Keeping the Johnson Street Bridge

June 27, 2009 at 12:25 am | In heritage, leadership, local_not_global, politics, scandal, victoria | 20 Comments

Reading and watching the Vibrant Victoria forum thread on Victoria’s famous Johnson Street Bridge – also known as The Blue Bridge – is keeping me up at night.

It wrenches my heart (and my head) to know that our city leaders, “incentivized” by engineers and the possibility of getting some Federal infrastructure grants, are benighted enough to plan tearing down a bridge that people around the world recognize as a heritage-worthy and unique signifier in Victoria’s urban landscape.

Take a look at these photos, and marvel at the “ugly” bridge that’s supposed to be replaced by a slab of concrete:
Johnson Street Bridge, taken by

Vibrant Victoria forumer “gumgum” took this photo while approaching the bridge in his canoe.

Here are two more:
Johnson Street Bridge by VV forumer


Johnson Street Bridge, in

(See the rest here.)

I wrote about the bridge in the current June issue of Focus (read the article, Blue Bridge Blues) and I’ve blogged about the impending disaster of tearing the bridge down (here, here, and here). And now I just joined two Facebook groups, formed to Save and Keep the Blue Bridge.

The whole issue is complicated by the fact that the usual spokespeople for heritage preservation (often enough a NIMBY and anti-development crowd to boot) are NDP stalwarts (even at the Federal level – ex-Victoria City Councilor), and since plans to tear this bridge down were proposed by our reigning NDP mayor, who has an NDP majority on council (including the alleged heritage advocate, Councilor Pam Madoff), the partisans have all closed ranks and decided to just not say anything at all …which is very curious indeed.

The only explanation that comes to my mind is that it’s all about partisanship, which infects and clouds local politics in the worst way. I would like to say to the partisans: for once, forget about party affiliation and just do the right thing already. If the BC Liberals had proposed tearing the bridge down – no matter how good the reasons – the heritage preservation crowd and every NDP-inflected City Councilor would be on the barricades.

Instead, we get this:

Victoria City Councilors (allegorically)
But this (the image ^ above) shouldn’t be a civic leader’s inspiration.

It also creeps me out that our leaders are listening quite hard to the City’s engineering department, which (from what I gleaned at an April committee of the whole meeting) seems intent on building a new bridge (boys will be boys, and these boys want to build something new). City engineering furthermore hired a consultant (to assess the condition of the old bridge), but this consultancy is in the business of building only new bridges, so why wouldn’t they furnish the City with a report that recommends building a new bridge?

Add to all this the galling fact that most Victorians are blissfully unaware that the bridge is even in danger – and that worst of all, they have no idea what they, what we, stand to lose here.

Here’s where Vibrant Victoria’s forumers are keeping me up at night… Forumer “aastra” has diligently compiled the numerous examples of other North American cities – some much smaller and poorer than allegedly “quainte” and oh-so-cash-strapped Victoria – that not only celebrate the value of trunnion or bascule bridges from this era, but that actually spend significant piles of dough in refurbishing them and then in addition have the audacity to express civic pride in their preservation.

Incroyable, you say? Well, it’s not unbelievable. Take a gander at these, courtesy of “aastra”:
3rd Street Bridge, San Francisco
This is a photo of an almost identical Strauss-built bridge in San Francisco – restored and preserved. (See source.)

Next, there’s this image, of the same bridge:Third Street/ Lefty O'Doul Bridge, San Francisco

Same bridge, different photographer (source).

Toronto also has a Joseph Strauss designed trunnion bridge, and they restored theirs and are keeping it, while we plan to nuke ours. aastra wrote:

So did we all know about the Cherry Street Trunnion Bridge in Toronto? Built in 1931 by some bozo named Strauss.

…designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Toronto in 1992 as Architectural Historical.

That’s the problem with Toronto. It’s such an impersonal big city that’s lost all connection with its past.

(The bridge is green. Good call by Torontonians. If it were another colour it would probably be gone by now.)

The sarcasm and his last sentence expresses frustration over earlier banter about whether our bridge was always blue and whether it was always famous, or famously blue. His point was that the color hardly matters. It’s like saying it matters whether ivy or roses clamber up the Empress Hotel on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

aastra finds another bascule bridge – preserved, not torn down (and it’s even blue!):

The Ashtabula lift bridge (also known as the West Fifth Street bridge) is a Strauss bascule bridge that spans the Ashtabula River in the harbor of Ashtabula, Ohio. Built in 1925, it is one of only two of its type that remain in service in the state of Ohio. In 1985 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was restored in 1986, and was also closed from March to December 2008 for repairs and repainting.

In Ohio it’s history. Something to be proud of. In Victoria it’s junk. Hallmark Society, where are you?

