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Kingston's gateway to history; The Lasalle Causeway opened for business 90 years ago - just in time

Brian Johnson
Forum - Friday, July 20, 2007 @ 07:00

Old James Knapp possibly took up where the Indians left off and with good business sense saw the need of transportation for travellers wishing to get across the mouth of the Rideau ... he rigged up a cable from shore to shore and started the business of shuffling carts, rigs, pedestrians and what have you over on his boat.

- Kingston Whig Standard,

March 21, 1942

Vessels wishing to pass through the causeway should signal for the bridge to be opened by sounding three long blasts followed by one short blast.

St. Lawrence River Pilot, First edition, 1966

If you can remember the shrill steam whistle of the SS Imperial Collingwood signalling the bridgemaster as she slowly steamed into Kingston harbour, you'll also remember all three steel bridges joining two man-made islands that once made up the Lasalle Causeway, the eastern gateway into downtown Kingston.

Who in Kingston hasn't crossed the Lasalle Causeway? As a kid, I remember that familiar hum of tires on steel grating sounding like 100 angry bees at three intervals until we were finally across the three bridges. More often than not, the alarm bells would suddenly ring, and maybe you'd be lucky enough to be right behind the barricade bar and watch the bridge go up and see the huge tanker ship pass through. And listen to Dad curse as he kept looking at his watch.

Gone today are the two half-rounded steel truss bridges at either end. The eastern one was replaced by a higher concrete bridge for pleasure craft, and a similar lower concrete structure replaced the other. Gone, too, is the commercial tanker traffic blowing the familiar signal, which could be heard all the way uptown near the former traffic circle at the intersection of Concession and Princess streets and Bath Road.

Still in place and still operating faithfully for a newer, pleasure-craft crowd is the centre bascule bridge, its green steel beams shaped like a giant Trojan horse complete with a huge concrete counterweight "snout" and looking much the same as it did on April 15, 1917, the day the new Lasalle Causeway opened for business 90 years ago this year.

Veteran bridgemaster Joe Reda stands at the control console, checking left and right for vehicle traffic as he prepares to lift the bridge for a waiting motorboat, a high-masted cabin cruiser. Watching carefully, he switches a lever closing the "east coming" gate, and soon after, down comes the "west going" gate. With traffic now stopped, the "offgoing" gates are closed, and when everything is clear, Joe unlocks the bridge and pulls gently back on the lift lever. Gently, and almost silently, the mammoth structure lifts almost effortlessly, shadowing us in the small control room as the powerboat passes through, leaving the St. Lawrence River and entering the Cataraqui River.

The bridge is the unofficial gateway to the Rideau Canal, a system of small, beautiful lakes and rivers snaking northward and joined by a series of locks and canals. The Rideau now is a UNESCO world heritage site. If the boat is heading north for Ottawa, it will pass through 45 locks on its 202 -kilometre journey. Joe waves to the boaters as he logs the date and time of their passing.

As the bridge slowly descends, Joe points upward among the criss- crossed beams to an area near the counterweight. "The control room used to be way up there, near the top of the bridge," he says. "There was a solid steel structure so the bridgemaster could walk around on either side."

As the bridge is locked into place, another switch opens the barricades, and the morning traffic resumes.

There is a story, handed down from father to son, that at the bottom of the Rideau River at the foot of Knapp's Boathouse lies the rotting hull of a ferry boat, resting these many years from the sight of man. That ferry boat has not been forgotten in the minds of older residents of the district. It was reputedly the first means of getting across the stretch of water where the Cataraqui and St. Lawrence rivers merge, now spanned by the Lasalle Causeway. According to memories dimmed by the passage of many years, the ferry was operated by the late James Knapp.

The Penny Bridge completed in 1828 by the Cataraqui Bridge Company, took the place of the Knapp ferry boat. A long, low, squat wooden structure built on timber cribs and pilings, this rickety configuration spanning from shore to shore would eventually divide Kingston's inner and outer harbour permanently. Sitting almost upright somewhere near the middle, the Penny Bridge had a toll booth with a drawbridge that needed to be pulled aside for vessel traffic. In a short time, the volume of steamboat traffic increased as lumber and passenger steamers started using Colonel John By's Rideau Canal to travel for commercial purposes from Bytown (Ottawa) to Kingston once the southern threat of invasion was over. The traffic over the bridge also increased as farmers from outlying hamlets brought their livestock to the Kingston market. The charge for crossing ranged from a penny per person. to a penny for every ox, cow, bull or lamb. to five cents for a horse and 14 cents for a horse and cart. The Cataraqui Bridge Company
eventually leased the bridge to various entrepreneurs, the last being Charles and John Bowman of Barriefield.

It was a favourite swimming hole and the boys of yesterday found its railing an excellent elevation from which to dive. Dressing and undressing was generally done in the shady environs of its underpinnings, although a weather eye had to be kept peeled for the cops.

Later, the drawbridge was replaced by a swing bridge that turned on a centre axis and proved a lot easier to operate. It only took a small crew of men straining at the bars of a capstan to turn the weighty structure.

Local residents utilized the winter ice to get out of paying tolls and to facilitate matters there was an incline known as the Rob Roy Slip to allow sleighs to get down onto the ice from the shore. The roadway across the ice came out at Barrack Street.

As Kingston's population increased and the town became a city, this important eastern route was soon overwhelmed with traffic. The old wooden bridge badly needed repair.

The city secured a large part of the shares in the Cataraqui Bridge Company when the dominion government decided to modernize the site. In 1912, work began on removing the old pilings. Interrupted by the First World War, the work continued under the Fallon brothers of Cornwall, and, later, the O'Brien Construction Company took over.

Securing a foothold on the river bottom presented many problems. Wooden pilings were driven down and capped with 12-ton blocks, but even this was not enough.

The causeway builders killed two birds with one stone by taking out a bad hill on No. 2 Highway and at the same time using the rock to build up a solid wall to help in spanning the banks of the Rideau.

The Hamilton Bridge Company did all of the steel construction for the bridges. Only the centre lift bridge remains today. It is characterized, the Whig reported in 1942, "by its gigantic concrete and steel counterbalance. This massive structure weighs 600 tons [and] can be operated electrically, by a gasoline engine or if necessary, by hand."

Joe Reda has been a bridgemaster for 27 years and loves his job. Working in shifts from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., he shares this duty with his son, Luigi, and Mohamed Yahia. Living next door to former bridgemaster Ted Posey as a kid, Reda followed a long list of men who were gatekeepers of Kingston's harbour, including Simcoe islanders "Than" Sudds, Roy Eves and former Whig Standard columnist and author Dennis T. Patrick Sears, to name a few.

I asked Joe how many times the bridge has been lifted in 90 years.

"What? You gotta be kiddin'!"

"Go on," I said, "take a stab at it."

"Oh, lotsa times," was his quick reply. "Lots and lotsa times!"

- Brian Johnson is captain of the Wolfe Islander III and president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society.

( Topic last updated: 2007.07.21 01:43:07 PM )