The Ghosts of Walterdale’s Past

Assessing the fate of a venerable bridge over troubled waters.

I am seeking for the bridge which leans from the visible to the invisible through reality. -Max Beckmann

Imagine a commute from the core of Edmonton that takes you from downtown to a six-lane super-bridge without having to traverse a hillside. The bridge, perhaps higher than the High Level, takes you on a tour across the river, into a tunnel, and eventually spits you out on a six-lane freeway that runs through the heart of Old Strathcona. Why not imagine a double-decker bridge – one that towers over Rossdale with condos, businesses and office buildings attached?  Or perhaps you could picture yourself on an evening commute – one which takes you straight from the heart of downtown to Saskatchewan Drive in one straight drive across a new-and-improved Walterdale Bridge.

If you think these ideas sound absurd or impossible, it’s probably safe to say that, somewhere along the line, someone else did, too. If they hadn’t, any one of those scenarios could have been the Walterdale Bridge today. 

And it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Today, Edmontonians eagerly await the completion of our new Walterdale Bridge. Since it was approved by City Council in 2011, the Walterdale Bridge project has been the subject of much discussion. Plans for the new bridge included three lanes of northbound traffic (one more than the old bridge), a shared-use path on the east side, a walkway on the west side and, finally, confirmation that the 101-year-old Walterdale, now a lame-duck bridge, would be demolished after the new span’s completion. 

Allan Bartman, the general supervisor for the special projects section of the Transportation Services Department, says that this new bridge is built with longevity in mind. “We have designed it so that it could be widened. The walkways and shared-use path could allow us to put a fourth lane on the bridge and put a sidewalk on the exterior of the west side,” says Bartman. “We designed it with a 100-year design life, but realistically, we expect it to last for several hundred years, for sure.” 

By 2013, a “Save the Walterdale Bridge” campaign proposed to turn the bridge into a pedestrian walkway and farmers’ market. The roar for the preservation of the Walterdale – a century-old relic – filled media outlets and council chambers. By July of this year, with construction well under way on the new structure, a new proposal surfaced from Gene Dub, of Dub Architects, to preserve one-third of the bridge. Designer and University of Alberta Industrial Design Instructor, Carmen Douville, worked with Dub to realize a vision of a glass-enclosed cafe atop a piece of the old structure. The reason? 

“We viewed it as amazing piece of infrastructure that could be utilized in so many different manners,” says Douville.  “Obviously living in a city that doesn’t have a tendency to respect the built form or the history of the built form, we thought it was important trying to preserve that memory that exists of the Walterdale.” 

But the proposal, submitted in July, never made it past the desks of city councillors. “I think that the councillors who had been on council for some time felt that they’d already dealt with this a few times on committee, and they didn’t want to open up the issue again,” says Dub, a former city councillor himself.  

And while councillors of the recent past may feel a bit of “Walterdale fatigue,” those with a long memory are likely feeling a sense of dj-vu as the plans for a new Walterdale take form. After all, it was only as far back as 2008 – amid the fever-pitched Expo 2017 bid hysteria – that the last plan for a new structure was proposed.  At that time, Edmonton transportation planners considered a bridge with four northbound lanes to replace the Walterdale. They also entertained the possibility of a five-lane bridge, with one of those lanes directed to the Kinsmen Sports Centre. 

The stickler with the proposal was that, in order to rid the city of traffic congestion, planners also proposed widening Gateway Boulevard and tunneling the boulevard under Saskatchewan Drive for smoother access tothe river valley.

The proposal was controversial because of the divisions a massive sloping canyon would create in the Old Strathcona neighbourhood. 

Of course the idea may not have sounded as absurd as the ideas that came before.

In 2007, California architect Ted Powell proposed a whopper of a Walterdale proposal: A towering double-decker Walterdale bridge connecting 105th Street north of the river to Gateway Boulevard on the south (the lower level would connect to Bellamy Hill and to the James MacDonald Bridge). This new bridge would be partially privately funded, include attached housing and was considered far too ambitious for the council to even consider at the time.

Just six years earlier, the city turned down an equally ambitious plan. This time it was a report commissioned by the Oxford Properties Group to Stamm Research Associates in Toronto. The new-millennium Walterdale, as proposed, would have run from 104th Street and 83rd Avenue in Old Strathcona to 99th Avenue on the north side of the river. 

The plan was summarily shot down.

Perhaps this was because of the similarity to plans for the Fifth Street Bridge during the 1960s and 1970s (the name was changed to Walterdale in 1980 to honour, John Walter, who originally ran a ferry crossing where the Walterdale stands today).

During the two decades, the dream of a new Fifth Street crossing was an off-again on-again affair, and part of an enormous plan to build a city-carving freeway from the south of Edmonton to downtown.

The project – originally estimated to cost $19 million – was projected to be in the $32 million range by the time the plan was nixed in 1976. But this Walterdale-that-never-was had already been approved and was in preliminary stages of construction when it was shut down, costing the city and province almost $4 million. Up until the construction of our present-day new Walterdale, the telltale sign of the project – a piling heap of dirt known as “Dantzer’s Folly” after the strongest proponent of the bridge, Mayor Vic Dantzer – stood as a testament to the nearly two decades of pipe dreams. It’s fitting then, that the new bridge finally clears away the ghosts of Walterdale’s past. 

Given all the rejection the Walterdale has endured, it’s no small wonder so many wish to preserve it. It was the little bridge that could. But, even from the beginning, nothing ever worked out as planned for the crossing.

Built by Edmonton to honour the 1912 Strathcona and Edmonton amalgamation agreement (a deal which called for a river crossing in the area of Fourth Street – what is now 104th Street), planners initially intended to connect the bridge to First Street. The plan was the first in the long line of rejected proposals as the city deemed the area was too difficult to reach from the south. And so, the Fifth Street Bridge was built in line with Fifth Street (now 105th Street), opening for use in late 1913. 

In August 1912, one year before the bridge officially opened, the Daily Capital reported that the metallic superstructure was made with “construction of sufficient strength to run railway freight cars over it.” Perhaps it should have also read: “Built to endure rejection, time and time again.” So while people like Douville and Dub give one last shot at trying to save a small piece of the Fifth Street Bridge, plans are already in the works to pay homage to its past. Bartman says, “The plan is that the bridge will be removed in its entirety. What we are looking at is incorporating different components of it into the landscaping. So for instance, we may take a piece of the trusses and incorporate them into the landscaping architecture or something along those lines.”

It’s a nice thought and a sound plan, but, then again, plans never seem to stick where the Walterdale Bridge is concerned.

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