On the bridge of Arvida, a national historic civil engineering site, they are dancing, they are dancing

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The aluminium bridge of Arvida, Arvida / Saguenay, Québec. Anon., “Premier pont tout en aluminium.” Le Petit Journal, 4 December 1949, 51.

Hi and hello, my reading… Uh, why such a puzzled look, my reading friend? In a world like ours, flush with science, technology and innovation, there is nothing wrong with crossing the chasm that separates us from enlightenment by walking decisively on the deck of an aluminum bridge, an aeronautical / aerospace material if there was / is one.

Let’s start our review of the premises with a reading of the text of the caption which accompanied the photograph above, discovered during our reading of the weekly Le Petit Journal of Montréal, Québec:

In Arvida, the first bridge in the world to be built entirely of aluminum is currently being completed. And this photo shows the large aluminum arch that spans the Saguenay and on which will soon be built a long deck of [88 metres] 290 feet in length, connecting the two banks. This bridge will require [172 000 kilogrammes] 380 000 pounds of aluminum, instead of [397 000 kilogrammes] 875 000 pounds of steel, but it will not need paint. The long deck will include a [7.3 metres] 24 feet wide carriageway, lined on each side by a [1.2 metre] 4 feet wide sidewalk. At the south entrance of the bridge will stand two ornamental pylons, each supporting a huge aluminum globe. The support arch describes an arch of [154 metres] 504 feet in length. This bridge will really be the pride of the “kingdom of the Saguenay,” which is also the “kingdom of aluminum.”

While it is true that some bold minds were considering the possibility of building an aluminum bridge in Arvida even before the end of the 1920s, the beautiful story of this unique structure really began in 1943, as the Second World War raged. Aware of the need to connect the 2 banks of an arm of the Saguenay River that separated Arvida from Ville-Racine, a municipality annexed by Arvida in early 1944, the Aluminum Laboratories Limited Division of Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), an American industrial giant, which had close ties with Aluminum Company of Canada Limited (Alcan), a name adopted in 1925, undertook preliminary studies to determine the most appropriate location and type of bridge. Engineers worked under the direction of William L. “Bill” Pugh, chief engineer of Alcan between 1942 (?) and 1956.

Early in the development of the project, the Conseil de la Ville d’Arvida asked various experts to join the team as consultants:
- Olivier Desjardins, chief engineer of the Département des Travaux publics du Québec;
- Harold Lea Fetherstonhaugh, Montréal architect; and
- Frederick Gage Todd, American landscape architect residing in Montréal, the first landscape architect working in Canada in fact, active from British Columbia to Newfoundland, a British territory which was then not part of Canada.

In 1946, Dominion Bridge Company Limited, a firm from Lachine, Québec, and elsewhere in Canada specialising in the manufacture of bridges made of steel, of course, was invited to join the team. A good 3 months of study and discussions with Alcan staff began, with all parties wanting to preserve the natural beauty of the site. Dominion Bridge finally submitted 2 bridge projects, one steel and one aluminum. In the latter case, given the absence of precedent in this respect, the manufacturing cost calculated by the company was altogether approximate.

Ignoring the aforementioned lack of precedent, the Conseil de la Ville d’Arvida and Alcan approved the aluminum bridge project in February 1948. The latter obviously wanted to promote aluminum as a building material for bridges and, in doing so, hoped to obtain contracts from other municipalities and government bodies. Let’s not forget that the end of the Second World War had resulted in the cancellation of a multitude of aircraft production contracts, largely made of aluminum, in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Alcan was deeply affected by these cancellations.

You are obviously wondering why the Arvida bridge was made of aluminum, my reading friend. Not wishing to leave you in ignorance, yours truly hurled himself into the abyss in search of information.

Have you ever heard of Alcan? Not at all? A little? A lot? Uh, good. This firm, say I, was founded in 1902, in Shawinigan, Québec, under the name of Northern Aluminum Company Limited, even though Québec / Canada did / does not have deposits of aluminum ore, or bauxite. This same Québec / Canada produced a lot of electricity, however, a vital element in the production of aluminum. Northern Aluminum was then a subsidiary of Pittsburgh Reduction Company, a firm which later became Alcoa.

