British Columbia

Happy birthday, 'Car-Strangled Spanner'! Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge turns 80

Foreign real estate investment, traffic congestion and environmentalism — it's hard to find a structure that epitomizes Vancouver any more than the Lions Gate Bridge.

Also known as the First Narrows Bridge, the Lions Gate first opened on Nov. 12, 1938

Construction on Vancouver's iconic Lions Gate Bridge started in 1937 and it first opened to traffic on Nov. 12, 1938. (British Pacific Properties)

Foreign real estate investment, land speculation, traffic congestion and environmentalism — it's hard to find a structure whose history epitomizes Vancouver more than the Lions Gate Bridge. 

Considered by many to be Vancouver's crown jewel, the three-lane bridge that links Vancouver to the North Shore first opened to traffic on Nov. 12, 1938. The project was entirely financed by private overseas investors during the Great Depression. 

The bridge, with a total suspension span of 847 metres, emerges from Vancouver's Stanley Park to cross Burrard Inlet and land in West Vancouver. It acts as the gateway to the Coastal Mountains that include its namesake — the twin peaks of The Lions. 

The Lions Gate Bridge, at left in an aerial photo, spans a narrow part of Burrard Inlet to link Vancouver and the North Shore. (Port of Vancouver)

Local historian John Atkin says suspension bridges often attract attention, but it's the Lions Gate Bridge's location that makes it exceptional. 

"You don't see the traffic — you just see trees and then this graceful arc that goes over to the North Shore. I think just that visual makes it so Instagramable," Atkin said. 

It took nearly two decades for the project, also known as the First Narrows Bridge, to come to fruition. Today, about 60,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day and many recognize it as one of the region's most beloved icons that continues to bedevil commuters. 

'Uncompromising act of iron wills'

According to local heritage expert Don Luxton, who wrote a book about the bridge with co-author Lilia D'Acres, talk of a bridge or tunnel spanning Burrard Inlet began as early as the late 19th century. 

Vancouver was booming, including the North Shore. But a downturn in the economy in the mid-1910s led investors to drop the idea. 

Luxton and D'Acres write that it was the determination of one man, Alfred J.T. Taylor, that transformed the idea of connecting Vancouver to West Vancouver into an actual project.

"To build such a structure, in a frontier city during the deepest depression of the twentieth century, was an uncompromising act of iron wills," Luxton and D'Acres wrote. 

Seen from West Vancouver, the Lions Gate Bridge is backed by dark woods in Stanley Park and the illuminated skyline of Vancouver in the background. British Pacific Properties, which paid to build the bridge, also paid for lights to illuminate it as a gift for Expo '86. (Al Wilson)

In 1925 a smaller, low-level version of today's Second Narrows Bridge was built to link Vancouver to the North Shore further east. But the authors say Taylor saw great potential for growth in the undeveloped lands of West Vancouver.

Taylor had connections with wealthy Britons looking to invest capital so they could avoid taxes at home. These investors, which included the Guinness family — yes, that Guinness — paid $6 million for the bridge, in large part to provide a connection to 4,000 acres of undeveloped land known today as the British Properties in West Vancouver.

Over nearly two decades, Taylor also lobbied municipal and federal governments to get the project approved.

The project left residents divided —  some didn't agree that a second bridge to the North Shore was necessary. Others were opposed because the road leading to it would cut through the unblemished habitat of Stanley Park. 

But a shipping accident that knocked out the Second Narrows Bridge in 1930, blocking traffic for four years, reignited support for the project. 

Tolls pay for the bridge twice

The federal government approved the bridge by royal assent in 1936. Luxton and D'Acres say that construction, relatively problem-free, began a year later.

The bridge received its finishing touches in 1939 when two signature concrete lions, created by local sculptor Charles Marega, were mounted onto pedestals at the southern entrance. 

Today about 60,000 vehicles cross the Lions Gate Bridge every day. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

According to B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation, tolls to cross the bridge cost 5¢ for pedestrians and $1.25 for a weekly vehicle pass when it first opened.

Those tolls continued when the province bought the Lions Gate from the private investors in 1954. That meant taxpayers essentially paid for the bridge twice, according to Luxton and D'Acres. 

In 1963, the bridge's two lanes were divided into three. 

Fate of bridge put into question

Luxton and D'Acres say that talk of replacing the bridge began almost as soon as the province bought it. The Lions Gate, they write, was seen as "outdated, old fashioned and past its prime." 

It took decades of debate for the province to decide what it would do with the bridge which some had dubbed the "Car-Strangled Spanner."

"The public debate that followed was rancorous, and pitted those in love with the car against environmentalists, heritage advocates, and neighbourhood preservationsists," Luxton and D'Acres wrote. 

The authors point out that the Lions Gate was carrying three times its originally intended capacity. By 1972, engineers ordered emergency repairs when they found the bridge was unsafe and in a state of neglect. 

Debate ended by the late 1990s when the province approved significant alterations that remain today — the deck was widened and strengthened, and new sidewalks and bike lane installed.

Today, the Lions Gate Bridge is still a source of ire for anyone crossing it during rush hour. But for historian Atkin, it's also a source of joy every time he comes back to Vancouver from the North Shore. 

"Suddenly you're on the bridge. And you've got those great views over English Bay and that extraordinary view of the skyline," Atkin said. "It's coming home in a really spectacular way."