Prince Albert’s “Gateway to the North” status has been hard-earned, with the city’s current efforts to have another bridge built nothing unique in the pages of history.
Constructed in 1909, the railway bridge a block west of the Diefenbaker Bridge served as the city’s only link with the north until 1961.
In addition to locomotives, the bridge sported twelve-foot wide lanes on each side of the railway trusses, which carried all highway traffic.
For those with larger vehicles, this meant keeping a very close eye on the front left railing, out of fear of scraping against it.
“It had many dents and so forth that people put in when they were driving,” Mayor Jim Scarrow noted.
With Prince Albert and northern Saskatchewan booming, the combination highway-railway bridge soon proved itself insufficient, sparking a bridge campaign similar to the city’s present-day Build a Second Bridge Campaign.
Prince Albert officially began investigating the construction of a second bridge on Nov. 20, 1947.
On this date, “A large delegation met with the minister of Highways and Transportation to request the construction of a new highway bridge,” the Prince Albert Traffic Bridge’s official opening pamphlet reads.
“As a result, the chief bridge engineer was directed to proceed in Prince Albert and examine the alternative sites for such a bridge.”
In January of 1948, preliminary borings were taken, revealing ideal soil conditions — hard blue clay at a very shallow depth — at the northern end of Second Avenue West, where the bridge would eventually be constructed.
Get on with it, already!
Although the first official step toward a new bridge was taken in 1947, the effort appeared stagnant by 1953.
That was, until Prince Albert residents said “Enough!” A delegation of seven Prince Albert citizens visited provincial cabinet in late 1953, armed with a petition containing 7,000 signatures of people requesting a new traffic bridge.
This same petition fueled a trip to Ottawa in December, when Alderman (and future mayor) Dave Steuart visited federal resources and development minister Jean Lesage to request federal finances for the bridge project.
Although the federal government’s response was a clear “no,” Steuart called on council to “re-double our efforts and never stop until we have finished the job,” the Daily Herald quotes him as saying at the time.
“I pointed out that our financial position was such that any large contribution on our part was out of the question,” Steuart told council. “I also stressed the increasing traffic to the national park, the development of the north, the increase in rail traffic and the fact that other cities had received federal aid in constructing bridges.”
Lesage responded by stating that the federal government finds no financial gain in the national park and that there’s no military benefit to bridge construction in Prince Albert.
Mayor John M. Cuelenaere thanked Steuart for his efforts, and the city intensified their efforts on a grass-roots basis.
A year after his first trip to Ottawa in search of bridge funding, Steuart decided to have another go at the request, backed by council, the local chamber of commerce, various service clubs and many members of the community.
Between federal, provincial and municipal governments, the city’s ongoing efforts finally paid off in 1958, when city council finally proposed a bridge funding bylaw.
“The fight for a new bridge here in Prince Albert goes back over 25 years and was never more important than it is today,” Steuart wrote in a Daily Herald opinion piece prior to the vote, which passed.
The federal government agreed to pay 50 per cent of the bridge cost, the Saskatchewan government paid 37.5 per cent and the City of Prince Albert paid the remaining 12.5 per cent.
In total, the bridge cost was estimated $2 million at the time of its grand opening in 1960. By the bridge’s naming ceremony in 1967, the Daily Herald quotes a cost estimate of $3 million. Taking inflation into account, that number would be $20 million today, according to a Bank of Canada inflation calculator.
We’re in the same situation that we were in the late 1950s … Now, there’s definitely a need for a second (traffic) bridge. - Mayor Jim Scarrow
Tenders for the construction project were called in early 1959, with work beginning in the spring, with 5,230 cubic yards of concrete poured, 400 tons of reinforced steel and other materials completing the project.
The bridge celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 12, 1960, though traffic didn’t start crossing the bridge until the next year.
Naming the bridge
Naming the Diefenbaker bridge proved a long process, with its grand opening ceremony referring to it as simply the “Prince Albert Traffic Bridge.”
Before financing was in place, the city’s elected officials playfully toyed with several different names — particularly during one undated council meeting.
“Wasn’t it called the ‘Premier Bridge?’” Mayor John M. Cuelenaere asked council.
“That’s right, but can we call it that, now?” several voices responded.
“Then, Ald. Dave Steuart stood up and said, “Your worship … I suggest we call it the ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ bridge!”
On June 5, 1967, a naming ceremony was held at the Coronet Motor Home, with more than 300 people in attendance.
With former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker present, the bridge was officially named in his honour, in recognition of his efforts to have the bridge built.
“John Diefenbaker will go down in history as a man who understood instinctively the needs, hopes and aspirations of western Canada,” Premier Ross Thatcher said at the event.
“Not only has he understood our needs, but repeatedly when he held the highest office in our land, he took action to satisfy those needs.”
Bridge campaign part 2
The Diefenbaker bridge’s 50th anniversary was marred by a structural defect.
Dr. Randy Friesen found a crack on one of the bridge’s girders while canoeing underneath in August of 2011, resulting in a months’ long repair process that meant the instatement of weight restrictions and lane closures
With additional work taking place this year, lane closures will continue to sporadically take place at the bridge until November.
Last year saw the bridge’s inclusion under the provincial urban highway connectors program, taking any funding onus for the bridge out of municipal coffers.
Financial hardships caused by lane closures and weight restrictions, combined with long lineups and the need for a dangerous goods route to trigger the city’s Build a Second Bridge Campaign.
Similar to the city’s first bridge campaign, this one is centred on convincing the provincial and federal governments to help fund the costs of another bridge at or near Prince Albert.
“We’re going to be making presentations to government in the weeks to come,” Mayor Jim Scarrow said this week.
“We think that we have certainly made the case well for northern Saskatchewan.”
While the Diefenbaker bridge’s initial construction cemented the city’s “Gateway to the North” status, a second traffic bridge will ensure this status continues into the future, Scarrow said, noting that city’s market base has grown to more than 180,000 by some estimates.
“We’ve seen incredible population growth, mining, economic development in northern Saskatchewan.
“This needs to be triggered by the province of Saskatchewan, and that triggers the national participation. We’re not there yet.”
All research for this article was done at the Prince Albert Historical Museum, with help by curator Michelle Taylor and museum volunteers.