Heritage Moments: An Ode to Bridges

Jun 18, 2018

The Niagara Frontier is a land of bridges. And if the bridges themselves are not particularly spectacular, the places they span are — rushing waterways and international borders, vertiginous gorges and ship-choked canals, great lakes and thundering cataracts. The wind-swept geography of a vast inland sea, linked improbably by leaping ribbons of steel.


The first bridge across the Niagara River was begun by a boy who won five dollars in 1847 by coaxing a kite he flew on the Canadian side of the gorge to land on the American side. That single kite string was the guide for a cord, then another cord, then another until, a year later, the Niagara Suspension Bridge was completed. That was the railroad bridge that carried Harriet Tubman and several of the fugitive slaves she conducted to safety in Canada.

The first bridge across the Niagara on the Buffalo end of the river was finished in 1873 — the International Railway Bridge, which still carries several freight trains daily from one country to the other. For the first 27 years of its existence, it had a pedestrian walkway that enabled people to walk across the border.

The grandest ceremony this region has ever seen took place on August 7, 1927, with the dedication of the Peace Bridge before a crowd of 100,000 and the first-ever coast-to-coast radio audience. Representing the UK were two future monarchs: Prince Edward, who would become king in January 1936, and Prince George, who replaced Edward as king 10 months later; along with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Representing Canada were Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson. And on the U.S. side were Vice President Charles Dawes and New York Governor Al Smith.

A detailed catalogue of all the rest of the bridges across the Niagara, past and present, can be found here.

Our bridges soar across other waterways as well. Driving the much-maligned Buffalo Skyway on a windy day is not for the faint of heart, but few urban bridges anywhere provide a more staggeringly beautiful view. To the east, you look down on the hulking grain elevators and the big, bald dome of the hockey arena; to the west, marinas, more grain elevators, towering wind turbines and the long, long curve of the Lake Erie shore.

The Buffalo Skyway, opened 1955, soars over the grain elevators.
Credit SkilliShots, via flickr

People of a certain age will remember the days when there was only one Grand Island bridge on either end of the island, and how hair-raising it was to drive in the single lane with oncoming traffic in the other lane, all while the river flowed fast way, way down below. Today, twin bridges on both ends, weird mirror images, like a psychedelic highway.

South Grand Island Bridges, southbound span (right) opened 1935, northbound span 1963.
Credit amandabanana87, Wikimedia Commons

Those same people might also remember how long it used to take to drive from Buffalo to Toronto, with the inevitable long line of cars and trucks waiting for the Welland Canal drawbridge to be lowered back into place. Today the Garden City Skyway hurdles the canal, but to the south the many lift- and drawbridges still go up and down to let the big ships pass, as radio traffic reports chronicle their rising and falling and the road backups that result.

Garden City Skyway, opened 1963, and the Queenston Street Bridge, opened 1928, St. Catharines.
Credit Army Corps of Engineers

So do take a moment to contemplate the Niagara Frontier’s bridges and where they take us, over water from land to land, so high in the sky.

Rainbow Bridge, opened 1941.
Credit Bobolink, via flickr

Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, opened 1962.
Credit Shankar s., via flickr

Land of borders and a great inland sea: The Niagara Frontier from space. Enlarge to see all the bridge crossings on the Niagara River and the Welland Canal.
Credit NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Cast (in order of appearance):

Edward, Prince of Wales: Mike Randall
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Music: Excerpt from “Big Rip (Dark Energy Mix)” by Frau Holle

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Dave Rosenthal, WBFO senior director, news and public affairs
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)