Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 23.
A Bridge A-Building
by Ernie Mahoney
It was close to midnight on a warm July evening in 1984 when flames seared the sky in one of the worst fires that West Quebec has ever seen. It was caused by arson, a gasoline-soaked car pushed onto the east side of Wakefield's historic wooden covered bridge and torched, turning the tinder-dry, 70-year-old structure to a roaring inferno within seven minutes.
Villagers quickly gathered to watch helplessly as the spans crashed one by one into the river and floated downstream, still blazing, on the swiftly flowing water of the Gatineau. Police later recovered the burned-out hulk of the car south of the village from one of the still-floating sections of the bridge. All serial numbers had been filed off the vehicle, making ownership impossible to trace. Needless to say, no one was ever brought to justice; the perpetrator and the motive will probably remain forever a mystery.
Wakefield Firefighter Sterling Brown, who was soon on the scene that fateful night, said that it had to be a very sick person to do this thing. "To deliberately light our beautiful bridge on fire-it's unbelievable." The loss was recalled in a 1991 brochure: "When the bridge burned in 1984, the Gatineau Valley lost part of its history. For Wakefield, and for the broader community which the bridge linked together, the loss was more immediate and personal. It was a loss that left an empty place in the heart of the Village, that left only the ugly gray piers as a reminder of what had been."1 The News, a local paper, headlined: Heart Torn Out of Village. The Ottawa Citizen ran a feature story on it, including a spectacular close-up photo taken by David McAfee of the blazing bridge spans collapsing into the water. Even to this day, some people will not look at the photo, as they claim it is akin to looking at a dying relative, so much was the intense passion associated with the famous landmark. Witnesses said that there was nothing that could be done to stop the fire, and that even a nearby house was in danger of catching fire. Its aluminum siding was hot to the touch. Norma Walmsley viewed the conflagration in a state of shock from her home high on the hillside overlooking the bridge. It was then that she vowed that the bridge must be rebuilt, even as the flames were dying.
As the years passed
The destruction of the Wakefield bridge set into motion a series of events that over the next 13 years would astound even the greatest skeptics.
It took several months for people of Wakefield, and indeed the whole Gatineau Valley, to fully recognize what the loss of the bridge really meant. After all, it had been there as part of the scene for more than half a century-a presence, taken for granted, that was suddenly gone. As a tourist attraction, the bridge had been second to none. People came from afar to view the vista of the covered bridge from the top of Valley Drive coming down into the village. It was somehow comforting to catch sight of it, especially when the mid-morning sun glinted off the red-painted structure. Photographers, including the world-famous Malak, who first photographed the bridge in the late '40s, were denied a picturesque subject. Gray concrete piers do not a picture make.
Lovers, who for generations had rendezvoused at the bridge and often carved their initials in the siding and perhaps even tarried in the darkened interior for a tête-a-tête, had only fond memories to comfort them. The oldsters missed the bridge with a passion. For more than half a century, local kids had used the bridge as their summer play structure. Swinging from the rafters and climbing out the windows that ran the length of the bridge was a favourite pastime. Some lads were even brave enough to impress the girls with a dive into the deeper water at centre span.
There is a certain nostalgia about bridge tales. For example, Lorne Shouldice, who grew up on a farm that is today the Vorlage Ski area, remembers spreading snow on the bridge deck for logging sleighs to get their loads across to Sully's Mill. Bert Sully, a long-time resident, recalls crossing the bridge in the '30s when it had sagged between the piers: "When we would take trucks across with loads of pulpwood, we'd always ride outside the cab on the running boards of the truck-just in case!
In later years, as the community grew, the old covered bridge took quite a beating, and severe load and height limits were placed on the structure. About eight tons was the maximum that it could bear, and, of course, it was a one-way passage. Every few years minor repairs were done to make the bridge safe, with a major overhaul which included the re-decking and re-painting of the span completed in 1981, at a cost of nearly $300,000.
While local politicians continued to pressure the provincial government for a replacement bridge that would serve the rapidly-growing east side of the river, people grumbled at the slow passage across the one-way lane of the covered bridge. It was accepted as an anachronism that one day would be corrected. But, in the meantime, the residents were pretty proud of their old covered bridge. Destruction by arson, however, was surely not the way to obtain a new bridge. After the fire, a replacement Bailey bridge, hastily put into place on the undamaged piers to save the 18-mile trip to another river crossing, was both a curse and a blessing. Its weight and height restrictions made it impossible to get an ambulance across to the Gatineau Memorial Hospital. But then, it was thought to be a sure sign that a new bridge was not far off.
