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Cornwall's Bridge History

Appeared in Le Journal February 12th 2014.

Left: The 1962 bridge.
Right: Bridge disaster from 1908.

On Friday January 24, 2014, at 7am, citizens of Cornwall and Cornwall Island were able to start driving across the new low-level bridge. Leaving an amazing history of border crossing behind it, the new bridge opening marked the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.

The idea of crossing the border is not new. People have obviously been crossing the St. Lawrence River for hundreds of years. Cornwall’s “border crossing” history began in 1799, starting with a small service conducted by David McCuen. McCuen used one bateau and two canoes to get people to and from St. Regis and Cornwall. This was only the beginning.

A hundred years later, Cornwall began constructing its first bridge, which resulted in tragedy. On September 6, 1898, with the bridge near completion, pier #2 disappeared into the rushing St. Lawrence River, bringing two of the bridge spans down with it. Fifteen workers lost their lives in this tragedy. Six of these men are buried in St. Columban’s Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery. What I found most touching, was the fellowship shown amongst the surviving workers. These men, living in a time when money was scarce, pitched in for the burials of their co-workers. Many of the deceased hailed from far away and would not have had families with funds to pay for their funerals or a tombstone. This was truly an act of great comradery.

Ten years later, Cornwall was struck by a similar catastrophe. On June 23, 1908 the south bank of the canal broke, about 500 feet west of Lock 18. Lock Master at the time, Alexander Eamer, opened all the gates and valves at Lock 18 to relieve water pressure. He phoned Lock 19 to instruct them to close everything up, but it was too late. The bridges "swing span pier" tipped over, bringing yet another Cornwall bridge down to the ground. There were no deaths, but two were injured in the destruction.

Twenty-six years after its second bridge catastrophe, Cornwall welcomed the opening of The Roosevelt Swing Bridge on June 30, 1934. The opening ceremony took place on the south side of Cornwall Island, south of the Canadian Customs House. The opening of this bridge was a major event, with many prominent figures invited to attend the ceremony. In early June 1934, Sir Robert Borden, a Canadian lawyer, politician, and the eighth Prime Minister of Canada, sent a formal reply to an invitation he received from Mayor Aaron Horovitz. Sir Robert Borden had to decline the invitation due to prior arrangements.

The Roosevelt Swing Bridge is one of the bridges most spoken about, because the center of the bridge would pivot to allow ships to pass through the Cornwall Canal. Not long after the bridge officially opened, it was planked over and opened to automobile traffic.

Twenty-eight years later, the Cornwall canal received another face-lift: a new bridge. This is the bridge Cornwall would see lining the sky for the next fifty-two years. This is the proud and tall structure I have seen outside of my bedroom window my entire life. Although some considered it to be an eyesore, I believe Cornwall is losing one of its major trademarks.

The South Channel Bridge opened on December 1, 1958. Mayor Thomas Bushnell of Massena, and Mayor Archie Lavigne of Cornwall, cut the ceremonial ribbon for the official opening. The structure, a high level suspension bridge measured 1061 metres long and 8.2 meters wide.

The North Channel Bridge, linking together Cornwall and Cornwall Island, opened to traffic on July 3, 1962. This bridge, also a high level structure measured 1625 meters long, 8.2 meters wide and was 36.6 metres above the canal below it. The first person to drive across the newly built bridge was Raymonde Champagne. Recreating the moment she lived over fifty years prior, Champagne was the first person to drive across Cornwall’s new low-level bridge when it opened in January.

For many Cornwall citizens such as myself, the Seaway International Bridge holds a special place in our hearts. My grandfather, Archie Latour, moved from Mattawa, Ontario to help construct this glorious structure. Being far from home, he decided to stay in a boarding house on Sydney Street. This boarding house belonged to my grandmother, Rolande Séguin. Without the construction of our bridge, my grandparents might not have met. The Seaway International Bridge is part of my family history, as it is for many people.

Whether you considered it to be an eyesore, a Cornwall trademark, or paid it no attention at all, I believe everyone will agree; Cornwall’s skyline will never look the same after the bridge demolition is completed in 2016.