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Pattullo Bridge turns 75

The Pattullo Bridge in 1937. - Burnaby Village Museum photo
The Pattullo Bridge in 1937.
— image credit: Burnaby Village Museum photo

A gleaming new Pattullo Bridge officially opened Nov. 15, 1937 with a great deal of fanfare about how modern it was. The ceremony’s official souvenir program bragged the span was “planned not only to meet all requirements of today but to anticipate traffic expansion for years to come.”

Seventy-five years later, the weathered and rusted structure soldiers on, although “years to come” ran out decades ago.

The connection across the Fraser River between Surrey and New Westminster was well used long before the first rivet was drilled on the Pattullo. The first crossings were done by the K de K and Surrey ferries.

In 1904, a wooden bridge was completed that carried trains on one level and carts, pedestrians, produce, horses, cattle, and assorted farm animals on another.

Then along came the motor vehicle, and the bridge quickly became obsolete because it was too narrow for two to pass each other. A paddle had to be passed back and forth from one end of the bridge to another to indicate if the bridge was occupied or not.

It was, however, the only physical crossing west of Mission, with ferries patrolling up and down the river taking people across.

Spending money to build a bridge during The Great Depression would seem like political suicide these days. But when then premier Thomas Dufferin (Duff) Pattullo took charge of the province in the 1930s, his solution was to emulate U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with a Little New Deal, says local historian Archie Miller of A Sense of History research services.

“He believed in getting involved in helping people, and took to heart what had to be done to help people,” said Miller.

Pattullo proposed a health insurance scheme, a higher minimum wage, more money for schools, measures to ease the plight of the poor and unemployed, and the building of public works projects such as a big bridge named after him.

There was a lot of discussion about where to put it. There was some talk of connecting right into downtown New Westminster or down river where the George Massey Tunnel is now.

There were also discussions about it being bigger, possibly six or eight lanes, said Miller.  The reaction when that was suggested, he said, was, “My God, what are you thinking? Never in our history will you see enough cars.”

Eventually the decision was made to go ahead at one of the narrowest spots on the Fraser. Construction began in September 1935.

The Pattullo Bridge took two years and two months to build at a cost of $4 million – big bucks in those days. To pay for it, users were charged a toll that wasn’t removed until 1952.

Finally getting a crossing that spanned the waterway that divided the region was something to celebrate. A beautiful eight-page official souvenir program (pictured upper right) was produced for the opening ceremonies and a fancy three-course luncheon was served at Queen’s Park Arena in New Westminster.

Following the Second World War in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the economy improved dramatically and the Pattullo proved its worth.

“As soon as the war is over you now have quite a boom in gas and cars,” says Miller. “The bridge begins to pay its dividends because then it becomes easy to nip across.”

As the years went by, other crossings in the region were built, such as the Port Mann, Queensborough, Alex Fraser, Knight Street, Oak Street and Arthur Laing bridges, as well as the George Massey tunnel.

And vehicles got wider, and the gap between sideview mirrors got narrower. For drivers, the trip across the Pattullo became more challenging. During the ’90s and into this century, the span became notorious because of numerous fatal accidents, forcing authorities to close the inside lanes overnight to reduce the death toll.

As the 75th anniversary of Duff Pattullo cutting the ribbon on the state-of-the-art bridge neared, TransLink, which is responsible for the Pattullo, announced the structure is in trouble. The deck, girders, and structural components show signs of corrosion and deterioration. A 2007 report to TransLink determined the bridge is vulnerable to collapse even if there’s only a moderate earthquake.

As any white-knuckled driver going over the bridge knows, the Pattullo’s lanes are too narrow for today’s vehicles while the sidewalk leaves pedestrians and cyclists unprotected from traffic. TransLink says there’s an average of 138 accidents a year on the span.

There’s also a fear the bridge’s foundations could be exposed to the Fraser’s fast flow that removes sand and rocks from around the bridge piers, and its foundation is having issues caused by river scour.

Earlier this year, TransLink proposed a six-lane replacement for the bridge at a cost of up to $1 billion. Last week, TransLink said it will be doing a new assessment to determine if it’s possible to extend the Pattullo’s life by a couple more decades with safety and seismic upgrades. If that is done, the bridge would be reduced to three lanes.

TransLink executive vice-president for strategic planning Bob Paddon told Black Press the bridge is safe and while closure is “extremely unlikely,” conditions could make it necessary.

With the fanfare over the Pattullo long since faded, the big question now is whether it’s had its last hurrah.

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