One of the strange things that happened during this interval was the almost perpetual mourning for the old bridge. An unknown benefactor supplied local stores with a post card of an excellent shot of the bridge by photographer Bob Beauchemin. The card is now a collector's item.
Committee starts in 1987
It was about this time that the first rumblings were heard of a serious campaign to rebuild the covered bridge. The Wakefield Community Association had many discussions on the subject and in early 1987, acting on a resolution to explore the reconstruction of the bridge, this group wrote to the Historical Society of the Gatineau asking for its support. The response by the Society, in April 1987, was to endorse the idea in principle, recognizing the historical importance of the old bridge.
Soon the Wakefield Covered Bridge Committee was formed and held its first meeting on November 13, 1987. The first reconstruction plans were based on the use of the then-in-place Bailey bridge as a platform to carry the reproduction bridge. Estimates of the day suggested the project could be completed for around $100,000. Without the Bailey bridge, costs would be much higher. Tourism Minister and Gatineau MNA Michel Gratton expressed interest in the idea, but apparently had little influence with the Ministry of Transport. This idea came to an ignoble end when the Transport Ministry quickly removed the portable bridge in December without consultation, following the completion of a new concrete and steel high-level bridge several hundred metres upstream in September 1987.
Undaunted by this set-back, the Committee under its Chairman at the time, Col. Guy Tremblay, rethought the project. The Wakefield Covered Bridge Project became legally incorporated, receiving letters patent from the Quebec government on August 18, 1988. In the same month, the group announced a scheme for a bi-level walking/cycling bridge of steel, clad in wood, that would contain shopping kiosks, toilets and maybe a restaurant. Its estimated cost was about $2 million. That same year, Wayne Rostad, CBC TV personality and one of the Gatineau Valley's favourite sons, accepted the position of honorary chairman. It was hoped that his name would help with the fund-raising drive for the bridge. The Committee started to sell colourful $1 buttons and $5 license plates that marked the drivers as supporters of the covered bridge. T-shirts, caps and other promotional materials were being developed. Tremblay said that the Committee wanted to raise $50,000 in 1988-1989 and $200,000 over the following five years. The federal and provincial governments would be asked to contribute the balance of the $800,000 to $1 million needed.
The bridge project was just one of the ideas that was put forward to rejuvenate Wakefield as a tourist mecca. Plans for a Hull-Wakefield Steam Train, a turn-of-the-century style train station, a nearby 100- room hotel and conference centre were all under consideration. Only the bridge and tourist train got past the talking stage. In the years 1988 to 1990, ideas on bridge design and fund-raising consolidated. The notion to build a two-tier bridge was dropped, as it met with less than enthusiastic response from the village, and no interest from developers.
On October 24, 1990, the reconstituted Committee under Jacques Mercier met at Vorlage and announced that it had established a formal link with the Historical Society of the Gatineau. This was intended to give the project prestige, and had the practical advantage of permitting contributions for construction of the bridge to be considered charitable donations for income tax purposes.
The project was now redesigned to be an exact replica of the 1915 Gendron Bridge, for walking and cycling, at an estimated cost of $600,000. This figure was based on receiving gifts-in-kind, such as volunteer labour and construction materials. The slogan of the fund-raising strategy would be "buy a beam, buy a bolt, buy a board." This concept brought financing of the project down to a level that just about anyone could afford. Contributions would be sought from corporations, the community and individuals, and the balance raised by events organized by the Committee. Federal and provincial sources were expected to match the amount raised. The Committee announced that it hoped to hire an engineer and call tenders for the summer of 1991. Completion was tentatively set for October 1992.
1991 to 1993: years of fund-raising and planning
The spring of 1991 was the beginning of a banner year for the Bridge Committee, with Dr. Norma Walmsley firmly in charge of fund-raising. She is known for her work internationally, in such organizations as MATCH International, a non-governmental group that promotes women's development in the Third World. Anita Rutledge and Ann Chudleigh, her most able assistants, did yeoman service in organizing special events such as outdoor concerts and fund-raising dinners. Two levels of government approved the project. The provincial transport ministry had earlier donated the old bridge piers to the municipality of La Pêche, which in turn passed a resolution authorizing the Committee's use of the piers and access road to the bridge, plus the adjacent one-acre site on the east side of the Gatineau River donated by the Hendrick family in 1988 for a park.
