Friday, 3 February 2012

Arlington Bridge: What about that Nile connection ?

The Arlington Street Overpass
This is the last of a four part series on the history of Winnipeg's Arlington Street Bridge commemorating the centenary of her opening on February 5, 1912.

Many Winnipeggers are familiar with the story that the Arlington Bridge was originally built to cross the Nile River. Details vary but the core of the story said that it was built by Cleveland Bridge and Iron Works in the U.K. but left unclaimed and sold to Winnipeg on the cheap. The story has since been dismissed as "urban legend" for the fact that no city documents or media reports of the day make mention of it, which is true.

How did this legend get started and could there be something to it ?

The Origins of the Story
To find how this story got started, I've searched the Free Press archives, select periods from the Tribune archives and have gone through years of city council minutes and city bylaws.

July 30, 1946 Winnipeg Free Press

The first mention of the Arlington Bridge / Nile connection that I can find comes in a July 30, 1946 Winnipeg Free Press story. Alderman Bloomberg, a member of council's bridge committee, was speaking to yet another unexpected series of repairs required to the bridge structure. Exasperated, he said:

"The Arlington street bridge will always be a bugbear. It was built to go across the Nile river, but it was peddled off to the city of Winnipeg. The sooner the bridge comes down and a modern one goes up, the sooner will the city maintain expenses."
July 30, 1946. Winnipeg Free Press.

This and subsequent references to the Nile were not done in a boastful way, but as an important lesson learned for the city.

On January 16, 1952 an unnamed Free Press reporter decided to have some fun with a news story about a big British contract to construct a new bridge over the Nile River in Egypt. He wrote:
But for a whim of fate, the old Arlington Bridge, instead of being covered with snow and ice, would have had crocodiles playfully nipping at its piers."

The reporter went to see the city's chief engineer William D. Hurst to ask if the city would consider buying this new bridge should the contract go bad.
Hurst confirmed that the Arlington Bridge was originally intended for the Nile and that purchasing a pre-existing superstructure is the reason for the bridge's steep grade and other shortcomings which had caused numerous headaches for the city.

The next reference comes on February 18, 1955. A classified ad in a New York newspaper offering a used bridge superstructure for sale was spotted by reporter Archie Snow. He went to Hurst to ask about the feasibility of buying this bargain bridge for the upcoming Disraeli Freeway project. Hurst reportedly 'belly-laughed' and told Snow: 

“That (Arlington) bridge was scheduled to cross the Nile or Euphrates River in Egypt, I don’t know which. It was built by an English firm. Then the Egyptians didn’t want it.”

The first article I can find that attempts to investigate the Nile connection appears in the
January 11, 1969 Winnipeg Free Press.

Reporter Carmen-Litta Magnus looked through newspaper stories from the 1909 - 1912 era and found no reference to it being a previously built structure.
She contacted Cleveland Bridge who informed her that they had no corporate records showing the construction of an Arlington Street Bridge (or any bridge) in Winnipeg during that period.

She followed up with city engineer Hurst who said that when he began working in the city engineering department in the 1930s the Nile connection was known and spoken about, but admitted that he had never seen anything in writing that could prove it. He said that the story of a pre-existing structure didn't seem odd to him considering how low Cleveland's bid price was.

From that point onward, any reporting of the Nile connection was considered unlikely and by the 1980s considered nothing more than urban legend.

The Arlington Street Overpass

Nile Connection Examined

After researching the story, I have to confirm that I haven't come across any "smoking gun" that points directly at a Nile connection. There are some
questions and points that I've not been able to find answers for, though.

1. Why the Nile ?

Considering that major problems with the Arlington Bridge began to crop up months before it even opened, how did it get associated with the Nile River, of all places ? It's hard to imagine any city officials thinking of the structure in any sort of celebratory or romantic light. Its main backer and the only city official to show up for its opening, Controller Archibald McArthur, died mere months after it opened so he wasn't pushing the story.

If the Nile was a guess, it was certainly a good one.

Four decades earlier (1903 - 1913) the British were busy colonizing North Africa which meant constructing thousands of kilometres of rail line and roadways.
A main player in the construction of the necessary bridges happened to be Cleveland Bridge. In fact, they hired F. W. Stephen, an engineer who originally to the region as part of the British military, to be their key man from 1907 - 1910. Another military engineer, George Ronald Storrar, was sometimes subcontracted to Cleveland Bridge during this same period.

Blue Nile Bridge, Khartoum, Sudan (built in 1909) Source.

Around the time that the Arlington Bridge was put to tender, the British and Cleveland Bridge were heavily involved not so much in Egypt and the Nile River proper but in Sudan and two of the Nile's tributaries, the White Nile and Blue Nile rivers. The Blue Nile Bridge in Khartoum (above) is one project built around the same time as the Arlington still in use today (and the story there is that it, too, was not originally intended for that site !) Another is the Omdurmn Bridge in Sudan.

