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Route for railway line generated lots of political steam

Legend has it Sir John A. MacDonald chose the route because of its beauty

By Rannie Gillis - Cape Breton Post

As a condition of Confederation in 1867, the new Canadian Government established the Intercolonial Railway to link the Maritime Provinces to Quebec and Ontario. In order to do this the Intercolonial took control of all railways that had previously been built by the province of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. By the late 1880s three potential routes for the Cape Breton section of the Intercolonial Railway had been proposed, all of which would originate in Point Tupper on the Strait of Canso.

The first was a western route through Inverness and Victoria Counties (Whycocomagh, Nyanza, Baddeck, etc.) to North Sydney The second, an eastern route, would pass through Port Hawkesbury St. Peter’s, Johnstown, and Big Pond, before terminating in Sydney. The third was a route through the center of the island. This would pass through Orangedale, lona, Grand Narrows, Christmas Island and Boisdale befote ending in North Sydney

The political infighting was hot and heavy as the various vested interests tried to make their point with politicians in Halifax and Ottawa. According to local legend the issue was settled when then Prime Minister John A. MacDonald made a fishing trip to Cape Breton. He was so impressed with the beauty of the Barra Strait region that he chose the central route for the new railway

The real story is that MacDonald was in the vicinity for political reasons. It was election time, and Sir John A. was a close personal friend of H.E MacDougall, a prominent kcal merchant who also happened to be the area’s Conservative Representative in the Dominion Parliament in Ottawa. (The fact that Mac-S Dougall had recently built a new hotel in Grand Narrows was purely coincidental!)

Once the central route was confirmed, however, there remained one lithe detail that had to be settled before the railroad could become a reality Someone had to figure out a way to ‘bridge’ the Barra Strait.

At it’s narrowest point the Barra Strait is approximately 1800 feet wide, with an average depth of 100 feet. As if that were not enough, the tidal difference (between high and low tide) can be as great as 6 feet. There is also the little problem of strong and often erratic underwater currents, associated with the tidal changes. And, as a final challenge to any structural engineer, there is the seasonal nuisance of often extreme ice conditions in the Strait. It was little wonder that the best engineering firms in the cou4- try had shied away froni the prospect of tackling such a difficult construction project (A rail bridge across the Barra Strait would be the longest such span in Eastern Canada!)

Then Robert Reid came on the scene. A stonemason and construction engineer, he had left his native Scotland upon completion of his university studies. He sailed to Australia, where he soon built a reputation building stone bridges for the Trans-Australian railroad.

Making his way to Canada he formed a new company which helped design and build the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

After that he decided to concentrate on his real speciality; building steel bridges and stone yiaducts for the many railways that were springing up across the North American continent. Reid put in a bid for the proposed rail crossing at the Barra Strait, was.successful, and early in 1888 arrived in Cape Breton to begin ciPstruction.

Three years later, at a cost of $530,000, the new bridge was finished. Six fixed spans made of iron, and one swing span, had been put in place on top of massive stone piers that extended down to bedrock, some 120 feet below the surface.

The Grand Narrows Bridge, as It became known, gained immediate recognition as a world class ‘state of the art’ engineering achievement.

(Rannie Gill is is an author and avid Celtic historian whose column appears every week in the Cape Breton Post We welcome your comments on this column or any other material appearing in the Post. You can write do Letters to the Editon Cape Breton Post, 255 George St., P0 Box 1500, Sydney, NS, RIP 6K6or Fax to (902)562- 7077.)

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