A week ago last Saturday as we left la ville de Québec destined for Montréal we had to pass under two bridges that span the Saint-Laurent just west of the city. The captain had told us – in one of the few announcements made, thank you Crystal – that we would pass under the Pont du Québec, the first bridge, with about 4 metres (13 feet) to spare. Ever the pessimists Jeff and I decided to go to the top deck and check it out. I knew that that bridge is one of the major reasons many cruises – as did the transatlantic services of old – start in Québec rather than Montréal and that it had a history of tragedy.
It had taken years of political wrangling to get construction underway on a project to link the North and South shores of the Saint-Laurent but by 1904 work had begun with consulting engineer Theodore Cooper in charge of the project. At an early stage two engineers had disputed the calculations of the Phoenix Bridge Company that had been awarded the contract – the two were dismissed under orders of the Federal Cabinet. All seemed to be going well until in early 1907 when an inspection team noticed that several key structural elements were bending; a series of miscommunications and delayed meetings led to a major tragedy. Around quitting time on August 29 – as discussions were underway at Phoenix about halting construction – the central portion and part of the south shore span collapsed into the river taking with it 86 workers. In the 15 seconds it took the construction to disintegrate 75 workers were killed, 11 survived with serious injuries.
It took two years to clear the debris before work could begin on a second bridge under the supervision of the Federal Government. But again a subordinate’s warning concerning the hoisting devices were disregarded and as the centre span was being raised into position on September 11, 2016 it collapsed into the river killing 13 workmen. At first it was feared that it was espionage as the person who had warned them was Franz Lichtenberg, a Canadian of German descent. However this prove to be simply wartime paranoia; again the engineers had miscalculated the requirements of what was then the longest span of bridge ever to be built. That centre span still lies at the bottom of the Saint-Laurent.
Work was to continue on the bridge and was finally completed and in August of 1919 was opened by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Though primarily meant as a railway bridge it served as the principal route for cars, streetcars and pedestrians across the Saint-Laurent for many years. It now has one lane for rail service, two local lanes for cars and a pedestrian boardwalk.
Filmed as we approached the two bridges on Saturday evening September 26, 2015.
So why the title? What does Bill Gates have to do with a bridge built in 1917. Well I asked that question myself when a fellow passenger who was on the deck when I took the video told me that Gates owned it. I must have looked skeptical because he rather defensively – and rightly so it turned out – said that the guide had told them that one their tour. Ah I thought a sop for the American tourists. Well no deed of Canadian smugness goes unpunished. It turns out that Bill Gates does in effect own the bridge. The bridge belongs to Canadian National Railway and Mr Gates is the principal stockholder in the fine old company. So I guess it really is Bill Gates’ bridge.
Late last year Quebec City Mayor Regis Lebeaume and Levis Mayor Gilles Lehouillier appealed to Mr. Gates to contribute to the painting of the Bridge – which does show signs of needing a sprucing up. The project would take $200 million dollars to complete and various levels of government have promised half that amount but CN would have to put up the rest. So far the mayoralty duo has yet to hear back from Mr. Gates.