Note that these bridges were all meant to go over water. A key repair to the Arlington Bridge in the 1930s and 1940s was replacing iron that was corroded by the acrid smoke from locomotive engines. It wasn't until 1948 that the city finally solved the problem by spending $50,000 to install 'blast plates' to shield the bridge's undercarriage.

2. Were Any Bridges Unused ?

I can't find a direct reference to a bridge being unused but there likely were. Histories of the period speak of warring locals, political interference and bad planning all interfering with construction projects, to the point that some had to be put off or moved.

Also, there was a new British policy that made colonies "pay their own way" when it came to infrastructure projects. In this case it meant that the government of Egypt, not the deep coffers of Britain, was responsible for seeing that projects were paid for.

A number of histories of the region detail some of the issues faced by Cleveand:

In The Railway Conquest of the World (1911) F. A. Talbot writes of the difficulties that bridge builders had spanning the Nile and her tributaries. In one spot "A considerable quantity of scaffolding intended for the support of the steel bridge during erection was torn up and hurried down-stream."

In The Sudan under Wingate details a number of uprisings by peasants or religious groups that in some cases led to bloodshed along the territories that the British were colonizing.

In Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1934, Daly recounts a number of stops and starts to railway construction due to lack of funds or political gamesmanship.

3. What about Cleveland's Bid ?

In Magnus' Free Press story, city engineer Hurst says that the purchase of a pre-existing structure did not seem odd to him considering how low Cleveland's bid price was.

Above are the results of the Arlington Bridge bids from the City of Winnipeg bylaws. Bid number "1" is Cleveland Bridge at $205,160 which is $33,000 cheaper than its nearest competitor. Also of interest is the fact that Cleveland supplied a price for just option one, the 'truss spans', and nothing for the alternate 'plate girder' design. Why did Cleveland supply a bid for just the one style of bridge when their competition all presented costs for both options ?

Osborne Bridge ca 1913. Source.

If Cleveland Bridge could bid so much cheaper than even local competitors for bridges why, then, did they not bid and win contracts for other contracts in the city around the same time ? The Redwood (1909), Louise (1911), Osborne Street (1912) or Elm Park (1914) ? A newspaper search indicates that the only other bridge contract they bid on was the Osborne Street Bridge but lost to Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works.

The wonderful old Arlington Bridge

ConclusionI was hoping that I could find, one way or another, an answer to the Arlington Bridge's Nile connection. The more I dug, though, the less certain I was.

Perhaps one day an answer will be found in a box stashed away in an archives somewhere or maybe the Arlington Bridge will come and go without us ever knowing if it had an African lineage or not.


Gerald H. said...

Excellent story Chris. For myself I see a few reasons it could/should be true...

My late Grandfather who worked in the CP yards under that bridge his whole career told me many times about the Nile connection. It was a common knowledge/story to the CP workers he said.

I think the last 2 points you make speak volumes, from a purely business, non-political and 'no need to make up a legend' standpoint;

- Clevland only bid on one type of bridge for the project because they only had one type ready-to-go

- Clevland was $33k cheaper (a lot of $$$ back then don't forget) because they had already spent that amount or more for architectural/ engineering/ manufacturing prep work on the Nile bridge, and could have had some of that already paid by the African buyer but not registered on a sale yet

- they didn't bid on other bridges at the time because they couldn't come up with that much of a savings again, and had to clear the Nile bridge off their books/plate first.

In any event until I get proof otherwise, it's a Nile bridge to me!

ekimsharpe said...

great story...
the best urban legends are those that can't be debunked.
it's sometimes the not knowing that makes a local legend 'romantic'.

brent said...

thanks for your great research as always.....i believe.

Fabio Rodela said...

I heard it was supposed to go across the Suez Canal.

Elizabeth said...

just found this article ... and after visiting my 92 year old uncle in Edmonton, thought i would comment... yes there is a connection.

My mother and uncle were Foggs, and grew up on Home Street (it was their house that all the hoses were hooked up to to flood the ice at Orioles). When she married, she and Dad bought the house and we grew up there too.

As my grandfather had died (he was the original manager of the Pantages Theatre, and an organizer of the Eatons Santa Claus parade), my grandmother and another uncle remained in our house in a suite on the second floor. ... so I grew up hearing family stories (Orioles, Pantages, Robby Burns, etc, etc) from my mom and grandma.

Grandma's father was Sandy Jamieson (one of the men responsible for the Robbie Burns statue at the Leg) and he was a mason (real bricks, too) and worked in construction ... and one of the structures he was involved in working on was the Arlington Bridge ... which I grew up hearing had been originally meant for the Nile River.

I knew my great grandfather a bit, but was too young to think to ask him if this story was true ... but it did come down through his daughter to his grand daughter to me ... just had to add this to your notes. ... he also worked on the Eaton's building and my cousin and i were given a few bricks from a worker on site when it was demolished.
thank you!

Christian Cassidy said...

Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for your addition to the story. Very interesting !