A look at the history of the CPR Bridge

This year marks an important milestone in the preservation of historic landmarks in our community.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, Red Deer City council passed a bylaw designating the old Canadian Pacific Railway bridge across the Red Deer River as a municipal historic resource.

The history of this important structure stretches back more than 100 years.

When the Calgary-Edmonton Railway was constructed in 1890-1891, a timber bridge was constructed across the Red Deer River.

However, by the early 1900s, with the rapidly growing traffic along Alberta’s main north-south transportation corridor, it was obvious that a much more substantial bridge was needed.

Work on a new bridge began in the late fall of 1906.

The bases for concrete pillars were installed. Unfortunately, the winter of 1906-07 was one of the worst on record. Hence the bridge piers were not completed.

More progress was made in the summer of 1907. However, with the onset of a brief, but sharp recession in late 1907, there was another pause in construction.

Finally, in April 1908, the CPR announced that concrete piers would be completed and a substantial steel superstructure would be erected. The estimated cost of construction was $57,000. To put that sum into context, a very good wage in those days was $1.50 to $2 per day. The project was finally completed in March 1909.

There was one recorded death of a laborer employed on the bridge project. James J. Shea died in July 1908 of complications after swimming in the Red Deer River.

The bridge quickly had more uses than just a rail link. While the CPR actively discouraged people walking over the bridge, many found it to be a quick and convenient way to cross the river between the City of Red Deer and the Village of North Red Deer.

In the late 1980s, when plans were being carried out to move the CPR main line to the west side of the City, a decision was made to remove the rail bridge.

However, a dynamic Riverside Meadows resident, Shirley Hocken, kept asking why the bridge needed to be removed. She pointed out how heavily the bridge was used by pedestrians, even when it was not really safe to do so. She also pointed out that it would cost roughly the same to remove the bridge as it would to save it.

Consequently, she spearheaded the Save The Bridge committee to lobby for preservation and to raise the funds necessary to convert the structure into pedestrian and bicycle pathway, linking the Waskasoo Park trails on both sides of the river.

Funds were secured from such sources as the Waskasoo Museum Foundation, Red Deer Community Foundation, the Recreation Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, Northside Community Association, Royal Canadian Legion, Red Deer and District Chinese Society and numerous private individuals. A very significant contribution came from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters who donated the labour to construct the bridge decking.

While Red Deer City council designated the bridge as a municipal historic resource in September 1991, on Oct. 3rd, 1993, the bridge was given further protection as a provincial registered historic site.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 13th, 1992, the bridge was officially opened. The $171,500 cost been covered with government and foundation grants, donations and contributions of volunteer labour. There was also money left over to cover future repairs and maintenance.

In May 2002, the Old CPR Rail Bridge Committee was recognized with Red Deer’s first Heritage Recognition Award.

As should be expected, time and the elements have necessitated new repairs and refurbishment.

Consequently, City council has recently provided funds to complete those repairs and ensure that this historic landmark will remain an attractive and well-used link in Red Deer’s popular trail system.

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