Alcan began its activities in Arvida around 1927. Would you believe that the name of this city was / is inspired by the name of the president, and soon chairman of the board, of Alcoa, ARthur VIning DAvis? Yours truly wonders who may have had the idea of ​​such a name, a sycophant subaltern or a president with an oversized ego? Be that as it may, the Washington of the North, as Arvida was / is sometimes / often called, was / is a planned industrial city created from scratch from 1925.

While it is true that the Great Depression of the 1930s deeply affected Alcan’s production in Arvida, the rearmament programs launched in the second half of the decade by the United States and, even more, by the United Kingdom affected it just as much. The annual production of aluminium was multiplied by 7 and more between 1932 and 1939 for example, reaching 75 200 metric tonnes (83 000 American tons / 74 000 Imperial tons). Much of the Canadian production was exported to both the United States and the United Kingdom, where it was used by aircraft manufacturers. In 1938 and 1939, for example, the latter country bought 48 and 44% of the aluminum produced by Alcan.

The adoption by the American Congress of an Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, better known under the name of Lend-Lease Act, in March 1941, and mentioned in another December 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, allowed the British government to obtain later on large quantities of Canadian aluminum free of charge.

Decisions made by the federal government regarding the generation and distribution of electricity reflected Alcan’s needs. This being said (typed?), in 1940, the latter turned to the British government for a loan. Better yet, it was the American, Australian and British governments which provided tens of millions of dollars to Alcan. The company also borrowed millions of dollars in the financial markets of London, England, and New York City, New York. Indeed, the federal government did not seem to want to invest directly in this strategic sector linked to aeronautics – a crucial industry throughout the Second World War.

Be that as it may, the production of the Arvida smelter grew rapidly to meet the growing needs of the allied countries. The American government, for example, signed a first order in May 1941. The American aeronautical industry soon became the main user of the aluminum produced in Québec / Canada. The American government apparently invested heavily in the construction of the hydroelectric power plant at Shipshaw, near Arvida – a move that many American politicians and businessmen did not like.

An illegal strike launched in July 1941, in the middle of a heat wave, by employees, exasperated by the apparent indifference of Alcan regarding demands that could not be more reasonable, took their union, the Syndicat national catholique de l’industrie de l’aluminium d’Arvida, by surprise – and put the production of the smelter at risk.

The management of Alcan asked the Canadian Army to send troops. The latter refused, stressing that such a decision belonged to the civil authorities. A request from the Minister of Munitions and Supply was no more successful. The Cabinet War Committee having refused to rule, the very powerful and influential Clarence Decatur “C.D.” Howe threatened to resign. For one reason or another (poorly understood information and / or prejudice regarding unions?), the latter suggested that disruptive elements from the United States were attempting to sabotage Canada’s war effort. The English-language press in Québec / Canada published these incendiary / irresponsible remarks. These same words were denounced in Québec, vehemently – and with good cause.

A team of conciliators came on the scene as Québec attorney general, Wilfrid Girouard, got the intervention of the Canadian Army. The latter occupied the smelter in collaboration with the Sûreté provinciale du Québec, in other words the provincial police service of Québec. The strike ended, without violence, less than a week after it started. In fact, there did not seem to be any arrest or layoff. Better yet, Alcan’s personnel soon got a pay raise and an improvement in their often painful working conditions.

An investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police obviously revealed a total absence of disruptive elements from the United States. This being said (typed?), Howe did not seem to apologize. Worse still, he acquired the right to appeal to the Canadian Army in the event of a labor dispute. Aluminum production resumed at Arvida only after 2 weeks of shutdown. The Arvida strike was an important date in the evolution of labour relations in Québec and Canada.

Although located far from the coast, and from any danger of air attack, the Arvida aluminum smelter was protected by a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighter squadron based near Arvida at Bagotville, Québec, from July 1942. An operational training unit equipped with fighter airplanes could support it when needed. The fighter squadron having moved in December 1942, the operational training unit ensured the protection of the strategic region of Arvida until its dissolution, in October 1944.

