First Train over the Bonnechere Bridge at Renfrew

Train 119 of the Ottawa Valley Railway passing over the Bonnechere River at Renfrew on Tuesday 27th April 2004.  This is a through Canadian Pacific train from Montreal to Vancouver using C.P.R. power with Ottawa Valley crews.  C.P.R. 9156 is leading with Nos. 9127 and 9006 following.  Both 9127 and 9006 had shut down, giving 9156 quite a job to haul 91 cars and two dead locomotives up the hill from Castleford.  The crew hoped they could start 9127 after filling it with water at Chalk River, the divisional point, where another unit had also been set out to assist – but Chalk River was still a long way off.  Thanks to Bruce Chapman – Colin Churcher photo.


The first sod for the Canada Central Railway extension from Renfrew to Pembroke  was turned at a ceremony at Pembroke on 31st August 1875.  It was quite an occasion as the mayor declared a public holiday and over a thousand people attended the festivities. The contracts had already been let and men were ready to start work on this broad gauge (5 foot 6 inches) line.  Renfrew was the railhead where both men and materials were brought in to carry out the task and soon gangs of men were out along the line clearing the brush and grading.  By the end of September a great deal had been accomplished and some ties were distributed.

However, before the line could be completed through Renfrew itself, the railway had to negotiate with landowners.  There was one hold out, Mr. Inglis wanted an exorbitant price for moving his store out of the way of the railway.  This had to go to arbitration, which the railway eventually won, but it was not until 5th November that the case was decided.  Rail laying commenced in Renfrew on 8th November.  The Inglis store was moved by 12th November.  It took two days, the rail crews at first only moving the store enough to get the rails through, blocking the highway in the process.  Rail laying to Pembroke could now get under way in earnest.

One of the biggest works in this section was the crossing of the Bonnechere River just outside Renfrew on Mr. Murphy’s farm.  Rails could be laid on the section south of the bridge from the railhead at the Renfrew station but it was much more difficult to supply rails (by horse drawn wagons) to the longer section the other side of the Bonnechere River.  Work on the piers of the bridge started on 1st October 1875 and the abutments were completed by 27th of that month while the masonry work was finished on 17th November.  Work could now start on constructing the truss.  By 7th December rails had been laid up to the Bonnechere Bridge and for some two miles beyond.

First Locomotive over the Bridge

The testing of the bridge is best described by the Renfrew Mercury on 10th December 1875.

“Some three weeks ago -- we mentioned that the masonry work of the bridge over the Bonnechere River was nearly completed, and that the trestle work would be shortly raised.  Mr. McFarlane, the contractor, has since pushed through the work with such energy that on Tuesday (7th) afternoon of this week - a day in advance of the time indicated by common reports as that when the bridge would be ready for the rails - we received a word from Mr. Harris, the chief engineer, that an engine would cross the bridge in something less than an hour's time; a fact which he correctly thought the local reporter would wish to be on hand to make a note of.  Accordingly we started off to the bridge and found a small group of interested spectators watching the surveyors taking some final observations, and a numerous construction party busy in spiking down the rails.  This was accomplished about five o'clock; and as soon as the track was ready, the locomotive "No. 2" with Mr. D. Kelly as driver, started on the first trial trip across the Bonnechere River.  The train consisted of engine, tender and a platform car; and the party on board the tender comprised Mr. Harris and the members of the engineering staff; Mr. H. McFarlane, the contractor; Mr. John Smith, one of the directors of the Company, Mr. Smallfield, of the Renfrew Mercury (the press being honored with the first invitation by Mr. McFarlane); Mr. Allen. P.L.S; and Mr. J.R. Smith of the Upper Ottawa Mill Works.

“The engine was driven slowly on to the bridge a short distance, and then brought to a  standstill for a brief period; it was then moved on to the centre span, allowed another rest; then taken right across and brought back half-way again - men being stationed upon the lower chords of the truss to observe and measure the deflections.  There was no spring or shaking motion to indicate that the locomotive was moving on a bridge, instead of on the solid earth.

