allow the wooden trestle work to be started is topping off the western abutment with about four feet of cement, which will be  finished in the course of the coming week. “Each pier is fifty feet in height from the bottom of the foundation, about ten feet below the surface at low water.

“No difficulties or delays were experienced throughout the operation save with pier No. 4 on the western side, and here it was due to the erroneous soundings of those who went before.  Marked in the plan as rock foundation, the base of pier No. 4 was to measure 16 feet by 36 feet, but when actual work was begun, quicksand formation was discovered necessitating the enlargement of the base to 20 feet by 40 feet.

“A drill was sunk in the middle of the proposed base in the primary stages of erection and on being drawn out water followed it as in an artesian well.  One hundred and twenty-eight piles were driven for support and the work since has been speedily carried on.  Between 12,000 and 15,000 bags of cement have been used in the cement work of abutments and piers.

“There will be five spans in the new bridge.  From either abutment to the nearest pier the span will be 76 feet 6 inches, and three central spans of 100 feet 4 inches. 

“The graded embankment on the east side running through the Dowler Farm is being rushed so that the laying of tracks will be possible with the completion of the bridges, which will be by the first of September.

“Double tracking will be placed on the new bridge and the road from Ottawa to Toronto which will be open to traffic before the end of the present year.

“Construction of the cement work was under the able superintendency of Mr. Charles Johnston.”

The bridge piers were constructed for a double track, indeed provision was made for double track for the entire line to Ottawa Central Station but a single line was only ever laid down.

The Ottawa Journal of 3 October 1912 reported

The new big steel bridge over the Rideau is now practically completed which, with the bridge over the Jock River already completed, leaves the section from Ottawa to  Smiths Falls ready for the putting down of the rails.

An aerial photo taken on 10 November 1930 showing the bridge, top right, with the line to Ottawa to the right.  It can be seen that the piers for the bridge are in the water while the abutments are set well back from the river,  The bridge over the Metcalfe Road, now Prince of Wales Drive can be seen together with Rideau Junction (Federal) where the lines diverge to Smiths Falls, lower and Pembroke, Capreol, upper.  In the V of the junction can be seen the line that originally went to the short lived roundhouse.  Also to be seen is the formation of a siding that was built down to the Prescott Road to bring in highway construction materials.  

Although work on the bridge proceeded smoothly there were some bureaucratic complications.  The plans for the bridge were approved by Order in Council (1911-805) on April 20 1911 and then by the Board of Railway Commissioners (order 13668) on 15 May 1911.

The order in council “approved the plan submitted by the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway showing a bridge proposed to be erected over the Rideau River above Hogs Back Lock Station on the Rideau Canal, at mile 4.37 west from Ottawa, such bridge being 452' in length, composed of three one hundred foot and two seventy five foot deck girders, the bottom of the deepest girders being 31 feet above high water mark.  The crown owns no land on either bank of the Canal at this point.”

It also “grants, by way of a lease, of the right or easement of constructing and maintaining the proposed structure; such lease to be at a rental of $1.00 per annum for a term of 21 years renewable at the option of the Company for two further terms of 21 years each.”

Trouble began when the department of Highways and Canals forwarded a draft lease to the railway on 20 April 1911.  G.C. Ruel, General Counsel replied on 13 June indicating that the CNOR took exception to lease.   He pointed out that the Department did not own any land at the point of crossing and that the railway did not touch any of the lands owned by the Department.  The river may be called a canalized river but there was nothing in the act compelling them to take out a lease for the privilege of crossing a canalized river. In reply, the Department of Justice pointed out that approval of the Governor-in-Council may be on terms as the Governor-in-Council may determine.  The department followed up in early January 1912 insisting upon the lease being executed as drawn up.

The railway ignored this until, in January 1913, the Department of Justice instructed their agent to take such proceedings as might be necessary to compel the company to remove its bridge or to come under the lease.  However, it was acknowledged that the necessity for the lease was important only as a record.

There was a delay of almost a year until on 5 January 1914 Ruel replied that while not agreeing with the attitude taken, it was not worth discussing further.  They asked that the lease be modified for them to make payments for 10 years instead of making annual payments of $1.

It was now the turn of the Department of Railways and Canals to drag its feet.  It replied to Ruel on 22 December 1914 that the department was willing to accept an annual payment of $1.00 in advance for 10 years.  Ruel finally returned the lease duly executed on 6 January 1915.

The lease was renewed by Order in Council PC 1932-932 of 26 April 1932 for a further period of 21 years at $1 per year and finally by PC 1953-1053 of 2 July 1953.  A final Order in Council (PC 1975-2741) of 25 November 1975 approved an agreement whereby the railway was given permission to maintain the bridge over the Rideau River.

Thus the storm in a teacup was finally settled and the bridge is now safe from bureaucratic interference.  Passengers traveling to Toronto by VIA can now rest at ease in their seats knowing that the federal government is not going to turn their journey into a nightmare by removing the bridge.

Picture by Raymond Farand

[1] Much of the detail for this article has been taken from Library and Archives Canada RG 12 vol. 3710 file 4606-85-71.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, July-August, 2008.

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