Freeport Bridge in Kitchener
Greetings! Welcome to another exciting edition of (and addition to) the ongoing WRX Property Group ‘History of the Waterloo Region’ series! We’ve been dipping our toes in local history as far back as the first group of Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth-century, up to more recent historical moments like the founding of BlackBerry. But sometimes you don’t want to dip your toes in anything, and for those times, it helps to have a bridge. So today, we’re going to look at a historic bridge.
This is a bridge many of us have travelled across (some multiple times a day). Standing by the southwest corner of Kitchener, spanning the Grand River below the Chicopee area and just above Deer Ridge, it serves its purpose nobly. But because bridges lack mouths (and sentience, for that matter), not everybody knows its story. It’s time for the story of Freeport Bridge.
Pre-Freeport Bridge (Preport)
But first: that which came before Freeport Bridge. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty about it soon. The Grand River is one of the Waterloo Region’s defining natural features, and it was a factor in the early settlers’ choice to, well, settle here. In fairly rapid succession, the villages that would go on to become Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge were formed. But they had an issue.
Kitchener and Waterloo are what might be referred to as conjoined twin cities: their shared border is long and easy to pass. However, Cambridge (and certain parts of Kitchener – Bridgeport East and Deer Ridge, for example) lie across the Grand River. So for purposes of interconnectivity (and to bolster economic ties to Guelph, the vast Townships beyond, and everything east of the Grand River), the residents needed to build some bridges. They could have pole vaulted across it, of course, but pole vaulting across the Grand River is tiring, and difficult to do when encumbered with hundreds of kilos of grist, one of Kitchener’s early industries.
Did Somebody Say Bridge?
The site where Freeport Bridge currently stands was home to not one, not two, but three bridges prior to Freeport’s construction: two made of wood, and one made of steel. The first was erected in 1820 – just over a decade after the first group of settlers from Pennsylvania, and one of the earliest in the Region. Made entirely of wood, it cost sixpence to take a wagon (or horses) across, or a half penny to walk (roughly $2.50 or $0.21 in modern currency).
They dropped the charge in 1855 (when Freeport Bridge truly became Freeport Bridge), but just one decade later, disaster struck. The Grand River could come precariously close to the first wooden bridge when the tide was high, and one fateful winter, a succession of particularly thick ice floes smashed the poor bridge into bits. So 1865 saw the erection of a second wooden bridge, at a cost of just over $1000 (roughly $15,000 in today’s money – that’s a lot of half pennies).
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I’m afraid to say that this rendition of Freeport Bridge also faced disaster. As a brief aside, flour mills were big business in the Waterloo Region in the nineteenth century (we’ve discussed the Seagram flour mill in the past). People loved flour (as they do now) and there was much money to be made in the bulk sale of flour, which would often necessitate trips across the Grand River (Cambridge was home to its own flour mills, too).
One fateful day in 1880, however, an overzealous wagon driver decided to cram as much flour as he could onto his wagon. His horses strained. Puffs and clouds of white flour emerged from the rear of the wagon. And as the wagon slowly rolled across Freeport Bridge, the back of the metaphorical camel broke. Freeport Bridge quite literally buckled and collapsed under the astounding load of flour.
And so, that same year, a brand-new steel bridge was built: the first of its kind in the Waterloo Region. The price this time was about $9000, which amounts to over $220,000 is today’s currency (which does seem a bit more in line with what a bridge should cost). No great and singular tragic event led to this version of the bridge being replaced: quite simply, its replacement was the price of progress.
Bridging the Gap
Let’s fast-forward from 1880 to 1925. World War I was over, Kitchener had changed its name from Berlin, and cars were becoming ever-more ubiquitous. There was a collective effort across Ontario to improve its highways and roads (and, consequently, bridges) to accommodate this increasing volume. Furthermore, technological capability, and bridge building conventions, had come a long way in the past four and a half decades. Steel was out; concrete was in.
And so, the steel truss bridge of 1880 was demolished. Construction on the Freeport Bridge that we know and love today began in 1925, slightly downstream from the original location. Reinforced concrete is preferable to steel as it requires less upkeep, can be easier to install, and can handle vehicular traffic. So that’s what they used. Steel still does the reinforcing, but concrete is the material exposed to the elements.
A Bridge Apart
Freeport is a bowstring arch bridge, stretching seven spans, and featuring asphalt pavement. One of the innovative elements to Freeport Bridge was the six-foot wide sidewalk that was incorporated on the bridge’s western side. It features two lanes for cars (one in each direction). It serves as a vital link between Kitchener and Cambridge, and a viable alternative to Highway 8.
But Freeport Bridge is not just a useful structure – spanning a fairly wide stretch of the Grand River at an important junction between Kitchener and Cambridge (not to mention serving as a link between two rapidly developing parts of Kitchener) – it’s also quite something to look at. As with the other four bridges built in the Region around the same time, Freeport Bridge is a bowstring arch bridge with reinforced concrete. Bowstring bridges tend to be visually striking already, and the designers did a fine job with Freeport.
From Then to Now
The Freeport Bridge that remains very much in use to this day is still the same bridge built just under 100 years ago. We’ve managed to keep this slice of history for so long thanks to the Waterloo Region’s decision to undergo an extensive upkeep project in the late ‘90s, which involved replacing and/or repairing several key components of the bridge (this maintenance work was finished in 2003).
We’ve talked about properties designated under the Ontario Heritage Act here before. But did you know that there is subsection specifically dedicated to historic bridges? Well, there is: historic bridges are identified and preserved under the aptly-named Ontario Heritage Bridge Guidelines. Freeport Bridge has been designated since January, 2001, and it’s widely considered the most important historical bridge in the City of Kitchener (potentially the Region, too).
When driving across Freeport Bridge’s asphalt pavement, or making your way across the sidewalks on either side by foot, you might not always notice that this is, in its own right, a beautiful bridge. While not as long, flashy, red, or readily blown up in Hollywood feature films as the Golden Gate Bridge; nor quite as old as the West Montrose Covered Bridge (also in the Waterloo Region), if you take the time to see Freeport Bridge in the right light, you might be surprised.
We love showing you the wide range of historic properties that stand throughout the Waterloo Region: not only are they interesting in and of themselves, but they also speak to the Region’s history and how its current economic and real estate climate came to be. And though historic buildings might be more immediately recognizable as noteworthy, there’s much to be gleamed from more utilitarian constructions like bridges, too.
It can be easy to take such things for granted. But next time you’re headed to or from the Sportsworld Crossing area (or the Deer Ridge neighbourhood) of southeast Kitchener, or you’re travelling between Kitchener and Cambridge, you might consider not taking Highway 8. Instead, it can be a nice alternative to take the (much more scenic) King Street route. And when you do, be sure to take a second to appreciate the Freeport Bridge as it ferries you across the Grand River.
Written by Will Kummer