A Daunting Task: Preserving Historic River Bridges

McEwen Bridge is one of 33 (in the Humber River watershed) that were identified as having heritage significance but not one of the five that have been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. It is, however, one of four others that have at least been listed”  – from the blog ‘Hiking the GTA, Abandoned Kirby Road

Kirby Road formerly crossed the Humber River on a bridge named after the landowner. Lorne McEwen had owned the land since 1916. This reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridge was built in 1923 and was designed by Frank Barber. Barber had designed several bridges over the Humber River including the Old Mill Bridge.” “Kirby Road was closed in the 1970’s when sections were deemed unsafe due to excessive erosion. This left the bridge with no formal use until the Humber Valley Heritage Trail Association was founded in 1995 and began work on their trail. The reinforced concrete bridge has never had any major restoration and is crumbling badly.

The conservation of such heritage bridges is problematic. The Humber River is a Canadian Heritage River and, as such, its historic accoutrements, of which bridges are an important part, deserve attention. While both the Humber and its sister Canadian Heritage River, the Grand, have had their bridges inventoried, that is only the very first small step towards possible preservation of those that count as an embodiment of our social, agricultural and industrial history.

While heritage river bridges that carry active rail or public road traffic have patrons who have the budgetary option, when maintaining their bridge infrastructure, to respond to public concern for their social importance, those waterway bridges along private roads or countryside tracks (such as the Kirby Road bridge mentioned above) too often have dubious prospects for survival. They may have the advantage that one or more hiking, horse-riding, cycling, ATV or snowmobile trail maintenance organizations has a vested interest in their continued existence. The Kirby Road bridge  became important to one such trail club. But such groups usually lack the political clout, funding and expertise to save built heritage structures. Sometimes a municipality will get up to bat if there is a wider social good in play, such as a well-used public pathway crossing water. An example was the refurbishment of the heritage Sneath Road pedestrian bridge over the Humber in old Bolton village in 2011.

Sneath Road bridge restoration

However the many small  backwoods and back-roads bridges with good preservation credentials are all too often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Existence on a now-dusty inventory list in some bureaucrat’s filing cabinet is no path to conservation unless accompanied by active PR from influential stakeholders.

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Filed under architecture, heritage bridges, heritage landscape, heritage planning, heritage rivers, Preservation