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Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge

Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge

Primary Photographer(s): Nathan Holth and Rick McOmber

Bridge Documented: July 20, 2013

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Facility Carried / Feature Intersected
Railroad (Abandoned Canadian Northern) Over Rideau Canal
Smiths Falls: Lanark County, Ontario: Canada
Structure Type
Metal Through Girder, Movable: Single Leaf Bascule (Rolling Lift) and Approach Spans: Metal Through Girder, Fixed
Construction Date and Builder / Engineer
1913 By Builder/Contractor: Dominion Bridge Company of Montréal, Québec and Engineer/Design: Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, Illinois
Rehabilitation Date
Not Available or Not Applicable
Main Span Length
69.0 Feet (21 Meters)
Structure Length
Not Available
Roadway Width
Not Available
1 Main Span(s) and 2 Approach Span(s)
Inventory Number
Not Applicable

Historic Significance Rating (HSR)
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Bridge Documentation

View A Historical Dominion Bridge Company Catalog

This bridge has been given the highest honor that a heritage bridge in Canada can get, since it is a National Historic Site of Canada, a federal level heritage designation. The bridge is well-deserving, as this is the oldest Scherzer Rolling Lift bascule bridge in Canada. The bridge was built from 1912-1913. It features a plate girder superstructure. The bridge has been abandoned in a raised position. It does not appear to have be fully raised, the bridge would have been capable of raising closer to a ninety degree angle, it is currently raised to closer to a forty-five degree angle. The bridge remains structurally sound, and it is an eye-catching landmark for anyone who is in the area. It is an example of how preservation need not always be expensive, since in this case, merely leaving the bridge standing qualifies as preservation.

It should be noted that the bridge tender house (described below) has been removed.

Information and Findings From Canada's Historic Places

Description of Historic Place

Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge National Historic Site of Canada is an early movable concrete bridge built in the early twentieth century to carry rail traffic over the Rideau Canal. Located within the town of Smiths Falls, today it stands with its roadbed span permanently raised, its massive counterweight stretching almost perpendicular to the sky, and its adjacent bridge tender's tower unmanned.

Heritage Value

Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge was designated a national historic site in 1983 because this Scherzer Rolling Lift bascule bridge is an outstanding early example of a novel concept in movable bridges.

The heritage value of Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge National Historic Site of Canada resides in its manifestation of a technological achievement as illustrated by its distinctive form, materials and design. The Smiths Falls bascule bridge was built on the Toronto-Ottawa line of the Canadian Northern Railway in 1912-1913. Very little power was required to operate it owing to the unique rolling lift action which almost eliminated friction, and the overhead concrete counterweight which balanced the 21-metre plate-girder lift-span. Originally electrically powered, the bridge was manually operated from 1915-1978. Scherzer rolling lift bascule bridges were introduced to Canada ca. 1911, and this is the oldest surviving structure of its type. Canadian National Railways transferred ownership of the bridge to the City of Smiths Falls for maintenance as a heritage resource in the mid 1980s.

Source: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, 2002.

Character-Defining Elements

Key elements that contribute to the heritage value of this site include:

- its location, spanning the Rideau Canal in a formerly busy railway hub;
- the linear footprint and profile of the bridge with its massive counterweight and bridge tender's tower;
- the bridge structure with its two-deck plate-girder approach spans resting on concrete piers and abutments with the bascule span in the middle over the navigation channel;
- the bascule span with its deck-plate girder and overhead counterweight;
- the counterweight, mounted overhead on two segmental girders curving outwards and upwards from the heel of the deck girder along each side of the lift span;
- the integrity of the bridge's materials (steel plates and girders, reinforced concrete counterweight);
- the integrity of its construction technology;
- the integrity and continued legibility of its lift technology (requiring the girders to roll back along horizontal tracks on the approach span girders; raised teeth on the track girders keep the moving span in alignment as it rolls backward or forward);
- the integrity of its drive system (gearing system, pinions, shaft, horizontal toothed rack, locking devices);
- any evidence of its early electric operation and later manual operation;
- the small elevated bridge tender's tower with its cross braced platform and small, square, wooden, pitch roofed hut on its high platform;
- viewscapes from the bridge up and down the Rideau Canal, and along the original trackbed.

Additional Information From Parks Canada

The Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge was erected across the Rideau Canal in Smiths Falls between 1912-1913, by the Canadian Northern Railway Company, during the construction of the Toronto-Ottawa section of its transcontinental main line.

The bridge was designed by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, Illinois and built by the Dominion Bridge Company of Lachine, Quebec. The rolling lift system, introduced in 1895 by Chicago engineer William Scherzer, represented a novel design principle that inaugurated the era of modern bascule bridge building in North America.

Known as the Scherzer Rolling Lift bascule bridge, these bridges were erected for carrying road and/or rail traffic over major ship canals, across harbour entrances to ports, and elsewhere on navigable waterways, where congested conditions at a particular bridge site prevented or discouraged the erection of a swing bridge or high level bridge. Derived from the french word bascule', meaning see-saw, the bridge is designed with the lift span balanced in a teeter-totter fashion.

The advantages of the Scherzer rolling lift bascule bridge were apparent. The rolling lift eliminated the centre pier of swing bridges, which constricted navigational channels; the lift span could be opened or closed quickly; the bridge was relatively economical to build and; two Scherzer bridges could be constructed side-by-side, increasing the carrying capacity of road and rail crossings. In addition, the bridge could be operated either electrically or manually. The rolling lift action of the bridge virtually eliminated friction, and with the lift span perfectly counterbalanced, very little power was required to raise or lower it.

During its first year, the 1913 navigation season, the Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge was manually operated. In 1914, a direct current (D.C.) electric motor was installed, eliminating the need for manual operation. One year later, the Town of Smiths Falls switched from a direct current (D.C.) to an alternating current (A.C.) power system, rendering the motor useless. The bridge reverted back to manual operation and remained that way until December 1978, when the Canadian National Railways system discontinued its Toronto-Ottawa line and the nearby Smiths Falls station (now the Smiths Falls Railway Museum) was closed. No longer required for the railway, the bridge was left in an open position, to allow for passage of vessels along the Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada.

Numerous bascule bridges have been constructed in Canada since 1911, but comparatively few were Scherzer Rolling Lift bascules. The first generation of bascule bridges are quickly disappearing from Canadian railways and roads, making way for modern-day high level bridges. Today, the Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge is one of the oldest bascule bridges remaining in Canada.

Heritage Designation and Type: Yes, National Historic Site of Canada


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