The really amazing thing is that it’s blue and yet they still decided not to replace it.

And there’s more… Chattanooga, Tennessee has one (slightly different design):

Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, TN:

The Market Street Bridge construction began in 1914. It is a bascular-type draw span bridge and is owned by the State of Tennessee. Because of its current condition, the bridge is currently undergoing a major structural renovation which will cost $13,060,428.85.
Once construction is complete, travelers will enjoy sidewalks measuring three feet wider on either side of the thoroughfare making walking safe and easy. The bridge design will also provide architectural attributes and lighting in keeping with the historical significance of the Market Street Bridge. The renovated bridge will look much like the original – only stronger, safer, and ready to be put into use for another 90 years!

…As does Mystic, Connecticut:

Mystic, Connecticut:

River Road – Running beside the Mystic River, this scenic road offers terrific water views of the ships of Mystic Seaport and Mystic’s famous Bascule Bridge.

Not to be confused with Olde Mystic Village, this is the “real” downtown of Mystic – it includes the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, one of few operational bascule bridges in the country. For those of us who are unfamiliar with bascule bridges, this is a fancy drawbridge. Feel free to gawk either at the bridge itself or at the tourists gawking at the bridge.

Historic 1922 marvel delights bridge fans — its mechanical parts are all out in the open.

Mystic River Bascule Bridge (1922)

Meanwhile, Rob Randall, Chair of the Downtown Residents Association, added this comment:

I want to mention the importance of the bridge in relation to the time in which it was built–the 1920s–and the fact that this time coincided with the dawn of what some call “the Precisionist Movement” in American painting.

Some of America’s most famous artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Sheeler tackled the subject of the industrial landscape, painting stunningly detailed pictures of factories, skyscrapers and yes, bridges–even ones designed by none other than JSB designer Joseph Strauss.

It would be fair to say they have influenced modern artists as well.

Our bridge is a real link to this vanishing historical age of engineering and artistic genius.

Elsie Driggs (1898 – 1992) Queensborough Bridge, 1927
Oil on Canvas, 401/2 x 30 ¼ inches
MAM Purchase: Lang Acquisition Fund 1969.4

So there you go, city leaders. But are they listening? According to forumer CharlieFoxtrot, they’re not and it’s already too late:

Word on the street is that various contracts have been awarded within the past few days – the replacement moves forward. Expect grunts in high-vis vests to be hanging around the JSB and starting the preliminary work soon, most likely ASAP.

Sadly, looming federal infrastructure funding dependant on fixed deadlines for completion (and these other things called “fish windows” with regards to construction) are Serious Things that wait for no one, or (apparently) little or no opposition…

I could go on to disparage Ken Kelly of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), which apparently supports replacing the bridge because replacement will be less disruptive to traffic. Yes, you read that right. But I won’t right now, because this post is already too long and it’s getting quite lugubrious.

Just one last thing: if you’re a heritage/ history/ bridge/ industrial design buff, consider writing a letter to The Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6. There are Federal funds to preserve heritage like this bridge – the city should have applied for this, and applied for infrastructure grants to replace the Bay Street Bridge, not the Johnson Street Bridge.


  1. Hmm, I would not consider myself a heritage / history / bridge / industrial design buff, but I do want to keep the bridge. What can I do?

    Comment by Davin Greenwell — June 27, 2009 #

  2. Oh yes! This reminds me so much of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (opened 1932). Paintings like this one by Dorrit Black (in the public Art Gallery in my hometown) signalled the arrival of modern art in Australia. The men were still doing impressionism.

    There are also famous paintings by Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith of the SHB under construction. Why was it women painters?

    What can I do to help save your bridge?

    Comment by melanie — June 27, 2009 #

  3. Try this link

    Comment by melanie — June 27, 2009 #

  4. Hello Yule

    I have written to The Mayor and Council and to Pam Madoff in her capacity as a Director of Heritage BC because I do agree with many of the points you raise. The bridge is of significant historic interest and whilst over the long term there may be economic decisions that prevent the City from taking any other action it is important to give more consideration to preserving this bridge.

    The Precisionist painting is a lovely echo. It is curious that on the Engineering page of the City’s website there is this somewhat evocative quote;

    “It was late November, when the storm blew in. In the darkness of night, white caps foamed on the harbour. The rain pelted in sideways against the windows on my little shack. The bridge, lit by the glow from the street lamps, took on a ghostly appearance. That is when I got the call from a sailboat, requesting passage to the upper harbour. The two bridges, raised to the upright position, looked like two giant arms reaching for heaven. The wind was blowing through the girders making an odd sound when I thought I heard the words ‘Come in, come in and let me give you shelter from the storm’.”

    – A quote from the Senior Bridge Operator

    So maybe romance or something resembling feeling isn’t dead in the Engineering Department.

