Bridge of Lights: A Walk Down Arlington Street

It’s April 8, 1911 and Winnipeg’s newest bridge is nearing completion. A Manitoba Free Press headline reads: Bridge of Lights, New Arlington Viaduct Will be a Night Sight for Winnipeggers. The writer continues:

The new Arlington street bridge across the C.P.R. yards when completed will be one of the night sights of the city as the result of the decision of the board of control yesterday to instal ornamental lighting standards on each side of the bridge roadway. The poles on each side will be seventy-five feet apart, and each will cary big incandescent globes. By alternating the lights, this will mean a big light every 37 feet across the bridge.

Sadly, the lighting never came to be. But, in the idea of glowing globes, there is a glimmer of recognition that this bridge has a purpose well beyond transporting traffic from one side to the other. This bridge of steel, crossing a broad river of rail tracks, connecting neighbourhoods on either side, serves a broader civic function.

On July 29, 2016, I embarked on my own exploration of that larger purpose. My plan was to walk the length of Arlington Street, starting at its Assiniboine River source, heading north across the Bridge of Lights and on to its terminus, eight kilometres later, at Enniskillen Avenue.

The street has been cobbled together over time from various, individually named thoroughfares. It was always Arlington Street from the Assiniboine River to Notre Dame Avenue. With a slight dogleg, it then transitioned into Brant Street until running into the C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) Yards. On the other side of that impenetrable barrier of rail tracks lay Brown Avenue, which continued north to Inkster Boulevard and eventually on to Enniskillen Avenue. At the time the bridge was being designed and tendered, it was known as the Brown and Brant Street Bridge. In 1910, the name was changed to the Arlington Bridge and, so too, the street names on both sides of the bridge were amalgamated as Arlington Street.

Arlington Street starts – or ends – at the Assiniboine River. At the same time the Arlington Bridge was under construction, another Arlington Bridge was being envisioned. It would have crossed the Assiniboine River, continuing Arlington Street further south, into the upscale neighbourhood of River Heights. The idea only lasted a couple of years and was finally quashed by the city in 1913. Today it exists only as metaphor. Another bridge trying to bridge a gulf dividing two parts of the city.

My walk starts at the banks of the Assiniboine River, where that fantasy bridge would have leapt across to the other shoreline. It’s a quiet little vest-pocket park nestled in a river bottom forest. Steps lead up the slope to a T-junction where Arlington Street abuts Palmerston Avenue.

This is the Wolseley neighbourhood – my neighbourhood. The eclectic character of the area is palpable as I make my way north on Arlington. Under a thick canopy of mature elms, I pass rows of tightly packed vintage house. Front yards are crowded, wild with perennials and the bric-a-brac of a slightly audacious populous. Here, a batik flag. There, a long poem posted to a home-made bulletin board. I cross Westminster Avenue, replete with the quirky, small scale commercial establishments that are quintessentially Wolseley. A small independent grocer (so rare these days), an organic bakery, a furniture maker, an alternative bookstore.

The sublime beauty of Wolseley quickly disappears as I reach Portage Avenue. At this intersection, Arlington crosses eight lanes of traffic. Portage may have started as an innocent, mud-filled ox-cart trail but, today, it is no less a barrier than a river or a rail yard. Any sense of an inviting neighbourhood pauses awkwardly as I wait my turn to cross Portage. Four lanes of cars and trucks toe the crosswalk, engines panting as I pass by, drivers’ eyes tilted upwards, ignoring me, glued to the traffic signal, waiting impatiently for the crack of the starting pistol’s green light and the charge to begin once more.

The residential character of Arlington returns just north of Portage Avenue. But it’s changed somehow. There’s a spareness that can be seen, as if the trauma of Portage has left a permanent injury. Arlington is busier here, with traffic pouring off Portage Avenue on its way to various cross avenues – Ellice, Sargent and Notre Dame –  and ahead to Arlington Bridge. The street is barely wide enough to handle today’s four lanes of fast-moving traffic. No doubt, this was once a quiet residential passage, as it still is in Wolseley. Modest, tidy residences line both sides of the street. Yards are well-tended with splashes of brightly coloured lilies. Just like Wolseley. But timid, bullied by the raucous street they face.

The sidewalks take me across Ellice Avenue, then Sargent Avenue and, finally, Notre Dame Avenue. Each junction is consumed with strip malls, convenience stores, gas pumps. Between intersections, Arlington persists with some semblance of residential neighbourhood. But it is at William Avenue that the complexion of the street shifts dramatically. All is industrial, institutional and commercial as I approach the bridge.

Not unexpected, or uninteresting. There is an other-worldly attraction to these starkly landscaped places. There is an honest, straightforwardness to the buildings and structures. A shed is a shed. A grain sorting facility is immediately identifiable by its exposed octopus of pipes feeding into large steel bins. In between the vertical bits is a landscape of concrete and regrettable patches of grass. And, behind the visuals, there are the mysterious hums and whirs of machinery echoing through the ‘hood.

A conspicuous anachronism in this rough and ready world of concrete block and steel-walled shacks is the The Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health. Which sounds more innocent than the National Microbiology Laboratory it contains and its more colloquial title, “The Virology Lab”. The sleek white walls of this cathedral to bacteria rise high above its ordinary neighbours.

At Logan Avenue, I am immediately greeted with the the steep pitch of the ramp leading up to the Arlington Bridge. It is a quick, steady climb up a 6% slope that abruptly levels out at the top, revealing a world so different from the journey thus far. The sidewalk clings alongside the bridge superstructure. I’m wrapped in chainlink tube running the length of the bridge. Through its galvanized grid are views to endless rivers of steel and trains below. Above me rise angular ribs of rusting steel, a complex assembly of steel trusses.

