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Salmo’s monster bridge

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

In 1910, a remarkable curved bridge was built at Salmo across a slough formed by the Salmo River. The bridge was intended to provide greater access to the Sheep Creek district, then experiencing a mining boom. We’re lucky a couple of amazing photos of it survive.

Two copies of the postcard seen below sold on eBay in March 2012 and February 2013 for $102 and $81 Cdn respectively. The caption reads: “Government bridge, Salmo, BC, 2,444 ft long.”

We’re looking northwest, along what is now Airport Road where it becomes Fourth Street. The message on the back of one of the cards read in part:

This is the bridge across the river at back of our house … The hutch is a powder house. At right side you see the remains of the old corderoy [sic] road … In distance you can see Bell’s store and hotel. The stumps are chiefly ones left by the fires [?] of four years ago.

The Salmo Museum has a similar but not identical photo showing a horse and buggy on this bridge. It appeared in Rollie Mifflin’s book The Early Salmo Story, but was printed in reverse.

Mifflin explained the corduroy, or puncheon, road referred to above was built by the Yellowstone Mining Company to avoid headaches caused when log jams backed up spring runoff, inundating roads and trails.

It was literally a wooden roadway almost two miles long and ended at Little Sheep Creek. It was almost straight and was set off the ground high enough to be above any high water that it was expected would occur in that vicinity … 
Heavy logs were laid on the ground, split cedar logs to make puncheon were laid across the two rows of stringers to make a deck, then guard rails of smaller logs were laid along each side of the structure and drift bolts were driven through the guard rails and the puncheon into the stringers. Men skilled with axe and adze then smoothed out the place where horses would walk and wheels would travel. At regular intervals the roadway was widened sufficiently so that traffic may pass.

The Nelson Daily News of June 8, 1909 reported: “The bridge at Salmo has been seriously damaged [by flood] but was practically repaired last night, while the new government bridge at a point half way up the creek also suffered considerably but will be repaired …”

But the “new government bridge” wasn’t the one we’re looking at, which was first mentioned in the the Daily News of May 8, 1910 when the minister of public works and MLA James Schofield visited Salmo, “looking into a site for a new bridge to connect up Sheep creek road.”

This was followed on June 5 by a story headlined “Building new bridge at Salmo”: “The government has all the new timbers to hand for the erection of the new bridge at Salmo, across the Salmon river, the old one being about out of commission.”

Few men in Canada were better qualified to oversee the project than Jacob (Jake) Serson. Born at Egenville, Ont., he joined the CPR as a carpenter at Pembroke in 1875 and, according to his obituary, “soon displayed the natural gift for bridge building, for which he became famed throughout the west.”

Within a few months, he was appointed foreman, and soon after inspector. He followed construction of the CPR’s main line west, arriving in BC in the 1880s, where he was stationed at Donald and was inspector of the company’s bridges between Golden and Kamloops.

Serson left the company in 1893 during construction of the Nakusp and Slocan Railway to carry out several bridge building contracts, but then resumed his old job with the CPR. Around 1906, he joined the provincial government as district bridge superintendent for the Kootenays.

The Daily News wrote that despite lacking formal training, Serson

had a native ability for bridge construction which amounted to little less than genius. With a piece of chalk he would sketch out a bridge on a piece of board or anything else that was at hand and having in that way fixed the plan in his mind would proceed to superintend to completion, seldom erring in measurements or other details.

Joseph Club was foreman on the Salmo project. We also know of one other person who worked on it. Salmo Stories states: “Canada Bill Feeney ... built a 1,900-foot long bridge across the swamp for access to the Sheep Creek mine and other sawmills in the area. The bridge was commissioned and paid for by the BC government to replace a corduroy section that was unstable during high water.”

Despite the discrepancy in length, it’s doubtless the same bridge.

The Daily News on Sept. 22 described the span as “Salmo’s monster bridge” and “probably the longest bridge in the interior.”

From one end of the approach to the other the bridge is over half a mile in length; in width it is 18 feet and the cost will exceed $10,000. More than a quarter of the work has been already completed. A short time ago the new mill belonging to the promoters of the Salmon Rapids townsite received an order from the government for 200,000 feet of lumber which is now being turned out at the rate of 12,000 feet per day. This lumber will of course be used as planking.

If the length cited on the postcard was correct, the bridge was actually 0.46 of a mile long. Either way, its length was due to the slough; the goal was to make the bridge passable by heavy traffic year-round.

The Daily News added that the new bridge would “replace the one built some years ago which has become unfitted for the heavy traffic of ore and provision wagons between Salmo and the great mining camp of Sheep creek. Its advantages to the operator in that camp will be stupendous.”

The bridge opened on Nov. 4, 1910, a little before it was completed, because the old bridge finally gave way under a heavy load. Rather than await missing lumber, the crew tore planks from the old bridge to temporarily complete the new one.

Caddy Donaldson, the first automobile owner in the Salmo Valley, had already crossed the bridge a day earlier in his new vehicle on a “make-shift platform.”

Nelson Daily News, Nov. 4, 1910

Here’s a photo of the bridge from the other end, which puts it in better context relative to the rest of the town. Railway Avenue is in the foreground, with several buildings in the process of being joined to become the expanded Salmo Hotel.

This photo, which is one-third of a panorama, was also issued as a postcard. All of these photos seen here were by William G. Barclay, who was photographing Salmo, Ymir, and Fruitvale at a time that no one else seemed interested. They were probably taken in 1911, perhaps on the same day.

Barclay’s name is stamped on the back. His cards are highly prized by collectors for their rarity and unusual views. According to David Mattison’s Camera Workers website, Barclay moved around quite a bit between BC and Alberta.

He was active around Michel from 1903-07; Iowalta, Alta. 1907-08; Nelson 1910-11; Sparwood 1913-16, Exshaw, Alta. ca. 1921; and Fruitvale from 1921 until his death in 1938. A forest fire the following year burned down his house, along with all of his photos.

The same year the Salmo bridge was built, Jake Serson completed another bridge at Winlaw. In 1911, he superintended a 1,200-foot bridge across the Goat River near Creston, while in 1912-13 he looked after a 400-foot bridge across Stony Creek at Rossland. He would have worked on the Taghum bridge across the Kootenay River too, but in August 1913, before construction began, Serson fell ill. After a few days in hospital in Nelson, he died at age 64.

There are references in 1913 and 1914 to the repair of the Salmo River bridge, but it’s not clear if it’s the same bridge, nor what was wrong with it. Despite the size of the bridge, it was surprisingly difficult to find out what happened to it. But I finally happened across a note in the Nelson Daily News of March 28, 1922 in which district highways engineer William Ramsay stated

that the 1,000 feet of fill in the long bridge at Salmo is about completed. This is where it was figured that making a permanent highway over the flats in the riverbed would be cheaper than renewing the bridge from time to time.

The rest of the slough was filled in sometime in the late 1960s or 1970s — KP Park is now partly on that site.

The Salmo townsite map of 1897 shows the slough at right.

This Google Maps image shows the KP Park is partly where the slough used to be.

Updated on Aug. 13, 2020 to clarify that the slough was filled in later than the 1950s. Updated on Jan. 6, 2021 to clarify that Jake Serson died before construction began on the Taghum bridge. Updated on July 25, 2021 to add that the bridge was filled in in 1922.

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