The Bras d’Or Lake is often referred to as one lake when, in fact, it has have several smaller bays and basins and one large portion, as well as a smaller one.
The two larger sections of the Bras d’Or are joined by a short, narrow deep strip of water known as the Barra Strait. Two headlands from the larger lake mark the entrance to Barra Strait, Darby’s Point and Hector’s Point. Hector’s Point is the present-day site of the Highland Village. Early settlers in the Barra Strait area were emigrants from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Today the villages of Iona and Grand Narrows stand on the shores of this narrow strait.
For years, early settlers crossed back and forth from the Iona side to Christmas Island for church services until Iona became a separate parish with its own church. With the construction of the Intercolonial Railway (ICR) throughout Nova Scotia, it was necessary to link Cape Breton, and particularly Sydney, with the rest of the line. Political controversy ensued over which route would be taken. A central route for the new railway through the middle of Cape Breton was decided on, and in 1885, surveys were conducted.
The biggest obstacle was the half-mile of open water of Barra Strait and the most challenging engineering part of the whole project. A train ferry was even suggested for a while. The piers for the bridge were built by 1889; the seven spans were constructed on the shore nearby and put in place two years after their startup. The seven span cantilevered bridge was finished and the final link of the ICR was complete to Sydney.
One of the most interesting aspects of building the bridge was putting the spans in place. Two scows (barges) carried each span close to its resting place and slightly above the piers. The scows were then filled with water, and as they sank, the span was slowly lowered into place. Similarly, the remaining spans dropped into their positions. The south span is a swing bridge which allows for boat traffic to pass through.
On November 24, 1890 the first passenger train carried the Governor General of Canada (Lord Stanley) and an entourage of officials.
One has to marvel at the number of men who would be involved with the building of the whole line to Sydney. There were surveyors, lumberjacks, quarrymen, labourers, men working the scows that hauled the cut stone for the bridges, cooks, and many more. The stone was quarried near the shore in Jamesville.
In 1915 the spans were replaced with heavier, stronger ones using a method similar to the original placements. Amazingly enough, rail traffic was not even interrupted for the changeover. Today the bridge still stands, but of course, not handling the same amount of rail traffic that it once did. The completion of the rail line linked Canada to Cape Breton.
Along side of the rail bridge and spanning the same narrow portion of Barra Strait is the new highway bridge. It is a low-level steel girder construction with a concrete deck. A portion of its deck (the bascule) lifts to let boat traffic through. After many years of talking, planning and slowly building the approaches, piers, structural steel, and concrete work, it was finally opened in 1993 linking the two sides of Cape Breton. It replaces the little ferries that plied the narrow strait for years. Some of us remember the Highland Lass, the C Monty MacMillan, the Joseph Howe, and others that made the trip through central Cape Breton a romantic and unique experience.
Was there opposition to building the new bridge? I often think of the bridge that was built to the Isle of Skye replacing the existing ferry. The distance across Kyle Akin is about the same distance as the Grand Narrows crossing. Tremendous opposition to their new bridge existed before and after its completion. Probably their exorbitant rates didn’t help to soothe the feelings of the Skye people. Each one of the little ferries could probably tell quite a story about interesting passengers, rough seas, and drifting ice during freeze-up and break-up seasons of the year.
At a glance we can see the great difference in architecture of the two bridges as they lie side by side across the strait. They might chide each other in the quiet of the night as did Robert Burns’ Two Brigs of Ayr. The new bridge might remark of what an ugly Gothic hulk the old train bridge is, forgetting how useful and how long it has withstood the elements, the drifting ice, and the traffic. I am sure the retort might be about the graceless fashion which the highway bridge crosses the water and how the art of noble architecture has definitely been lost.
I can hear them, can you?