Bridge tolls seem unreasonable? Hey, I hear the ice is pretty thick. At least that’s what 19th century railway mogul Louis-Adélard Senécal must have thought when opened an ice bridge to run trains across the frozen Saint-Lawrence in 1880.
In 1859, the Grand Trunk Railroad opened the Victoria Bridge, the rail link across the Saint-Lawrence, at a cost of $6 million. Naturally, they were not eager to share the track with their competitors: they charged $10-$12 per wagon to cross the bridge, a sum that other companies deemed unreasonable.
Rather than pay this toll, Senécal’s Compagnie de Traverse de Chemin de fer d’Hochelaga à Longueuil devised a system to transport train wagons by ferry during the summer months and in the winter, they laid the railroad right down atop the frozen river. On a good year, ice bridge was open between January and the beginning of April.
Only after a long cold spell, did the turbulent waters downriver from the Lachine rapids freeze enough for the wooden ties and iron rails be laid across the ice. The ice needed to be at least 60 cm thick to support a locomotive over a distance of 2 kilometers, between Montreal’s docks and Longueuil. Extra-wide beams, placed every 7 feet, helped distribute the weight of the trains over a wider surface area.
Not surprisingly, this system experienced at least one fail. On January 5, 1881, the ice suddenly gave way and the passengers just managed to scramble out before the locomotive plunged into the icy river.
The very next day, the services was re-established with a lighter locomotive.
When the Victoria bridge opened in 1859, it was considered a feat of engineering: at 3km, it was the world’s longest bridge at that time. The original design had trains travelling though a metal tube. (Photo by William Notman).
Société des ingénieurs civils de France (1880). Mémoires et compte-rendu des travaux, Volume 1, p.459-464. Google Books.
Nathalie Lampron, Disasters and Calamities, 1867-1896. McCord Museum.