by Joan Champ
“Our bridge continues to be a source of friction” – it’s a headline in the Prince Albert Daily herald that could have been written today, but it was written almost 60 years ago, on October 6, 1960.
The Herald’s editorial, published just days before the city’s current bridge was officially opened in the city, stated: “Prince Albert’s contentious bridge will undoubtedly be opened and put into useful service in the not too distant future, but it is questionable if any comparable bridge in the country has been the centre of quite so much difficulty during its planning and construction phases.”
Since its conception in 1958, Prince Albert’s bridge, renamed the John G. Diefenbaker Bridge in 1967, was the source of considerable bickering between the three levels of government who helped pay for it. The financial arrangements were, of course, a major source of contention. The provincial government led by Premier Tommy Douglas fought to ensure that the federal government’s share was not deducted from the Roads to Resources program designed to open northern Saskatchewan.
In the end, it was agreed that the federal government would pay 50%, the province would pay 37½%, and the City of Prince Albert, with a bustling population of 23,000, would pay the balance.
From 1909 until 1960, vehicles crossed the North Saskatchewan River at Prince Albert using a combination railway/traffic bridge. It had the railway tracks in the middle, 12-foot traffic trusses on either side, and then pedestrian lanes outside the traffic lanes.
Today, this bridge, next to the Diefenbaker Bridge, is still used by railway trains.
Once the Prince Albert bridge was completed, even the arrangements for the opening ceremonies on October 12, 1960 proved challenging. Prime Minister Diefenbaker was furious that the provincial government set the date for the opening without consulting the federal government which had made the largest contribution ($1 million) to the project.
The Daily Herald stated in its October 6th editorial that it felt the province had “not demonstrated the degree of good public relations that had been expected.” The newspaper claimed that, right from the inception of the bridge project, the province had adopted a sort of “take it or leave it” attitude, which gave the City of Prince Albert very little choice about if, when, or where the bridge was to be built.
Given the squabble over plans for the opening, the Herald suggested that, if an agreement could not be reached, “that it might be diplomatic to put the bridge into use without any political or official opening fanfare of any sort.”
In the end, common sense prevailed. The “dignified” opening of Prince Albert’s $2.5 million bridge went ahead on October 12, attended by representatives of the three levels of government – Prime Minister Diefenbaker, Premier Douglas, and city mayor Allan Barsky. In their speeches at the event, both Diefenbaker and Douglas emphasized the importance of the Prince Albert bridge as a gateway to the north.
It was a key part, both leaders stated, of the Roads to Resources program that would help make Saskatchewan’s north accessible for resource extraction.
“As most citizens will know,” Mayor Barsky reminded the crowd, “the dream of a new bridge for Prince Albert has been one of long standing. Problems of cost and prior construction seemed to doom this dream to an early death, but Prince Albertans are persistent people.” Barsky credited his predecessor, David Steuart, mayor of the city in 1958, for spearheading the negotiations with the senior levels of government that resulted in the construction of a modern, four-lane traffic bridge.
In the years since 1960, traffic congestion on the Diefenbaker Bridge has increasingly been a source of frustration in Prince Albert.
In 2011, for example, traffic was restricted for several months after a crack was discovered in one of the girders of the bridge. On the May 2016 long weekend, angry drivers passing through the city reported waiting on Highway 2 for more than two hours due to bridge maintenance.
For several years now, many have called for the construction of a second bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. Most recently, Prince Albert city councillor Charlene Miller proposed a motion to investigate the cost of installing a toll on the city’s bridge, the proceeds from which would go towards the funding of a second bridge.
“I think that this toll will make the provincial and the federal government aware that we’re actually trying to do our part,” Miller told the Daily Herald.
The Diefenbaker Bridge cost $2.5 million to build in 1960. Today, it is estimated that a second bridge could cost $150 million. Let us hope that the negotiations for a new bridge go more smoothly than they did 60 years ago…
Thanks to the Bill Smiley Archives for its assistance in the preparation of this column.