To make donations more tangible, dollar values were assigned to various bridge components. For example, centre beams were $1000, guard rails $500, individual bolts $10. A whirl-wind of summer events kicked off June 1 with a giant yard sale and an evening dance. Wakefield School students competed for prizes for their calendar art, and the resulting product was printed and sold for the bridge fund. A very large stuffed gorilla was also auctioned off for the second time. And thereby hangs a tale.
The gorilla was to be raffled off at a fund-raising event just before Christmas. It had been on display all summer at Adrianna's, one of Wakefield's leading boutiques. "Adoption Certificates" in lieu of raffle tickets were at a premium $2. Of course the unusual prize attracted a lot of attention too. Where else but in Wakefield could somebody actually adopt a gorilla?
Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of thieves, as the store was broken into in early December and the gorilla was snaffled. Organizers were horrified and concerned that they would have to return the money for the raffle tickets. But Diane Huddle, Adrianna's owner and donor of the gorilla, came to the rescue. She obtained another gorilla, which was also donated to the cause. It was won by long-time Wakefield resident Dorothy Cross, who promptly donated the beast back to the Bridge Committee. Later, at a bridge concert, Judy Grant, mayor of Chelsea, auctioned it off and came up with $305. In total, counting the original raffle, the gorilla raised over $1000 for the bridge.
Other events ranged from strawberry socials to outdoor concerts, a $1000 prize canoe race, golf tournaments, and a dinner featuring Mike Beedell, famous Arctic adventurer/photographer. By July, more than 100 individuals had made a contribution to the bridge, and by then the fund totaled $10,000. Sales of photographs of the bridge and Christmas trees brought in $2000. At year's end $30,000 had been raised.
Early in 1992, the Bridge Committee scored another coup: "Author and renowned columnist Charles Lynch bashed Conservatives and played his harmonica for the Wakefield Covered Bridge Committee at a $35 a plate dinner." This event raised another $1000 for the bridge and augured well for the rest of 1992. In fact, it was a year of festivals and galas. Vorlage Ski area and local businessman Doug Morrison purchased a $1000 beam bringing the beam-count to six from local Wakefield residents. The Wakefield children's calendars sold well and a gift certificate plan for bridge parts was launched. A variety show was held with entertainment from the 50-member Castenchel Choir and local bands. Later, Ian Tamblyn performed on the lawn of Maclaren House and pushed the contributions past the $50,000 mark.
Perhaps the culmination of 1992 was the donation from Canadian Pacific Forest Products of British Columbia fir boom logs, worth nearly $100,000. Laurent and Dominique Déry, owners of Déry Construction, made their quarry at Farm Point available for the initial storage of boom logs, and provided invaluable technical advice on engineering matters. Although some of the logs had been in the water for almost a century, they were deemed sound. Once the logs were sawn into dimensioned boards, they would be the building material for the bridge. A ceremonial sawing of the logs took place on October 10 at the site of Sully's Mill near the new train station. Many dignitaries and bridge contributors came to the village via a special coach on the Wakefield Steam Train. By the time the Master of Ceremonies, Barry Moore, a bridge patron and the then MP for Gatineau-Pontiac-Labelle, finished introducing the donors, the bridge was $10,000 richer. This included a contribution of $5,000 from the discretionary fund of Réjean Lafrenière, Liberal MNA for Gatineau.
1993 continued with various successful fund-raisers. A dinner featuring renowned American covered bridge expert Jan Lewandoski as guest speaker both inspired the bridge folk and put over $1000 in the bank. Garage sales and a bridge kiosk to attract tourists to purchase bridge paraphernalia at the turntable in Wakefield were summer efforts. The "Challenge 93"employment program provided funds to hire a student to staff the attractive booth. A Canada Day celebration at the Wakefield Mill was held in conjunction with the Historical Society of the Gatineau [now the Gatineau Valley Historical Society], and featured a balloon race down the La Pêche River that added several hundred dollars to the fund.
By mid-June, the Bridge account held well over $70,000. It was time to start serious work a-building. To this end, a portable band saw was purchased for $14,000 to enable the donated boom logs to be turned into lumber. The Déry Quarry was the initial site of this operation, with volunteer crews working several nights a week during the summer months to create about 150,000 board-feet of lumber needed for the bridge.
