John A. McDougall Built That Bridge

Edmonton, Alberta, made a deal with the government in Ottawa on February 4, 1897, to build a bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. It is an excellent example of the pioneering spirit that built the West.

Edmonton’s growth was impeded for years by a lack of a railway. When Canadian Pacific Railway engineers put the trans-continental through Calgary, 200 miles to the south, some people predicted the end of Edmonton. But, its early settlers had faith and hung on. In 1891, the C.P.R. built a branch line from Calgary to Strathcona, across the river from Edmonton. This meant that traffic had to be brought across the river in a traditional ferry. Strathcona would become the most interpretive centre in northern Alberta.

John A. McDougall, who had gone to Edmonton from Ontario as a young man, was elected mayor by acclamation in 1896. His fascinating story is told in the book Edmonton Trader by J. C. MacGregor. McDougall would only agree to act as mayor for one year. Still, in that time, he accomplished a great deal, including persuading the village council and Board of Trade to put all the pressure they could on Ottawa to build a bridge.

640px-EdmontonBridge

On February 4, 1897, a telegram came from the federal government, saying that it would build the bridge if Edmonton would put up $25,000 towards its cost. This was a vast proposition for a community of only 1,500 people. Some quarters speculated that Ottawa was only bluffing, believing that Edmonton could not accept the offer.

If so, they called the bluff by evening. They sent a telegram to Ottawa agreeing to the deal. At first, McDougall and some leading citizens subscribed to the money. Later, the ratepayers endorsed the action and assumed liability.

The bridge took five years to complete, during which Edmonton became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields.

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