Larry Evans: The collapse of the Peace River Bridge

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As 1957 came to a close, many major events were underway. The Pacific Great Eastern Railway bridge across the Peace was coming to a completion. North of the river, Pacific Petroleum was in the process of building a modern office complex in Fort St. John, as well as developing the Pacific Pete subdivision. The McMahon Plant at Taylor was also nearing completion. 

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On October 16, 1957, an event occurred that would affect everyone living and doing business north of the river. This was the collapse of the Peace River Bridge and was covered by the Alaska Highway News from start to finish. 

This collapse proved to be a substantial pain in the rear for literally everybody. What actually alleviated it was the completion of the PGE bridge, which allowed for some traffic and freight to cross to the north at different times of the day. While the oil companies found it inconvenient, most of the equipment and rigs that were needed in the patch were already across the river. The following is a bit of history and my memory of the collapse of the Peace River bridge.

In the early days, there was no way of crossing the Peace River in the summer except in dugouts, which were not always seaworthy. In the winter, everyone relied on the ice bridge created with built-up ice and snow to create a road. Shifting currents under the ice would often erode the ice, making it unsafe for heavy traffic. In the freeze-up of fall and the break-up of spring travellers and freight were to be taken by boats where there was open water, put on sleighs where the ice was still firm, and changed again to boats where there was open water. This means of transportation was slow, difficult, and often dangerous. This went on until the early 1920s when a cable ferry was installed at the crossing at Taylor. 

The Peace River Suspension Bridge was constructed by the U.S. Army and officially opened on August 30, 1943, as part of the building of the Alaska Highway. On October 16, 1957, the bridge collapsed. 

My Dad took my friend Kenny and I to Taylor to watch the action. We arrived with most of Fort St. John and area and the only gridlocked traffic Taylor has ever seen. People were everywhere on the banks of the river looking at what we presumed was a major catastrophe unfolding. We were lucky to get a front row seat, which was on the north bank below the small Pacific Pete subdivision (right side, southbound, the houses no longer there). We watched for what seemed like hours for the far side span to fall, which never did. Mom had the presence of mind to send a camera with us and Dad let me take pictures to keep Kenny and I out of his hair.

To say Kenny and I were becoming bored was an understatement, and as usual we began to pick at each other. I gave Kenny a push and he had the misfortune of sitting on a patch of cacti. The way Kenny was yelling, you’d think I’d cut off his leg. People came running from everywhere, they stood Kenny up and proceeded to pull the cacti out of his behind. Shortly after that, Dad took us home. I believe the cacti was much more prevalent than it is today, but if one looks on the north banks of the Peace and the Beatton Hills you can still find cacti patches growing. 

It took about three years to complete a new bridge and in those three years the population north of the river adapted and carried on. As I have said previously, Kenny and I, and most kids, believed that it had just fallen down, out of the blue. 

While the collapse of the bridge no doubt inconvenienced most people, for Kenny and I, and other kids north of the river, it was the shortage of pop and candy. Kenny and I stopped at Odermatt’s Dairy one Saturday to stock up on our supplies for the day and were told there was none. Most supplies came by truck transport across the Pacific Great Eastern railway bridge and they were only hauling the necessities.

As the years went by, things returned to normal with the present bridge being completed in 1960. Most people forgot about the bridge collapse. It wasn’t until I became involved in the history of the North Peace and the research into the collapse of the bridge that I got the shock of my life. There is live footage filmed by Rudy Schubert of the collapse of the bridge! 

Mr. Schubert had set up a camera several days earlier as the collapse was imminent. Many weeks earlier, it was discovered that the north embankment had been shifting due to erosion, thus making the piling under the bridge unstable. So it wasn’t a sudden collapse without warning but more like a series of events that eventually brought the bridge down. 

More information about the Peace River Suspension Bridge collapse and viewing of the live footage is available at the North Peace Fort St. John Museum.

Next week’s column will feature the opening of the refinery at Taylor and the visit of Princess Margaret.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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