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A swinging bridge with more lives than a cat

The Souris suspension bridge has graced the picturesque riverside community of Souris, Man. for the past 109 years.

At 178 metres (582 feet) in length, it was once considered to be the longest suspension bridge in the British Commonwealth, and until recently it retained the title of “Canada’s longest historic suspension bridge.”

Constructed in 1904 by “Squire” William Sowden, Souris’s founder and major landowner, the bridge quickly became a popular attraction and the town’s iconic landmark. For more than a century, Souris’s suspension bridge attracted thousands of visitors who have trod across the springy span to become honorary Souris citizens. It was also nationally recognized in a postage stamp issue.

Squire William Sowden is closely associated with the early history and development of Souris. In 1880, he and several Millbrook, Ont. associates established a settlement syndicate, proposing to facilitate the settlement of a large block of land in southern Manitoba for the federal government with the aid of certain exclusive land administration rights.

Sowden spent the early summer “out west” scouting possible colony sites. He selected 12 townships in the area of the big bend in the Souris River and then travelled to Ottawa where he was able to secure most of that area.

He and the syndicate directors then turned their efforts to signing up potential homesteaders. On April 5, 1881 the 36-member Sowden-Plum Creek Colonization Party left Millbrook for what proved to be a very arduous and wet three-week journey.

Their destination was the mouth of Plum Creek, where Sowden had planned to establish a townsite and construct a water-powered mill on land which he largely owned.

Founder

He started construction of the mill soon after arrival, but within months, he sold out to new arrivals. By 1883, he spearheaded the establishment of the RM of Glenwood and the district’s agricultural society, serving as first reeve and first president alternatively.

He also built a crude, but apparently secure, log toll bridge and a ferry, before eventually selling them to the town for $1,000. Sowden soon established a large home yard with many outbuildings. He went on to invest in several local businesses including a brickyard, which supplied the bricks for the construction of many town buildings including the three-storey brick opera house built by Sowden in 1892.

Squire Sowden passed away suddenly in 1907 before plans for a large new residence were completed, but the project was taken over and fulfilled by his son Fred Sowden. The large castle-like residence, known as Hillcrest, is now a community museum and a municipally protected heritage site.

During the summer of 1904, on his own initiative, Squire Sowden constructed a ‘wire footbridge’ from a point on the north bank near his residence spanning the river to the south bank giving access to his buildings and properties located in the new municipal subdivision known as Idywylde.

He nailed planks to sturdy 4x4s and supported them by means of two heavy wire cables and timber piers. He nailed high strips of page wire along each side of the walk to prevent crossers who lost their footing from toppling into the water.

People were immediately intrigued with the bridge and one citizen recalled how the first pedestrians warily ventured out on it, as it swayed and bounced with every step taken.

Flipped

Only a month or two after its erection “a strong wind blew down from the northwest tossing the bridge up to the sky like a long, dark ribbon, and finally flipped it completely over,” prompting an old-timer to later comment wryly, “In those days we really HAD a swinging bridge in Souris!”

Undaunted, Squire Sowden added guide wires on either side of the bridge to help steady it. Local history has it that one man wagered he could ride his horse across the bridge, and succeeded too, but witnesses credited the horse more so than the rider for the accomplishment.

There is also an account of a harassed delivery boy who attempted to save delivery time by cycling across the bridge carrying a sack of flour. He apparently made the crossing — but the flour didn’t!

The swinging bridge became quite popular with visitors and challenged the adventurous to pit their sense of balance against its uncertain footing. It was also useful in its primary purpose as a safe, year-round river crossing for the residents of Souris and Idywylde.

In 1907, the bridge was gifted to the town and through “private subscriptions” council repaired and further improved its safety by anchoring the cables to cement blocks buried in the riverbanks.

But flood waters struck in 1912, or thereabouts, and swept away the decking, necessitating a reconstruction. It lasted 50 years until 1961, when a cable break prompted new renovations and repairs.

Flood damage

In 1976, flood waters and ice again severely damaged the bridge, and the repairs subsequently undertaken lasted another generation, until 2011.

Unprecedented water levels experienced on the Souris River required emergency diking in town and eventually forced town officials to cut the east side moorings to prevent the bridge’s anchors from being ripped out of the earth and taking part of an essential earth dike with them.

After the flood waters receded, the bridge was deemed damaged beyond repair. The continued existence of the town’s best-known landmark was in serious doubt as modern construction codes prevented a historically accurate reconstruction.

However, like Squire Sowden in 1904, the citizens of Souris and the RM of Glenwood remained undaunted and were soon formulating plans for a modern replacement, despite the thoroughly modern price tag of $4.5 million.

Construction on the footings for a new suspension bridge commenced in the autumn of 2012. The cabled spanning is being erected over winter.

The new suspension bridge won’t hold the historic value of its predecessor, but it will have grown by 21 feet. The new bridge is expected to be 184 metres (603 feet) and be in operation in time for the 2013 tourist season.

Additional information on Squire Sowden and the Souris suspension bridge is available online at: www.sourismanitoba.com/suspension-bridge; and www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/pageant/02/swingingbridge.shtml.

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