Lions Gate Bridge is an iconic Vancouver landmark. Its slender form spans Burrard Inlet at the First Narrows and connects the unceded lands of the North Shore and Vancouver through Stanley Park. It is a reminder of our colonial past in that it is named after the twin mountain peaks on the North Shore that the British named The Lions, after two lion sculptures on Trafalgar Square in London, UK. The Coast Salish have called these twin peaks Sch’ich’iyúy (or Twin Sisters) since time immemorial. This name is rooted in place, the settler name is not.
An Innovative Design
But from an engineering point of view, the bridge is a marvel. At the time of its construction, it was the longest suspension bridge in the British Empire and its innovative design drew praise from far and wide. It was one of the largest construction enterprises in Canada during the 1930s and its completion signalled the beginning of the automobile era and suburban development in West Vancouver.
Alfred J.T. Taylor — of Taylor Way fame today – was the engineering contractor and visionary behind the project. He anticipated how attractive the slopes of North and West Vancouver would be for residential settlement and spent years of political wrangling to make his vision come true. He found his financial backers in the Guinness family who purchased land in British Properties. They subsequently also financed the bridge that would make their land investment highly profitable (D’Acres and Luxton, 36, 52).
During the 1930s’ Depression, a large bridge-building project was attractive to all local municipalities as well as the provincial government (D’Acres and Luxton, 37). Previous concerns over the causeway through Stanley Park were suddenly of less significance in the middle of an economic crisis with high unemployment.
The last piece fell into place when the federal government finally gave its approval in April 1936 (D’Acres and Luxton, 55). The fact that the bridge would cut through the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation’s Capilano Reserve, resulting in further loss of their land, was not a matter of concern for the government in those days. The Indian Act of 1927 had made it illegal for First Nations peoples to hire lawyers so, conveniently for the government, they had no legal avenues of protest.
Construction began on March 31, 1937, and the Lions Gate Bridge opened for traffic on November 12, 1938. The work was relatively trouble-free and, incredibly, the shipping lane through Burrard Inlet was only closed for one single hour during the period of construction.
So what’s innovative about its design?
Traditionally in early 20th century bridge construction, suspension cables were wound at the site, but for the Lions Gate Bridge, they used prefabricated strands for these cables. This improved efficiency and they were able to put all strands in place in 16 days!
Once the towers were in place, the cable strands were hoisted into place over their tops. Each cable strand was 3.65 cm thick and the engineers decided to use 61 of them to hold up the bridge. This made for a final cable that was not too stiff or difficult to anchor on either side.
The 61 strands of cable were stabilized by bolting large hexagonal clamps around them at regular intervals. On hot days, the upper strands would move “like huge reptiles” as they expanded, buckled, twisted and dropped in between the lower, cooler ones, so the workers could only do this work at night, when the temperature was more uniform.
This work – like all the work – was done without safety gear from a long, temporary catwalk that was suspended three feet below the height of the master cables. I wonder what that must have been like for the workers. Did they feel fear or a sense of freedom, as they worked suspended in air day in and day out? Or did it become just another day at the office?
The traditional way of constructing a roadbed on a bridge was simply to pour slabs of concrete onto it. For the Lions Gate Bridge, the engineers decided instead to place strips of steel in a grid pattern into which concrete was poured. This turned out to be a much lighter way of constructing a roadbed and it saved about 30 pounds per square foot (146kg/m2). For a suspension bridge, every pound matters! It also matters where those pounds go – workers were simultaneously pouring concrete from both ends of the bridge span to avoid unequal loading of the cables.
The final touch on the bridge was the installation of a pair of concrete Art-Deco-style lions at the bridge’s south entrance. They were the last major work of Vancouver sculptor, Charles Marega. Taylor, the entrepreneur, was so fond of them that he sealed personal items into them, including a written account of his struggles to get the bridge built. He also commissioned a smaller pair of lions for his property in West Vancouver, which eventually ended up in our collection. They will be exhibited at the new museum.
The bridge was built for two lanes of traffic, but already in 1954, it was reconfigured to three narrow lanes. Traffic congestion seems to have a long history in Vancouver! Discussions around how to alleviate the problem took decades.
One suggestion – an ambitious one – was to twin the span across the First Narrows. This original idea was proposed by the Squamish Nation in partnership with architect Moshe Safdie and engineering firm SNC Lavalin. As part of the design process, a model was created. The idea of twinning the bridge was abandoned, but what happened to the model? It was discovered at a Thrift Store in Burnaby in 2016. As the model has a place in the history of transportation on the North Shore, MONOVA acquired it for display in the new museum.
Upgrading The Bridge
Eventually, the decision was made to upgrade the bridge with minimal alterations to its original design to preserve its heritage value. It was refurbished from September 9, 2000, to September 29, 2001. This, too, was a major engineering success. The work was mostly done at night so as not to interrupt the daily flow of traffic. A jacking traveller was used as a temporary link when each of the 47 deck sections were replaced and was also used for lifting and lowering the sections into place.
The bridge now looks even lighter than it did before. The road surface is 40% wider and the sidewalks and bike lanes have been moved to the outside of the structure. The trusses – steel reinforcement structures on the sides – are now located underneath the new deck, which provides for a significantly better view for those crossing the bridge.
It’s a beautiful bridge! It’s a feat of attractive civil engineering as well as a daily reminder of our colonial past. I often think about that. But a bridge is a hopeful thing – a joining of two parts, a meeting. For me, the Lions Gate Bridge embodies all of this and it reminds me that, as a recent immigrant on this land, I have a responsibility to critically engage with this complexity.
How do you feel about the Lions Gate Bridge?
— Lene Burgmann, 26 July 2021
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