'London's Eiffel Tower,' Blackfriars Bridge to go away, come back like it's 1875

The City of London plans to have the iconic, Confederation-era Blackfriars Bridge removed and repaired off-site in a bid to restore the heritage span to its former glory.

Heritage bridge is one of North America's last wrought-iron, bowstring-arch truss bridges

Repairs over the years have taken the Blackfriars Bridge away from its original design. The chainlink fencing, for example, will be removed in the refurbishment. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

First the bad news: Even if everything goes according to plan, the Blackfriars Bridge will vanish this fall. 

The city has issued a tender to have the bridge removed from the spot where it has spanned the Thames River since 1875. For the first time since the Confederation era, there will be no link between Blackfriars and Talbot streets.

But here's the good news: The bridge, which the city considers a "nationally-significant cultural heritage resource," will return better than ever, restored to its former glory to stand for future decades as one of North America's only wrought-iron, bowstring-arch, truss bridges still in use.

"It's time for some TLC for this bridge," said Doug MacRae of the city's transportation department. "There's been a lot of Band-Aids applied to this bridge over the past few years and that could only go on for so long."

The city's solution is anything but a Band-Aid. They've issued a tender that calls for a contractor to remove the entire bridge and restore it off-site so crews won't have to work outside in winter. 

Built in 1875, the bridge closed to vehicle traffic in 2013. The city wants to see eastbound vehicle traffic return to the bridge after a complete refurbishment that will see the entire bridge removed and restored off-site. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

It's an ambitious restoration, and it won't come cheap. Early in the project, a rough estimate of $4.5 million was floated. That's a lot of money to fix a bridge that only four years ago was closed to vehicle traffic for fears it had become too corroded to carry cars and trucks.

Coun. Phil Squire says the city has to "step up" and do a proper restoration. 

"This is something we have to do," he told CBC London. "It's our asset, we own it. We've got to take care of it."

Squire also said Londoners shouldn't be surprised if the final price tag exceeds the early estimates. 

"It's going to be very expensive, I don't think there's any doubt about that. People shouldn't think it's going to be cheap."

Kevin Bice of the Blackfriars neighbourhood association also said the repair is worth the cost. He's elated that after years of piecemeal fix-ups, the bridge "will get the repair it deserves."

"I keep calling the Blackfriars Bridge the Eiffel Tower of London, Ontario," he said. "It's one of the most defining icons in the city. It's something we just can't afford to lose."

Repairs done in the 1940s and 50s kept the bridge in service, but were not true to its original design. Currently only a middle portion of the bridge is in use and it's surrounded by an ugly chain-link fence that won't return post-renovation.

The sign indicates the Blackfriars Bridge is closed to vehicle traffic, though it's currently open for use by cyclists and pedestrians. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

For now, the bridge is only open to cyclists and pedestrians. Once the repairs are complete and the bridge is back in place, one lane will be used for vehicle traffic (eastbound only) with the second lane serving cyclists and pedestrians.

Not everyone agrees it's wise to let cars back on the bridge. MacRae said the return to vehicle use will help ease rush-hour congestion on Oxford Street and Riverside Drive. Keeping one lane devoted to bikes and pedestrians will ensure the bridge stays multi-use, he said 

"We felt it was a good compromise," he said. 

You're bringing that back, right?

And while he's glad this won't be another patch-job, Bice and some of his neighbours are a little worried it will require taking their beloved bridge away on what amounts to a promise to bring it back.

"It's like a person going in for an operation," he said. "You can have all the confidence in the doctors and the hospitals and the medicines, but that can't alleviate the nervousness you feel until you can actually be with the person again afterward."

The city will host a public meeting tonight (5 to 8 p.m., St. George's Anglican Church, 227 Wharncliffe Rd.) where residents can ask questions about the project.

The hope is that the tender can be issued in the summer so work can begin in the fall. The restoration work is expected to take about a year. 

About the Author

Andrew Lupton

Reporter

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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