The Ever-so-short-lived Saint-Lawrence Ice Bridge

Photograph | Railway on the ice over St. Lawrence River, Montreal, QC, about 1880 | VIEW-1143.0

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.

Photo (BAnQ) : Un train sur la glace du Saint-Laurent (L’Opinion publique, 26 février 1880) Source

The very next day, the services was re-established with a lighter locomotive.

The ice bridge was operational between 1880 and 1883. During this time, thousands of train wagons crossed the river by this means, carrying goods down to Boston and other American cities.
Photograph | Victoria Bridge, Montreal, QC, 1859-60 | N-0000.193.114

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.


  1. On a side note, the problem that railway infrastructure owners do not provide reasonable access to their infrastructure persists today in north america, and may be one of the reasons why rail is not competitive to other forms of transportation for regional and intercity distances. Railway infrastructure, just like highways, should probably be in the hands of the public giving open access to any railway company, fostering competition and allowing small passenger operations. Or at least one could implement some sort of open access rules like the EU has done.

  2. Fascinating info…Thanks Alannah! Do they say why they decided to discontinue the practice?

  3. I remember reading that the tracks wound up on the bottom of the river one spring when they weren’t taken up soon enough. I wonder if they’re still down there.

  4. In a similar vein, when the Ottawa River is frozen and the Hudson-Oka ferry no longer operates, a road is plowed over the river to form an ice bridge. “About 250 to 300 vehicles a day use the ice bridge which normally opens in mid-January and closes in mid-March.”

  5. re ANT6N:

    It’s hard to sum up the failure of passenger rail in North America in a few sentences, but the core problem is that the population centres are far too spread out. Consumer prices would have to be ridiculously low for people to pay for 10+ hour train rides, while in Europe, high-speed rail can compete effectively with air travel due to short distances( and lower terminal wait times, the benefits of which compound as distances get shorter).

    The proprietary train lines in North America have worked extremely well in freight rail however, where transit time is less important. North American freight rail is far more effective than that of Europe, because deregulation has allowed freight operators to drive down costs at their own whim and to satisfy their own demand, rather than being forced to fulfil a noncompetitive government mandate.

    If closed access to rail lines was the issue, then at least the passenger railways which did have access would be profitable, however even VIA and Amtrak, which have all the access they need in core areas (The Corridor, and Northeast US), are loss-making. Passenger rail in North America is simply commercially unsustainable.

    Of course, if the benefits made by passenger rail (environmental etc) are considered to outweigh the commercial losses, then it is up to the government to subsidise passenger rail (as they do currently).

  6. Opening the rail infrastructure to anyone is what Europe did, and it is becoming a tremenduous mess.

    New companies have been formed that own the railroad tracks, and anybody can buy a train and run on the tracks.

    Trouble is, everyone wants to run at the same time on the same routes, and this is degenerating in the same congestive mess US airports face daily.

    Furthermore, the new upstart companies do not have the same safety culture the established companies have developped over the last 150 years, and no amount of government oversight will be able to instill that culture.

    Here, the infrastructure is quite open already; interchange rules to move trains from one railroad to another while maintaining a healthy balance between those involved have been in place for over a century now, and they work very well.

  7. @Matt
    The populated areas of North America are not too spread out. From Montreal, you could reach New York, Boston and Anything on the Windsor corridor in times competitive to air travel.

    I am not sure about the European scheduling mess, I haven’t seen much of it. In Germany, regional operations are contracted by regional governments out to private companies via open bidding processes (giving some subsidies), presumably the schedules are set in the process. Only long distance trains have to run without subsidies, and there are not too many yet.

    I see that in North America train companies buy others to try to build huge monopolies, and large coverage areas. And I see the infrastructure is kept in such a shitty state that passenger operations are all but impossible, while freight can run an operating profit on these tracks because speed doesn’t matter as much. Passengers all the while have deal with slow diesel trains along bumpy single-track, a rough ride even at slow speeds, waiting for freight trains at sidings all the time. 

    At the same time, the light rolling stock used in Europe isn’t allowed in North America, mostly because of a passive approach to security – rather than preventing accidents, trains are built so that if an accidents happens, it doesn’t really matter.

    But part of the problem is lack of cheap access to infrastructure. I once read rumors that the AMT has to pay millions in rent every year to use central station which is owned by monopolist CN (ironically it used to be owned by the public). I don’t even know how much Amtrak and VIA spend to access other infrastructure, but it doesn’t create a market where other passenger rail companies can compete with these subsidized dinosaurs.

  8. The rail network in North America moves primarily freight, whereas the European network moves mostly people. But the overall amount of train travel on both networks is actually quite comparable! The Europeans are struggling to find more capacity for freight transport (especially now that road transport is becoming even more expensive) and North Americans are fantasizing over High-Speed Rail solutions.

    There are all kinds of subsidies to various in our various transportation networks. Some are obvious, others less so, but there is no doubt that the ‘market for transportation’ is highly distorted. Rail can be competitive in the medium distance range (300-600 KM), but don’t forget that the urban density in Europe is significantly higher than in North America. There are a few corridors in North America where passenger rail could be competitive, but this presumes that people work in accessible central areas, which is not always the case….

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