“After this preliminary and satisfactory test, the train proceeded north, Pembroke-wards as far as Mr. John Jamieson's farm, which is about half the distance to which the rails are already laid beyond Renfrew.  Here a stoppage was made while a load of wood on the platform car was rapidly being thrown off; and then the locomotive started south again at a fair rate of speed, crossing the Bonnechere bridge slowly, and the long trestle bridge at a much quicker pace.  Crossing Main Street, the locomotive then stopped, and the party got off, giving three hearty cheers for Mr. Harris and Mr. McFarlane before separating.

The bridge consists of three piers of first class masonry, supporting a stone (sic) truss of two spans and a total length of 185 feet.  The approaches are trestle upon stone piers, and the total length of bridge and approaches is 304 feet.  The height from low water mark to the base of the rails is 32 feet.

“All of the work has been done according to the directions of the Chief Engineer, the draughtsman being A. Morganstein; Engineer in Charge, G.F. Belknap: Contractors Henry McFarlane and Phillip McRae; Foreman William Ross.”

Subsequent Events

Local service on the contractor’s train started almost immediately although regular passenger services between Pembroke and Renfrew did not start until 3rd October 1876.  The gauge of this section of line was changed from the provincial broad gauge (5 feet 6 inches) to standard gauge (4 feet 8 inches) on 24th April 1880.  Canadian Pacific acquired the Canada Central Railway on 9th June 1881 and the line ultimately became known as the Chalk River subdivision.  On 30th October 1999 the Ottawa Valley RailLink, subsequently Ottawa Valley Railway, took over the operation of the line.

The Bridge

The original bridge had three piers, one of which was in the centre of the stream.  The approaches were formed by five trestle bents at either end, the sills of which were placed on stone walls.   The adjacent trestle at Smith’s Creek was 23 feet 2 inches wide at the top so as to give room eventually for a double track of 4 feet 8 inches and, in the same way, the Bonnechere River bridge was 27 feet wide.  Being of wooden construction, this bridge had a relatively short life and had become unsafe by November 1878 when the centre pier had sunk that the bridge could not be used by locomotives.  A platform was been laid across by which passengers were enabled to walk over.  The freight trains and empty passenger cars were backed up a short distance on coming to the bridge and were shunted across without a locomotive.  A new wooden bridge was completed by late March 1879. 

The second wooden bridge lasted a relatively short period and an iron structure, with stone foundations was substituted over the winter of 1886 and into the summer of1887.  Once again, passengers had to go over the bridge on foot while some of this work was in progress.  The masonry centre pier was completed during 1888.

Further rebuilding work took place in 1891 and this likely lasted until a four span steel girder bridge (2 of 45 feet and 2 of 91 feet on masonry abutments) was installed in 1905.  It was authorized by Board of Railway Commissioners order No. 471 of 23rd May 1905.  The bridge was subsequently renewed to its present form of a 270 foot long double plate girder type.


The Citizen, Ottawa – 8/31/1875, 9/27/1875, 11/25/1875, 11/30/1875, 4/27/1880.
The Free Press, Ottawa – 11/10/1875, 10/3/1876, 4/26/1880.
The Journal, Ottawa – 4/9/1887.
The Times, Ottawa – 9/1/1875, 11/5/1875.
Pembroke Observer – 10/4/1876.
Renfrew Mercury – 9/10/1875, 10/1/1875, 10/22/1875, 10/29/1875, 11/5/1875, 11/12/1875, 11/19/1875, 12/10/1875, 10/6/1876, 11/22/1878, 4/4/1879, 11/26/1886, 4/29/1887, 5/20/1887, 9/9/1887, 10/19/1888, 7/3/1891, 10/9/1891.
Canadian Pacific Railway – Smiths Falls Division Yearbook 1967, courtesy Bruce Chapman.
Pacific Extension  Ottawa – Lake Nipissing, The building of the Canada Central Railway by Wayne Tasse 1994.  ISBN 0-9697114-1-7

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