Troubled Bridges Over Waters
Brantford's history of crossing the Grand.
Scott Egan, August 20, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioThe early days of the Lorne Bridge. Stock photo.
For a river city like Brantford, crossing the river has always been of the utmost importance. Our name even describes river crossing. In our modern times, we rely on the Lorne Bridge and the Veterans Memorial Parkway bridge to cross back and forth over the Grand. Before this version of the Lorne Bridge was erected, we had a few other less successful versions of bridges in that same area, going back way before Brantford was a city or town. When we were still just called the Grand River Swamp.
The first bridge was made in 1812. In this era the river was physically different. Where the bridge ends on the West Brant side was an island. Beyond that was a west channel that occupied the areas we currently know as Lorne and Fordview Parks. Those parks were just river. Before this first bridge was built people were only able to cross in two ways — one being to wade or ford the river at a shallow point, and this could only be achieved in specific seasons at certain times. The other way being the rope ferry, but that had recently been destroyed to slow invaders from Detroit as part of the ongoing conflict that would later be known as the War of 1812. So, a permanent, year-round solution was necessary and in 1812 a wooden plank bridge was built. When it was finished, as the legend goes, directly after the first team of horses made it safely across — kerplunk! — bridge fell into the river. And this becomes an ongoing theme.
Lorne Bridge under construction in Brantford, Ontario. Stock Photo.
Over the next two decades wooden bridges would be erected in summer and fall in the river regularly. It’s hard to find an exact number, but I have unreliable sources putting that number at 13. Then, in 1841, a handsome looking covered bridge was installed. This bridge was a toll bridge and it lasted about 13 years and then, in 1854, guess what? It fell into the river. This time it was due to a flood, but the joke at the time was that the bridge collapsed under the weight of the two cent toll.
This brings us to the old iron bridge, opened in 1857. Our first iron bridge, and by that I mean it being the first of its kind in Ontario. This bridge was still two bridges because of the island. This island got the nickname “Hyde Park” due to all the animal skins hanging on the fences of Ott’s Tannery which occupied the island. Now, tanneries are putrid places so it being on an island was a great idea. (Interesting side note: the olde time tannery industry is where we get the expression “piss poor” from. See, urine was used to help separate the skin from the meat and such, so a tanner would purchase urine in abundance. If you were a fella down on his luck, you could go down the local tanner and pee in a bucket and get some pocket change because you are “piss poor.” That little factoid will help you be awkward at parties.)
Back to the old iron bridge. This one lasted until October of 1878 when, well, it fell into the river too, due to massive flooding. Unfortunately, this time there was a reported casualty. A man named James Tyrell, one of two men watching the raging waters, went down with the bridge. Other onlookers were able to save the other man, but James Tyrell went with the debris of the old iron bridge downstream. Mr. Tyrell’s remains weren’t found until the next spring when a surprised fisherman caught him at Cockshutt Bridge. A bit gruesome, I’d imagine.
Now we’re at the point where we get the OG version of the Lorne Bridge. Within eight days, a new temporary bridge was put up next to the wreckage of the old iron bridge and construction was started on what would become the Lorne Bridge, the old man that spans the Grand. This time some real money and engineering was added to the project. The first Lorne Bridge cost $40,000, about a million and a half in today’s loonies. Also this time the bridge wasn’t as long. The western channel was not being utilized anymore, Hyde Park was now joined to the west bank. (The viewing platform in West Brant is built on the rough area of where Ott’s Tannery used to be.) Most importantly, this bridge didn’t fall into the river. Well, a part of it did once. Not much though. It was officially opened in September 1879 by John Douglas Sutherland Campbell the 9th Duke of Argyll, the Marquis of Lorne. More important than all of that, he was the new Governor General of Canada. More important than that, Queen Vicky was his mother-in-law.
John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll "Marquis of Lorne". Stock Photo.
This bridge did the job well until, in 1923, the construction of the current Lorne Bridge started, now nearing 100 years old. After its final version was finished the West Brant side had some interesting changes, specifically in what is now Lorne Park. After the western channel closed, the shore lined up with the island of Hyde Park. The area that would one day be Lorne Park was the city dump for a while. In the 1920s, it became a pretty kick ass mini golf course called Pickwick Park. The 1930s saw it turned into Lorne Gardens and collected a few artifacts to be permanently on display there, and a bunch of flower beds. Since then it has had a few face lifts, a retaining wall, those cool stairs and its current name: Lorne Park.
Our most recent version of the Lorne Bridge in Brantford, Ontario. Staff Photo.
In closing, I just want to state that I was just focusing on the bridges in the area that the Lorne Bridge currently stands on. There have been so many other bridges, ferries, fords and train crossings across the Grand that it becomes a robotic task to try to catalogue them all. Spotty records, spotty recollections and spotty records of spotty recollections. But at least nowadays our bridges stay standing, no matter what you hit them with.
Knock on wood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Egan, best described as an extroverted hermit. Scott is an afficionado of all things old, odd and esoteric. An avid reader and collector, he’s accumulated a backlog of legends and lore that he loves to share with most anyone who will listen. A father of two, Scott lives along with his feline soulmate amongst thousands of books and hundreds of objects of the strange and unusual.