Thousand Islands Bridge 75 Years Old and Going Strong

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by Lorraine Payette, written August 18, 2013

(ALEXANDRIA BAY, NY) A hush fell over the crowd as the guest speaker stepped onto the platform at the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority property on Collins Landing in Alexandria Bay, NY. The large white festival tent was filled to capacity and more, with 300 people seated and others standing in ranks four and more deep around the perimeter to listen to Brockville, Ontario, historian Brian Phillips speak on the 75th Anniversary of the Thousand Islands Bridge, which connects Lansdowne, Ontario, Canada with Alexandria Bay, New York, US. More than 2,000 people had come out to participate in the celebrations, which included musicians, vendors and a field of 360 antique cars and vehicles which were polished up and ready to show off for the occasion.

“It’s great to have Brian Phillips as a resource, because he’s taken the time and learned all about it and was able to share that with everyone here,” said Shane Sanford, Bridge spokesman.

Phillips spoke for about an hour on the history of the bridge, injecting his own personal brand of humour and warmth into the telling.

For the era, the pay was extremely good, running from about $0.40 an hour for boatmen and drivers up to $14.00 a day for divers (a day being 8 hours), and the significant project was completed in under sixteen months. Ground breaking was on April 30, 1937, at a ceremony drawing thousands, and the dedication on August 18, 1938, saw more than 25,000 in attendance. The project came in 10 weeks ahead of schedule, and cost $3,050,000. Although hundreds of people were employed and safety standards were nothing like they are today, there was only one known death of an employee during the project.

Monsaurat and Pratley of Montreal worked with Robinson and Steinman of New York City as project consulting engineers for the bridge in 1938. Over time, Robinson and Steinman became Parsons Transportation, continuing to this day as TIBA’s consulting engineers.

The completion of this five span international project was important enough to draw the top celebrities of the day to attend the grand opening, and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King joined US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in making speeches and cutting the ribbon.

In the crowd were several who had been involved on that day 75 years ago – including Ken Truesdell and the Eastman sisters, Flora and Lucia.

Truesdell, now 92, was one of the labourers who worked on the bridge for two summers when he was 16 and 17.

Flora Eastman-Sheldon, now 89, was 14-years-old on August 18, 1938, and her sister Lucia, now 87, was twelve, and they remember the trip to see the new bridge vividly.

“In Alfred Eastman’s family there were twelve of us,” said Flora. “Eight were in the car that came over the bridge to see President Roosevelt. My father and 15-year-old sister walked a ways to get that close. The rest of the family had to stay in the car, but we were over the bridge. I was really nervous. I don’t know how, but I got down on the floor in the back seat because I was afraid of heights.”

The longest span, which crosses the American channel of the St. Lawrence River, is 4,500 feet in length and 150 feet above the surface of the water. This must have been quite a challenge for many of those crossing the bridge that day.

“Mom drove the car, and my dad said, ‘Well, I’ll take care of the brakes,’” said Lucia. “It was bumper to bumper, so you had to go ahead and stop, then move on again.”

The family wore their best clothes and crowded into the Studebaker to be part of the momentous occasion.

“The youngest of us was six,” said Flora. “She sat on Dad’s lap, and all the rest of us were in the back. We all dressed up for the occasion, even the boys.”

“Later on, when President Roosevelt commenced going on the radio, Dad made us sit all around the dining room table to listen to what the President had to say,” said Lucia. “If we had more time, I’d love to take just one more trip over there to say we’ve been there the second time on this anniversary.”

When it began, there was no toll for crossing the bridge, and it saw traffic of about 150,000 vehicles per annum. Now there is a small fee which goes toward the upkeep of the bridge, and traffic is more than 2 million vehicles per year.

Annual paint jobs contribute tremendously to the preservation of the bridge, which would have long rusted away without this and other important annual maintenance.

To learn more about the Thousand Islands Bridge, please go to http://www.tibridge.com/wp/?page_id=2282 .

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