London's Blackfriars Bridge is being removed for year-long repairs

For neighbour Christine Kelsey, removal of the Blackfriars Bridge topped even the birth of her first grandchild.

The iconic iron bowstring arch bridge was lifted from its moorings Monday, hanging from a crane for much of the day before being cut up and shipped in pieces to a construction yard to be rebuilt over the next year at a cost of more than $8 million -

“This is so important to me ... my first grandson was born yesterday in Toronto and I am postponing my visit until tomorrow,” Kelsey said Monday morning.

Her son, the new father, “totally understands,” she added.

For Kelsey, the bridge is a daily sight. In warmer weather, she rafts down the Thames River and passes under its towering structure.

“We live very close and I wanted to see it,” she said. “I am pleased by council and the neighbours and everyone who wants to preserve this wrought-iron bridge and wants to do it right.”

At 140 years old, Blackfriars is the oldest working bridge in Ontario — and one of the oldest in Canada. It was designated as a heritage property in 1992, is on the Ontario Heritage Bridge List of provincially significant structures, and also recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering. But the structure has needed frequent repairs in recent years, often closing it to vehicle traffic.

Repair and reconstruction work was done on the span in 2013 and 2016, but more work was needed and the city decided to remove, dismantle and rebuild it off-site, using as many original components as possible, said Doug MacRae, the city’s transportation, planning and design manager.

“This is a real gem. It has transportation value, but even moreso, cultural value. It is a symbol for Londoners,” he said.

“This is a milestone for this important project. It has been in the works for several years with project studies, detailed structural inspections and the whole design phase. We are really excited today to be ... implementing the rehabilitation this bridge needs,” said MacRae.

The span was supported at 28 points along its frame as it was raised Monday to ensure it did not fall apart once lifted.

“It is an all-day process, this is a big lift,” said MacRae.

Once lifted, the bridge was cut at mid-span, taken to the banks of the Thames River and cut into pieces, MacRae said. It will be rebuilt at the yard of St.Marys’ contractor McLean-Taylor Construction north of London.

“Some of it is corroded beyond repair,” said MacRae. “A lot of the more visual components, like the lattice work and pedestrian railing, we were able to reuse.”

In the 1870s, the bridge was brought to London as a series of large parts. Monday morning, it left its perch over the Thames the same way.

Along with Kelsey, a small group of Londoners gathered on Blackfriars Street, cameras in hand, to watch the engineering feat.

Marian Parent regularly walked Blackfriars Bridge with her Jeanne Sauve French immersion elementary school pupils for 13 years, offering them a bird’s-eye view of the Thames and the natural setting.

The first-grade teacher won’t be able to do that again for a year, so she had her camera ready. “I thought I’d get some pictures for my students. When we were here last week, they saw cranes and were fascinated,” she said.

Nearby, father and son Tom and Matt Dietrich also watched the bridge lift.

“This is a historic bridge in London. It is remarkable so much effort has been put into restoring it,” said Tom, an Old South resident. “It is a memorable moment in London history.”

Matt, 31, had a different focus. The Ryerson University architecture graduate was there to see design heritage preserved.

“I took pictures of the bridge as part of a high school project and then I went on to study architecture. I wanted to see what was going on here,” said Matt.

“It is one of the last vehicular and pedestrian iron bridges.”

If you missed the bridge removal, the city plans to post a time-lapse video on its website.

Read other news of London on our site.
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