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Great Victoria Bridge: A Span Fit for a Queen

 Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River
Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River

The bridge was the Great Victoria Bridge, later in 1897 renamed the Victoria Jubilee Bridge, built across the St. Lawrence River by Alex Ross, James Hodges and Robert Stephenson in 1854-1859. It would carry the Grand Trunk Railroad originally formed to connect Montreal, Quebec and Toronto, Ontario but which was extended to Portland, Maine on the Atlantic and later from Montreal to Samia, Ontario where it connected with an existing railroad. A railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence River, which was over two miles wide, was proposed as early as 1846, but the magnitude of the project and its huge cost delayed progess until the early 1850s when the government funded the project. Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson, known as the “Father of Railways,” came from England to North America to design the bridge. He had built two tubular bridges at the Menai Straits and Conway (Wales) in the late 1840s. At Menai, he originally planned a two track railroad suspension bridge to span the Menai Strait and, when considering the stiffening structure which would be hung from the chains, determined that if he, with the advice of William Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson, made a tube of riveted wrought iron plates it would be sufficient to carry the load without the need for chains. His Britannia Bridge, which he built over the Menia Strait, was constructed with four spans with lengths of 230, 460, 460 and 230 ft. The side spans were erected on falsework and the long middle spans were fabricated off site, floated to the bridge site and jacked up into place. The spans, when completed, were continuous from abutment to abutment.

Britannia Bridge, Menai, Wales
Britannia Bridge, Menai, Wales

The Conway (now Conwy) Tubular Bridge, built over the River Conwy, was a 400 ft. single span bridge that opened in 1849 carrying two tracks, one through each tube. The architecture of the abutments blends with that of the adjacent Conwy Castle. With these two successes, Stephenson was chosen to design the Montreal spans and came to Canada and the United States in 1855 to survey the site and visit the Suspension Bridge built by John A. Roebling that had opened in the same year. One story that has been repeated over and over again is that Stephenson, in a conversation with Roebling stated, “If your bridge succeeds, mine have been colossal blunders.” It is not clear the source of this statement but whether it happened or not, it was true. His single track bridge was built with 25, 250 ft. spans resting on masonry piers with prominent ice breakers on the upstream faces. All of the spans were erected on falseworks. When completed it was the longest bridge in the world at the time. The Prince of Wales, Victoria’s son, officially opened the bridge on August 25, 1860. It was named after Queen Victoria then in her 22nd year as Queen of England.

In 1898 the tubes were replaced by trusses that were built on the same piers. The bridge was renamed the Victoria Bridge.

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