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Building the Lions Gate Bridge

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The Lions Gate Bridge, officially known as the First Narrows Bridge, is a suspension bridge that crosses the first narrows of Burrard Inlet and connects the City of Vancouver, to the North Shore municipalities of the District of North Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, and the District of West Vancouver. The term “Lions Gate” refers to The Lions, a pair of mountain peaks north of Vancouver.

The total length of the bridge including the north viaduct is 1,823 metres (5,890 feet). The length including approach spans is 1,517.3 metres (4,978 feet), the main span alone is 473 metres (1,550 feet), the tower height is 111 metres (364 feet), and it has a ship’s clearance of 61 metres (200 feet).

The bridge has three reversible lanes, the use of which is indicated by signals. The centre lane changes direction to accommodate for traffic patterns. Approximately 70,000 vehicles per day use the bridge. The bridge forms part of Highways 99 and 1A. The Lions Gate Bridge was designated a National Historic Site of Canada on March 24, 2005.

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The Lions

History

Around 1890, bridge builders first conceived of building a bridge across the First Narrows in Burrard Inlet. Initially, there was strong opposition against its construction, as many believed it would cause problems for the seaport, ruin Stanley Park, and take toll revenue away from the Second Narrows Bridge. Supporters of a new bridge saw it as necessary in order to further develop the North Shore. In 1927, the decision was put to the electorate of Vancouver, and the first plebiscite was defeated putting the concept of a bridge crossing at First Narrows at a standstill.

Alfred James Towle Taylor, who had been part of the proposal and still owned the provincial franchise to build the bridge, did not have the financial resources to purchase the necessary large sections of property on the North Shore. Taylor was able to convince the Guinness family to invest in the land on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. They purchased 4,700 acres (16 km²) of West Vancouver mountainside through British Pacific Properties Ltd. The Guinness family also wanted to lure the masses to their British Pacific Properties development in the District of West Vancouver.

A second plebiscite was held on December 13, 1933, and this time, it was passed by a margin of two to one. The federal government granted approval after lengthy negotiations and an agreement was made that the project would use Vancouver materials and workmen to provide employment during the Great Depression.

Monsarrat and Pratley, a Montreal firm, was awarded the contract to design the bridge. The firm later designed the Angus L Macdonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia using a similar design. Other companies involved in bridge construction, included the American Bridge Company, Canron Western Constructors, Dominion Bridge Company, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc, and Swan Wooster Engineering. Charles Marega designed the lion sculptures that are located at the entrance to the bridge in Stanley Park.

On March 31, 1938, construction began on the bridge. The Anglo-Canadian Wire Rope Company Ltd of Montreal supplied the wire rope for the project. At that time, the bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the British Empire. The two main supports were parallel stranded cables, and below those were prestressed smaller suspender ropes, each 4.4 centimetres (1.75 inches) in diameter. Each of the smaller cables are made up of six strands, which each strand containing 19 wires. Each wire has an independent wire rope centre. The wire for the bridge was fabricated in Montreal on a machine  that was designed specially for this project. More than 7,563.91 kilometres (4,700 miles) of wire was used in the construction of the bridge. The cables were shipped to Vancouver on 122 reels, each 2.28 metres (7.5 feet) in diameter with a total weight was 1,050 tons. At the time, it was the single largest order for wire in Canada.

Construction took one and a half years and cost of $5,873,837.17 (CAD). The bridge first opened to traffic on November 14, 1938. On May 29, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth presided over the official opening during a royal visit to Canada. A toll of 25 cents was charged for each car to recover the cost of building the bridge.

Mary Sutton, a 76-year-old who walked from her home at 1665 West Seventh in Kitsilano to Stanley Park, was the first pedestrian to cross the new bridge. Sutton arrived about one hour prior to the bridge’s opening at 9:00 AM, saving herself the five cent toll that was charged to pedestrians.

On January 20, 1955, the Guinness family sold the bridge to the province of British Columbia for $5,959,060, and in 1963, the toll was dropped. The original configuration of the bridge had two lanes. The bridges lanes were later divided into three with the middle lane acting as a passing lane when the District of West Vancouver’s population boomed as a result of the new connection. In 1963, overhead lane controls were added enabling traffic in the centre lane to be directed in either direction.

In 1975, the deteriorating north viaduct was replaced with a lighter and stronger steel deck with wider lanes. This was carried out in sections using a series of short closures of the bridge; each time, one old section was lowered from the bridge and its replacement was put into place.

The Guinness family’s last involvement with the bridge occurred in 1986, when they added lights to the bridge for Expo ’86 as a gift to the City of Vancouver. In July 2009, the bridge’s lighting system was updated with LED lights to reduce power consumption and save the Province approximately $30,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs. The approximate cost of the LED lights was $150,000.

By the 1990s, it was time for the bridge to be significantly upgraded or replaced. Several proposals were considered, including building a new bridge beside the existing bridge, building a tunnel from Downtown Vancouver to the North Shore, or double decking the existing bridge. However, none of the proposals could overcome the City of Vancouver’s objections to any increase in traffic into the downtown core and the province’s unwillingness to spend much money on the project. Eventually, it was decided to upgrade the existing bridge without adding any new lanes.

The original three metre lanes were narrow and the sidewalks were inadequate for pedestrians and cyclists. The main bridge deck was replaced between 2000 and 2001, which was the first time a suspension bridge’s deck had been replaced. As with the earlier work, this was facilitated by a series of separate night and weekend closures to replace one section at a time. The old section was lowered to a barge, and the new section was raised into place and connected. The change allowed the two pedestrian walkways to be moved to the outside of the structure and the road lanes were widened to 3.6 metres (11.81 feet) each. The new sidewalks were widened to 2.7 metres (8.86 feet). The main structural elements were moved to below the bridge deck, giving a more open appearance. The entire suspended structure was replaced with little or no interruption to daytime traffic.

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City of Vancouver Archives

Landmark

The Lions Gate Bridge is prominent a landmark of Vancouver and the North Shore.

  • The bridge was featured on the first title card of CBC supper-hour newscast Canada Now.
  • The bridge is often used as a symbol of Vancouver in television broadcasts.
  • The bridge is shown in telecasts of NHL hockey games played in Vancouver.
  • The bridge is the namesake of the locally founded film company Lionsgate.
  • The bridge was featured in a short sequence of the film Drawing Flies.
  • The bridge was featured in the closing sequence of the 2010 film Tron: Legacy.
  • The bridge was again featured as the set of 2011 film Final Destination 5.
  • The bridge was featured in the closing credits of Da Vinci’s Inquest.
8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Another super post. Thanks for the great sequences.

    March 29, 2013
    • Thanks Wally, the building of the bridge fascinates me. The photos from the City of Vancouver’s archive were a great find. Another interesting story is the building of the Stanley Park Seawall. It took decades to build it.

      March 29, 2013
  2. Amy #

    I agree with Wally, this is another super post! Enjoyed reading the story of the bridge. Thank you, Patricia!

    March 29, 2013
    • Thank you Amy. I enjoyed learning about the construction of the bridge and was pleasantly surprised to find the archive photos.

      April 1, 2013
  3. RMW #

    I wonder if that 25 cent toll did actually recover the cost of the bridge before it was dropped!

    March 29, 2013
    • That is a very good question.

      March 29, 2013
  4. Beautiful lions, Patricia! I love the way you use several sequences of photo gallery.

    April 1, 2013
    • Jo, thank you for the kind compliment. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

      The Lions are beautiful, and I hope you have an opportunity to see them one day.

      April 1, 2013

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