Labour Day was chosen for a landmark concert with much music made by Wayne Rostad, the Heritage College Big Band and Jan Purcell and her Family Band. The bridge was $2100 richer from the 300 folk who enjoyed the great surroundings of the Morrison Quarry. In addition to funds raised through special events and other donations, in November and December the Committee sent personally addressed letters to a select list of 150 individuals and local businesses. This campaign raised $4,000 by year's end.
1994 to 1997: the bridge takes shape
The Bridge Committee continued its quest for the elusive dollar, while competition for funds grew. In Low, volunteers from the community funded and were putting the finishing touches on building the Low Arena, an indoor skating rink to serve the district. (This group had some experience with large projects, having built the 300-seat Heritage Hall in the late 1980s.) The Gatineau Memorial Hospital was soliciting funds for equipment for its new building. And then there was some grumbling in the community that the bridge was a frill that was taking money from more important projects.
Finding and organizing new fund-raisers was a continuing part of the challenge. In the spring of 1994, a very successful concert at Bob Phillips' recently restored 1819 log barn The Grange, featured harpsichordist William O'Meara and actor Mary Ellis who performed in An Evening at Versailles, and netted $2400 for the building fund. It was especially fitting to have the concert at The Grange since this building was almost destroyed by a fire earlier that year. Other fund-raisers took place over the summer, including another balloon race. In 1995, building on the success of musicals in the previous year, a local group hammered together a couple of skits for the Wakefield Winter Carnival, and performed them on an outdoor stage with the bridge scene as the backdrop. Later, the thespians regrouped to bring two dinner theatre murder mysteries to the Black Sheep Inn, Murder at the Black Sheep and Black Wedding Bells; both brought rave reviews and raised several thousand dollars.
The Bridge Committee received final approval for a federal $95,000 job creation project in mid-July 1994. The project permitted hiring six labourers and one administrative support secretary for six months. The agreement included a $26,000 grant for related project costs, to be matched by the Committee. The sawmill operation was also relocated to the site of the yet-to-be-used new Wakefield railway station. The building served as the bridge office and information centre. The news that the National Capital Commission would contribute $50,000 to the bridge was announced on behalf of the NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry by MP Robert Bertrand at the Mayor's Dinner-a part of Wakefield's "Snow Follies"-in February 1995. The dinner itself was also a real winner, as more than $4,000 was raised for the cause.
Donations came from individuals who recalled fond memories of the old bridge, and were sometimes accompanied by touching explanations. A man donated $250 in memory of his late mother. A simple donation of $25, for the purchase of a board, came from Dallas, Texas, from a woman whose late parents courted at the bridge in 1939, and carved their initials in a board. "You can understand why I need to donate a board for the restoration-for them. Thank you for the opportunity," she wrote. A local artist donated prints of his paintings of the bridge in memory of his late wife. A well-known magistrate donated $1000 in memory of his late father, and Dieter Spitz gave a donation in memory of his missing wife.
Bridge Day came to the village on September 4, 1996, as CDS Building Movers of Stittsville prepared to move the two 144-foot spans by huge tractor-trailer to a barge assembled near the Wakefield General Store. Fund-raising did not stop as Joan Garnett, who is close to the whole operation, sold "riverside superintendent"certificates for $10 each to hundreds of the bystanders who were attracted to the historic show taking place on the river. She raised nearly $2,000 for the bridge fund.
The bridge was set on its piers at high noon on Saturday, September 6. A timely interest-free loan of $6000 from the Historical Society of the Gatineau allowed the bridge to be roofed before winter. As of April 1997, about $65,000 is needed to finish the job. Siding, paint, and the Heritage Park on the east shore remain to be completed. The Committee plans to have a plaque erected at the bridge honouring major contributors who donated $1000 or more. A complete roster of all donors will be placed in the Archives of the Historical Society of the Gatineau [Gatineau Valley Historical Society], and will be available for all to consult.
Everyone will be invited to the official opening of the bridge in 1997. The celebration plans include a community dance that is expected to go down in the record books as the largest dance ever held on a covered bridge.
Author's note: I am indebted to Norma Walmsley and Anita Rutledge for their help in preparing this story.
1. Brochure prepared by The Wakefield Covered Bridge Committee