    Comment by Christina Mitchell — June 27, 2009 #

  5. […] conversation on Vibrant Victoria’s forum about the Johnson Street Bridge continues, brilliantly. See pages 22 and […]

    Pingback by » Reblogging Johnson St. Bridge conversation Yule Heibel’s Post Studio © 2003-2009 — June 27, 2009 #

  6. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Christina, and thanks for your efforts (letter-writing and so on). Here’s hoping we can still turn this thing around – I think the city is taking advice from one sector only (its engineering department, and that department’s hired consultant, who happens to be in the business of building new bridges). And I also think the heritage community in this city is completely unable to grasp the problem at hand since all they’ve ever dealt with have been SFHs or small buildings, not enormous engineered structures.

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

  7. Got it, works fine! Beautiful painting, melanie, thanks for the link!

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

  8. I wonder whether women were attracted to these structures, or whether there was some kind of “heroic” (“heroine-ic”) quality to the age that made women feel empowered to tackle machinery and engineering. Today I had a “tweet” from a local guy who said the bridge wasn’t worth preserving because the social era it represents is repugnant to him, and I just shook my head, thinking “wtf?” The fact that women flocked to modernism in the machine age speaks volumes to what the age promised.

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

  9. PS: re. what can you do to help?, try following the link to the Minister for Heritage (in my post) and send him an email? I’ll try to get a form letter set up, when I do I’ll blog it here.

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

  10. As I responded to melanie, writing to the Minister for Heritage (federal level, see link in blog post) might be a start. Also, write to city councilors & mayor. I think the problem is that they’re taking advice from just one source right now (the city’s engineering department and its hired consultants, Delcan, who are in the business of building new bridges). They need to widen their perspective.

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

  11. NB: I assumed that by hitting “reply” in my admin board, the comments might be “nested” and render as actual replies. That’s not the case, though, so what you see is a string of comments – each one was actually meant as a reply to previous comments. Oh well, WordPress MU… heh.

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

  12. we are trying to get everyone together on fighting the poor decision of city council..pls send me your email for mre direct discussion…your material is tops,,


    Comment by lorraine hilman — June 28, 2009 #

  13. […] themselves to take up the issue. Yule Heibel has written an Op-Ed feature for Focus Magazine, and blogged about preserving the bridge. others have started Facebook […]

    Pingback by Online Activism (or not?) : A Local Victoria B.C. Story - Wright On — June 28, 2009 #

  14. Done – thanks, Lorraine!

    Comment by Yule — June 29, 2009 #

  15. I wrote to Mr Moore.

    Comment by melanie — July 2, 2009 #

  16. Danda Humphreys joins Martin Segger in supporting your call to save the Johnson Street Bridge:

    Comment by Gregory Hartnell — July 3, 2009 #

  17. Thanks, Melanie!
    @Gregory: I saw that, thanks for the note.

    Comment by Yule — July 5, 2009 #

  18. I wrote a letter today to NDP MP Denise Savoie asking her what her position is on the Council’s plans to demolish the bridge:

    We are still looking for a public interest legal firm to do pro-bono work to apply for an injunction to stop this nonsense.

    If we get any bites, you will be the first to know.

    Thanks, Yule, for keeping this issue alive here.

    Very sincerely,

    Gregory Hartnell

    Comment by Gregory Hartnell — July 6, 2009 #

  19. McCarthy Tetrault, a prestigious Vancouver law firm that apparently has a budget to do pro bono public interest lawsuits is considering the merits of our recent CCC letter asking them to help us by applying for an injunction to stop the City of Victoria from proceeding with this ill-conceived plan. That’s what I call a blinking green light. Let’s hope it happens!

    In the meantime, I have written to NDP MP Denise Savoie in Ottawa asking her what her position is on the matter, as she doesn’t seem to have anything on it on her website. The text of that open letter is here:

    I copied that letter to Denise Savoie to most of the Victoria City Councillors, and got two replies back today, one from Geoff Young, and the other from John Luton. Both foolishly voted for the demolition of the heritage bascule bridge that we want to see saved for posterity.

    I have just reposted Mr. Young’s letter to the CCC BLOG, and will do the same for Mr. Luton’s letter.

    Hope to see your column again in FOCUS next month, Yule. Thanks again for keeping the discussion alive here.

    Gregory Hartnell,
    Concerned Citizens’ Coalition

    Comment by Gregory Hartnell — July 7, 2009 #

  20. Hi, Yule:

    Three Victoria City Councillors have now elaborated on their reasons for wanting to replace the Johnson Street Bridge, the most recent being Councillor Lynn Hunter, found here:

    All of their answers are full of contradictions, obfuscations and evasions, lamentably.


    Comment by Gregory Hartnell — July 8, 2009 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
Entries and comments feeds.