The visual complexity parallels the problematic history of the overpass. The bridge has been fraught with a number of structural challenges. It is hard to tell if those problems are significantly more than any other bridge. All are subject to a high level of wear and tear. Or can the problems be traced back to the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company of Darlington, England who won the contract for the superstructure in 1910 with a bid much lower than their competitors? Regardless, Arlington Bridge’s structural issues have taken on mythological proportions, starting not long after it was built and continuing to today.

A common myth holds that the bridge was a surplus one, originally designed to cross the Nile River. No proof exists to support this premise but it is not an unreasonable theory. And I think of the Nile as a fitting metaphor for C.P.R. Yards. Both are forces of ‘nature’ that defy intervention and command respect.

Our Nile began as a small but growing trickle in 1882. That year the main line tracks, extending from Canada’s east coast to west coast, were laid through the centre of Winnipeg. This immediately divided a rapidly growing city into two worlds, a vibrant immigrant population on the north side and a ruling establishment population to the south.

Since 1898, there has been a history of bridge building as a way of dealing with the divide. The obvious alternative, to relocate the mainline and the rail yards, did not gain any traction, it seems, until the 1970s. That’s almost a hundred years for the rail yards to establish deep and immoveable roots in the city structure. It is no wonder that the two rail yard relocation studies undertaken in the 1970s were ultimately aborted while bridge and underpass projects survived. The story is no different today. 2011 saw the start of a study to determine the future of the Arlington Street Bridge and meeting the area’s future transportation needs (more on this later). And in 2016, yet another study to move the rail lines out of the city has been aborted.

As I walk alongside the bridge, its tangle of beams changes constantly, forming new patterns against the day’s deep blue sky. In the other direction is the rigid organization of parallel rail lines extending to the horizon. Trains shunt back and forth to the laboured groans of engines. Lines of connected cars start and stop to the rat-a-tat-tat percussion of banging couplers. It’s all very kinetic, very sculptural, very engaging.

Perched high on this bridge, looking up at the zig-zag patterns of beams, looking over the river of steel, reaching west to the Pacific and east to the Atlantic, I can’t help but think of this place as an accidental piece of public sculpture. It tells the story of our city, of the rail lines, the roads and the rivers that divide us, how we use them, how we overcome them, how we fill them with special places called work or play or home.

This is not the promised Bridge of Lights. It’s better.

So it is regrettable that the current plan, stemming from the 2011 study – and still in progress – calls for the replacement of this bridge with another. Some anonymous concrete affair, no doubt, with a sprinkling of interpretive plaques. Too bad. This bridge is embodied with our city’s history, expressive of our city’s urban form. An urban form that cannot be replaced.

It’s a long walk across the bridge. After all, the Nile is a wide river. It ends as abruptly as it began, with a sharp and sudden decline back down to street level.

Which is yet another source of historical debacle.

When built, the bridge had incorporated streetcar rails. But the ramps were so steep that drivers refused to take streetcars across the bridge. Busy cross streets at the base of the ramps only added to the safety concerns. Although new cars were fitted with handbrakes (astonishingly, the original cars had none), drivers still refused to cross the bridge. In the end, the streetcars were abandoned in favour of buses.

North of the bridge, the character of Arlington Street changes once again. This is what Winnipeggers refer to as the north end, meaning north of the tracks. It was Winnipeg’s original melting pot, where many immigrants found a home after arriving at the C.P.R. Station, not too far away. The north side of the bridge has always been a vibrant, evolving mix of cultures. I see it in subtle ways as I make my way north along Arlington.

I cross Selkirk Avenue, a major street, but one more in scale with the neighbourhood. Gradually, the small houses overwhelm any commercial development. The street becomes leafier, the houses proudly garnished with flowers. And it strikes me that there is a more consistent urban fabric north of the bridge. The cross roads are less harried. Looking down the many small residential streets that intersect with Arlington, I see the same canopy of trees, the same rows of small houses. From Selkirk  Avenue to Inkster Boulevard, it all hangs together as one identifiable neighbourhood.

Inkster Boulevard is likely as wide as Portage Avenue but completely different in character. It’s a pleasantly treed thoroughfare, busy with traffic, but calmed with a broad boulevard. Beyond it, Arlington starts to wind down. The traffic is light. The residences tidy, more suburban. A rail spur line sweeps in from the south and soon parallels Arlington on one side. The track and its broad buffer are treated as passive parkland, carpeted with grass. Early modern houses line its edges. Walkways lead across the track, connecting neighbours. There’s a playground to one side. It is a serene place.

Here, with a gentle curve away from the tracks, Arlington Street peacefully merges into Enniskillen Avenue. The street – my journey – has come full circle, ending here, in this quiet residential setting much as it began along the banks of the Assiniboine River.

 

My essay would not be possible without the extensive research of Winnipeg historian, Christian Cassidy. I would encourage readers to read Cassidy’s complete history of the Arlington Bridge, on his blog, West End Dumplings.   

 

As reported in my previous blog post, I plan to publish a book based on my Arlington Street walk. The essay above will form the introduction to the photographs that will fill the bulk of the pages. A selection of preliminary page spreads were included in last week’s post. Below are a few more.

 

page-3-4

page-6-7

page-14-15

page-20-21

page-28-29

page-36-37

page-42-43

page-50-51

page-62-63

 

 

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