The first Granville Street Bridge opened on Jan. 4, 1889, which was 130 years ago Friday.
“It started in a clearing and ended in a forest,” Vancouver archivist Major James Matthews noted on a photo of the bridge. “It was constructed to give access to a slit in the towering forest known as the ‘North Arm Road,’ now Granville Street south, and shorten (the) route via old ‘North Arm Road,’ now Fraser Street.”
North Arm refers to the north arm of the Fraser River. According to a Feb. 21, 1953, Province story, the CPR had promised to build the North Arm Road if the city constructed a bridge. The CPR’s motives weren’t altruistic — the company’s main land grant in Vancouver was south of False Creek on today’s west side. But the city complied, hoping to open up commerce with the farms in Richmond.
Matthews was an eccentric fellow who would often annotate old photos with his distinctive scrawl. Modern-day archivists would blanch at his approach, but Matthews’ musings give old photos a little je ne sais quoi. And they’re quite informative.
“The bridge was wide enough to allow only two wagons to pass each other,” he wrote. “A four-foot path, separated by a railing for pedestrians, was on (the) west side of this bridge.”
Matthews reported the bridge was 2,400 feet long, stretched from Beach Avenue downtown to Third Avenue in Fairview and cost $16,000 to build. It looks pretty rudimentary in the archives photo, barely rising above the water on a forest of piles sunk into False Creek.
The bridge was largely made of wood and was in the Howe-truss design style.
“The wood used for the caps and other parts of the structure is Douglas fir, the best of its kind, and free from sap, dry-rot, shakes or any imperfections,” The World reported on Nov. 10. “The piles are of spruce and hemlock with the bark left on.”
It was a drawbridge, opening in the middle so ships could pass through to the industries operating on the creek.
“The draw is 190 feet in the clear and covers two passages for vessels, each of which is 80-feet clear,” The World reported. “The pier, which is built of stone on which the draw machinery is placed, is 30-feet in length.”
Nine-year-old Mundy Oppenheimer (the nephew of Mayor David Oppenheimer) was given the honour of pulling the level to officially open the draw. It took three minutes to open, but two minutes to close. The lever was then moved to another hole “connecting with more rapidly moving machinery” that opened it in a mere minute and seven seconds.
The Vancouver Archives owns the glass-plate negative for the print in The Province files, and somebody has written “approx. Dec. 1888” on it. The photo is uncredited, but it may have been done by Charles Bailey, who photographed the opening ceremonies.
If you zoom in on the photo you can spot several men standing on top of the bridge’s swing span, including a couple of guys who climbed to the top of a four-storey tower. Many appear to be workers, probably from the crew that built the bridge in only four months.
As Vancouver boomed the bridge quickly proved to be too small. In the fall of 1891 streetcar trestles were erected on either side of the bridge, but the main span was still too narrow and the city replaced it with a larger bridge that opened on Sept. 6, 1909.
The first Granville Street Bridge was torn down only 20 years after it opened. But the second bridge was too small as well, and was replaced by the current bridge, which opened on Feb. 4, 1954.
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