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Blackfriars Bridge – A historic bowstring truss bridge in London, Ontario

August 2021

Of all the historic bridges across North America, London, Ontario, has the oldest, and longest, wrought iron, bowstring truss bridge in North America that is still able to accommodate vehicular traffic.

The Blackfriars Bridge, with an unsupported length of 216 feet, is a double-lane bridge that has carried wagons, vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians over the Thames River, connecting Blackfriars Street on the west side, to Ridout Street North, on the east side, for 146 years. At each end, the bridge sits atop granite abutments.

A low parabolic chord tops the bridge, giving it a sense of floating above the river.

Bowstring bridges, are even more intricate than regular truss bridges, with distinctive features such as the pin connections, the timber decking and the lattice girders. They were common around the 1870s, but fell out favour due to their limited weight capacity. They are now one of the rarest types of truss bridges remaining in North America.

Although originally for two-lane traffic, Blackfriars Bridge was reduced to a single-lane for traffic, with the other lane for bicycles and foot traffic, after an $8.6 million restoration in 2018, due to the weight and frequency of modern vehicular traffic.

The years of damage to the wooden deck surface and to the iron structure, necessitated closing the bridge to vehicular traffic from May 2013 to December 2018. Pedestrian traffic was permitted again by December 2013, while London City Council formulated plans for the refurbishment of the bridge.

On 27 November 27, 2017, the bridge was cut in half, moved off-site for refurbishment, and then returned to its original location a year later.

A grand re-opening ceremony was held on 1 December 2018.

In April 2020, as part of London’s measures to help combat the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Virus, the bridge was closed to vehicle traffic, thus giving more room for pedestrians and cyclists to better space themselves when crossing. It has remained closed to vehicle traffic ever since, with debate on both sides as to whether it should remain for pedestrian and bicycle use only.

Restoration Controversy

By 2013, Blackfriars Bridge was in such poor shape, that the restoration became necessary if the bridge was to be retained. However, a substantial part of the original bridge materials had to be replaced with replica parts, thereby reducing its historical integrity.

The Historic Bridge Foundation (HistoricBridges.org), an organization that, “…works to encourage government agencies and officials to preserve historic bridges,” is listing the bridge as having a critical loss of historic integrity and significance. However, the bridge that was manufactured by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio, so long ago, remains designated as a historic structure under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act, and is included on the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

The Blackfriars Bridge also remains a popular subject for artists, having been featured in various artistic works, visual and literary, including a series of stained glass windows by Ted Goodden.

Sources: Blackfriars Street Bridge – Wikipedia, Blackfriars Bridge – Great Places In Canada, Blackfriars Street Bridge – HistoricBridges.org, Is it time to re-open Blackfriars Bridge to eastbound vehicles? | CBC News.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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