Built over a hundred years ago, the rather spindly looking St George’s Island (12th St SE or Zoo Island) bridge still carries traffic, although its future is somewhat up in the air. Crossing the mighty Bow River just east of downtown Calgary, it connects the community of Inglewood, with others in the north via a second, much newer and smaller, concrete bridge on the far side of the island. Between them lies the the Calgary Zoo whose entrance is on the north bank. It takes up much of the land on the island.
The structure’s builder was the Algoma Steel Bridge Company of Winnipeg Manitoba. Connected to the huge Algoma Steel Mill in Ontario, this arm of the firm only operated for a short time and based on our research, their output was limited. The oldest bridges we we could find from them are from 1908 (this one in fact dates from that year), and the newest, 1911.
You’ll notice that the bridge is rather narrow for the traffic it carries plus there is a wicked hairpin curve on the north (island) end. Traffic along 12th St SE is not overly heavy and naturally no big vehicles are allowed to use the structure. Maybe one reason for it’s limited us are its narrow confines which must scare some drivers, plus the slow speeds posted once on the island. Or maybe that the bridge is just not that terribly important from a traffic flow standpoint.
When it was constructed, horse and buggies were more common then cars. That’s interesting!
St George’s island, prior to the zoo taking over much of the land here in the 1920s, was a city park of sorts, where one could picnic or camp.
The bridge uses a Parker Truss system for support. This is an arched variant of the common Pratt Truss style, which has a straight top. A Parker Truss (sometimes referred to as Camelback or Parker Camelback Truss) is more complex to build, somewhat so, but tends to be lighter overall them a straight Pratt version. The arch, visually, makes the bridge look quite attractive.
The main span crosses the deepest and fasted running part of the Bow. The north end is a steel supported deck bridge over mostly shallower sections of the river, which at some point replaced an earlier wood trestle from the old days. In vintage photos, there is a walkway seen only on the west side of the structure. Now there is one on the east side only, although remnants of the old one just mentioned can be seen still attached to the main span. The bridge is also a connector for the Calgary Pathways system.
There are warning signs on the bridge reminding rafters and paddlers (the river is crowded with them come summer) that there are some potentially nasty rapids just downstream.
There was talk of replacing the bridge a year or so back, but things have been sort of quiet on that front since and nothing specific as yet been brought forward. I understand some of the concerns. The bridge is old and will need some work, certainly, and it’s narrow (lots of side mirrors go here to die) and never will be anything but. However it is historically significant which hopefully will be taken into consideration when they start taking about its possible demise again. A rebuild, one would think, should suffice, more so given the current economic state, plus the fact the road is just not that busy and by design never could be.
There are three other bridges in town that came from the same Algoma firm, built to the same basic design as this one. Two of these are not far away, one carrying traffic on 9th Ave SE (built 1909, four lanes wide and also under threat) and the other on MacDonald Ave a couple blocks further south (built 1911, two lanes). Both cross the Elbow River just upstream of where it empties into the Bow.
A third bridge, built in 1910, is located in the far west end of town, connecting the community of Bowness with the rest of Calgary. This bridge crosses the Bow River and today is used by pedestrians only, but in the past was for auto and streetcar traffic. Like the span seen in this report, that one is very narrow.
Of the four similar bridges spoken of in this post, the St George’s/Zoo Island crossing is in the roughest shape. The piers, pier casings and underside are all rather corroded. Is it terminal? I can’t help but think no, but most definitely it will need attention soon. Interestingly, it appears the structure suffered little or no damage from the spring 2013 floods, and they were of biblical proportions. Everything looks as it should and that it’s lasted this long, even in light of nature trying to tear it a new one, speaks volumes of those who built it.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: February, 2015.
Location: Calgary, AB.
Article sources: Calgary archives, Algoma Steel Bridge Company records.
All the places seen in this report are publicly accessible.