Remembering the pride of Centre Street

Posted by on Apr 18, 2016 in Brian's Blog | 0 comments

(First published in the Calgary Herald on May 30, 1999)

If the lions could talk, what tales they would tell. For 83 years, the four noble beasts have guarded the ends of the Centre Street bridge, casting a stony eye on North Hill commuters as they wend their way through the traffic jungle below.

Now, city hall proposes to retire the old concrete sentries from active duty, and replace them with four leonine replicas made from what city engineer Don Wilson calls “more modern materials.” The move, says Wilson, is designed to save on the cost of repairing the crumbling statues every five years or so.

The lions have weathered many a storm since 1916, when they first entered the court of the dowager queen of Calgary bridges.

The bridge was the second span across the Bow River at this location. The first bridge, constructed in 1906, was a rickety, one-lane, steel and wood structure, built privately by land speculators selling lots in Crescent Heights. That little bridge took a pummelling during Calgary’s first real estate boom of the century, when heavy wagons hauled gravel down the hill to construct city sidewalks, and downtown office builders used the base of hill as a dumping place for the dirt from their excavations.

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© James Tworow Creative Commons

The owners eventually sold the bridge to the city for $1,300, after a four-year dispute with the city over who should pay for upkeep and repair. The city fathers planned initially to keep it as a secondary bridge, while the new Centre Street bridge — the present city landmark — would handle the bulk of the traffic back and forth to Crescent Heights, Mount Pleasant and Rosedale. However, the fate of the wobbly old bridge was sealed in 1915 when a chunk of the span was spirited away by flood waters.

Two city officials — engineer G.W. Craig and commissioner James H. Garden — were dumped into the swollen river when the span collapsed and floated away. They were rescued near the Langevin bridge by an alert fireman with a row boat. A third person, described as an out-of-town visitor, was not so lucky. He was sucked into the main stream and drowned.

That was all the prompting the city fathers needed to finally get rid of the old bridge. They sold it for scrap to the provincial highways department for $1,500 — and made a profit of $200.

The first plans for the present Centre Street bridge were rejected by city voters as too grandiose. One design would have seen a high-level span rising from downtown to the top of the North Hill. A more modest proposal, accepted by the voters in 1914, was the blueprint for the present bridge.

It was to be a garden-variety, no-frills structure. Deterred by the high price of statues, city aldermen were happy to build a concrete bridge without adornment. Then one of them remembered seeing a sculpture of a lion sitting on a North Hill porch.

The lion’s owner turned out to be its creator, James L. Thomson. He was a 58-year-old Scottish-born stone mason, working as a labourer for the City of Calgary. He agreed to carve four lions for the new bridge. The fact he was already in the city’s employ made the project even simpler and, in the end, even cheaper than the aldermen could have hoped.

Working in a shack set up on the north bank of the Bow River, Thomson modelled his clay maquette after the bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s column in London’s Trafalgar Square. He decorated their pedestals with roses, thistles, and shamrocks symbolizing Britain and Ireland, and maple leaves and buffalo heads symbolizing Canada.

The bridge was built for $375,000, considerably less than the $469,000 it would have cost to construct a high-level bridge. The Calgary Herald, with characteristic hyperbole, described it as “the finest structure of its kind in Western Canada.” “The great bridge, as graceful in outline as it is ponderous in strength, is destined to be one of the sights of Calgary, and already attracts the attention of visitors to the city,” said the Herald.

It opened in November, 1916 with a big citizens’ parade led by Mayor M.C. Costello — on foot. Automobile drivers who tried the hill discovered they could only make it up the 3.8% grade in reverse. The cars had no fuel pumps, and relied on gravity to feed gasoline to the engine from a tank behind the seat.

The lower deck of the Centre Street bridge was designed as a pedestrian walkway, but converted halfway through construction to a roadway, which explains why it’s such a tight squeeze for vehicles today.

The bridge stood for 48 years before word went around the city, in 1964, that Centre bridge might be falling down. Calgarians noted with alarm that timber supports had been installed to brace the deteriorating pillars. City engineers insisted the structure was still sound, but acknowledged that a major overhaul would be needed within 10 years.

The overhaul came in 1974. It cost the city $2 million — more than five times what it cost to build the bridge in the first instance. The rebuilding work closed the bridge for five months, much to the consternation of inconvenienced business and commuters.

One disgruntled gas station owner told reporters he would lie down in front of the excavating machinery, if the city carried through with plans to dig up the front of his property to relocate a sewer line. The city circumvented the problem by excavating over the weekend. The gas station owner applied for welfare.

The closure of the bridge saw the last of the electric trolley buses which had served the Mount Pleasant and Thorncliffe routes for 30 years. New alternating lane lights were installed to allow maximum traffic flow during rush hours.

The lions were removed from their sentinel perches during the 1974 renovation, and their kiosks given new footings. Their own turn for a makeover came in 1984, when the city spent $50,000 to freshen up the old lions. Their cracked heads and crumbling paws were repaired, and damaged ears and tails replaced.

Now, the lions are due to be moved to their final resting place — most likely a public area such as a park, city hall, or the zoo, says engineer Don Wilson. The new, more endurable kings of the jungle will look much like their predecessors when they ascend to their thrones in the year 2000, after a year-long upgrade due to start on the bridge this summer. But Calgarians should still have a chance to see the originals, says Wilson. If Europeans can have their ruined castles, we can have our ruined lions.”

As for sculptor Thomson, he left his artistic mark on one other well-known bridge before his death at age 66 in 1924. He was also responsible for the Indian heads on the Bow River bridge in Banff.

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Copyright 2016 Brian Brennan - Author

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