By Marie Zettler

Fort Coulonge — Residents of Fort Coulonge and history-loving day-trippers alike are eagerly awaiting the completion of extensive rehabilitation work on the Felix-Gabriel-Marchand bridge on the fringe of this Pontiac County town.

Known locally as the Red Bridge, the wooden structure is recognized as the longest covered motorable bridge in Quebec. It was classified as a heritage building in 2006 by the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications. It is also featured on a stamp issued in 2019 by Canada Post as part of a series of five stamps intended to pay tribute to the 140 heritage covered bridges still visible in Canada.

The ravages of time have taken their toll on the bridge, built in 1898. In 1964 it was in such a poor state that it was threatened with demolition. Three local people, Dr. H. R. Rabb, Hugh Proudfoot, and Dean Rogers started the Save the Bridge Association. In 1966, with grants from federal and provincial governments and donations from private citizens, rotted piers were replaced and the bridge was raised, repaired, and painted. It underwent some 40 more interventions between 1970 and 2011. Renovations in 1972 included replacement of the tin roof and wood siding at a cost of $50,000. Spring flooding caused a log jam near the bridge, interrupting the project temporarily. Because of fears the bridge would be destroyed if the log jam gave way under the pressure of the water, steel cables were extended across the river to help retain the wood.

The bridge was in jeopardy again in 1979, when an early thaw caused the water to rise suddenly. Another log jam caused the bridge to shift several feet, leaving it sitting dangerously on only two of its piers. To minimize structural damage, it was secured with steel cables and timbers that were installed inside the bridge. It was closed to traffic for more than a year. Repairs included raising the piers several feet. The work was completed in 1980.

However, the bridge’s woes were not over. In 2014, following a collapse of some of the structure, the Quebec Ministry of Transport had to close it completely. In order to allow the conservation of this one-of-a-kind structure, the ministry undertook major repairs in 2018.

The complex repair project includes reinforcing and straightening the structure, replacing the roof and paneling, rebuilding the deck and replacing other damaged or deficient parts. The work was granted on January 4, 2018, to the company Pavages Chenail for an amount of $5.1 million. Repair work began on April 30, 2018, and was scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2020. However, at this time, work is still underway.

According to Rosalie Faubert, spokesperson for Ministry of Transport Quebec, there are several reasons the project is taking longer than expected.

“Several damaged parts had to be replaced, and the ministry had to perform additional work during high water levels to ensure that the bridge would not be impacted by a possible flood,” she said. “As part of the project, the ministry performed additional work to raise the bridge. In the next months, the ministry will also raise the approaches.”

Furthermore, work was suspended for several weeks as ordered by the government due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Faubert said the project will be completed this year.

“Rest assured that the ministry is making every effort to make this heritage structure safe for the population as soon as possible, and will announce the official work completion date (when) timely,” she said.

Built By Beachburg Man

The progress and cost of the repairs, as compared to that of the original construction of the bridge, provide a dramatic illustration of change over time.

On January 3, 1898, Augustus Brown of Beachburg put his mark on a document in which he promised to demolish a bridge spanning the Coulonge River and replace it with a new covered structure. Although he was a voracious reader, he had, for some unknown reason, never learned how to write. When Edward Bamford, Mayor of the United Townships of Mansfield and Pontefract, added his signature below Mr. Brown’s X, and the document was signed by two witnesses, he was committed to have the new bridge passable for teams of horses in just six weeks, by March 14, and completed and ready for travel not later than May 1 of that year.

For his speedy efforts, he would receive the princely sum of $6,000 in installments. He would see the first $1,000 in March, another $3,000 in July, and the balance of $2,000 the following year.

One hundred years later, his descendants would be front and centre at a ceremony to celebrate the centennial of the bridge and honour him. A commemorative plaque was unveiled as part of the ceremony.

A grandson of Augustus, Basil Brown, now deceased but then 84, said his grandfather sometimes talked about building the bridge, “but it wasn’t a big subject.”

“I can’t see why anybody in his right mind would sign a contract like that,” he said. “The payment schedule amuses me. Today you’d want a down payment for something like that.”

He marveled that the bridge was built in such a short time. There is no record of the numbers of workers involved.

“There were some people from over there (Quebec), but also a lot of people from the Beachburg area,” he said. “He (Augustus) bought 100 acres of timber in the area just outside of Beachburg called The Glen. The next day he put a sawmill in. The boards were cut and driven to the site by sleighs over an ice bridge at LaPasse. There was an awful pile of bolts used – one inch thick bolts. The roof of the bridge was originally shingled with wood, but the wooden shingles have now been replaced with tin.”

Basil Brown described how the bridge’s underpinnings could have been constructed in the dead of winter.

“They’d have to build a pier on the ice, cut a hold, take the pier to it, and fill it with stones,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an impossible job (for them) – but maybe for the young people today it would be.”

Using such primitive methods to build something that would stand for more than a century is in itself cause for amazement. But it pales in relation to the qualifications of the builder, who was primarily a farmer.

“Oh, he was some kind of carpenter all right,” mused Mr. Brown. “When my great-grandfather, David Brown, came to this area in 1846, there was nothing here, only bush. If you had anything to build, you had to do it yourself. There were no carpenters in the area.”

He has no idea how Augustus financed the project until he started to collect remuneration. The fact that workers didn’t expect payment until the job was completed, however, would have helped.

“People from here (Beachburg) used to go to the lumber camps from November to March before they got paid,” he said. “And, of course, there were no deductions from wages. But with the profit my grandfather made from the project, I’m sure he wouldn’t have had to pay income tax, even today.”

The bridge wasn’t the last thing built by Augustus.

“He was a great worker for the Agricultural Society (fair board) in Beachburg, and he built a lot of those sheds on the fairgrounds,” said Mr. Brown. “He was president of the fair board in 1904 when the fair was named the best fair in Eastern Ontario. The prize was the secretary’s office.”

 The small cement block building on the fairgrounds that still serves the secretary and the fair volunteers.

The Red Bridge was named in honour of  Felix-Gabriel Marchand who was the 11th Premier of Quebec, serving in that office from 1897 to 1900.

As the history buffs and sightseers eagerly await the re-opening of the Red Bridge, so do the residents of the community.

“People just love passing on it,” says Eric Rochon, General Director for the municipality of Mansfield and Pontefract. “For those living near it, not having it open can add five to six km to their trip.”

The length of the detour eliminates walkers who also enjoy using the bridge when it’s open.

But residents also treasure it as a unique feature in their community.

“It’s right in front of my office window,” says Mr. Rochon. “People are proud of it. It’s something not everybody has.”