Supported by the Canadian and American governments, Alcan produced more and more aluminum. In 1945, this company shipped about 1 550 000 metric tonnes (1 700,000 American tons / 1 520 000 Imperial tons) of this highly strategic metal, which represented 90 % of the Commonwealth’s production. Alcan was then the largest aluminum producer in the world, but I digress. A little. A lot. Passionately. Madly. Sorry.

A general contractor from Jonquière, Québec, Pic Construction Company Limited, began construction of the Arvida aluminum bridge in August 1949 under the supervision of the engineering firm Surveyer, Nenniger and Chênevert Incorporée of Montréal. Emil Nenniger, a self-taught engineer and architect of Swiss origin, for example, contributed to the design of the foundations, deck and arch of the bridge. If an unidentified firm delivered the fixtures, lampposts and railings of the bridge, its actual structure included of course only aluminum produced by Alcan, and…

And no, my reading friend to whom nothing escapes, the name Lockwell and Forget mentioned in some sources does not appear anywhere else. Yours truly wonders if the people in question were / are not Camilien Joseph Lockwell and Joseph David Rodolphe Forget, 2 wealthy businessmen from Québec, Québec, who died long before the construction of the Arvida aluminum bridge. Could the unidentified firm mentioned above be Quebec Power Company, the electricity producer in the area of ​​the old capital?

And yes, Surveyer, Nenniger and Chênevert became SNC Incorporée in 1975. This Montréal engineering firm was one of the largest in Canada. It acquired the then-bankrupt engineering firm Lavalin Incorporée in 1991, becoming SNC-Lavalin Incorporée, one of the world’s largest engineering firms. You know just like me that this firm was / is in hot water for various reasons, and…

You have a question, don’t you, my reading friend who is desperately trying to change the subject? Is it true that no aluminum bridge existed on planet Earth before the one built in Arvida, you ask? The answer to that question of outstanding significance and national importance was / is yes. This being said (typed?), a bridge dating from the 1880s, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received an aluminum deck in 1933. A bridge completed in 1946 in Massena, New York, included an aluminum span. Interestingly, at least for yours truly, said bridge served a railway leading to an Alcoa factory in Massena, but back to our story, after a digression of which you are responsible, my reading friend.

The Arvida aluminum bridge was inaugurated in July 1950 under the eyes of a crowd of 5 000 people. The priest of the parish blessed the structure. The Premier of Québec, the very (too?) conservative Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, a character but not necessarily a gentleman mentioned in some issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2018, cut the traditional / symbolic ribbon. The president of Alcan, American Ray Edwin Powell, looked at the scene with a benevolent eye.

Did the Arvida aluminum bridge remain unique in the world for a long time, you ask yourself, my reading friend? The answer to that question was / is no. Aluminum bridges were completed in Hungary (1951) and West Germany (1956). The first American aluminum bridge was built in 1958. This structure was also the first welded aluminum bridge in the world. Several other aluminum bridges came into existence in North America and Europe in the following decades. This being said (typed?), steel remains the preferred material for bridge builders around the world. In all likelihood, steel cost / costs less than aluminum.

With the exception of minor maintenance work, the structure of the Arvida aluminum bridge remained untouched for about 45 years. The first major refurbishment work took place in 1995. Some elements affected by corrosion were then replaced by galvanised or stainless steel elements. The concrete slab was also replaced in the early 2010s.

Let me point out that that the Arvida aluminum bridge was listed on the Registre du patrimoine culturel du Québec in 2004.

In September 2008, many personalities from the political, economic and cultural worlds participated in a ceremonial ceremony in Saguenay, Québec, and... You again look puzzled, my reading friend. Why meet in Saguenay if the bridge was in Arvida, you ask? The answer to this question was / is very simple. Arvida merged with the city of Jonquière in 1975 and the latter in turn merged with the city of Saguenay, created by decree in February 2002.

In September 2008, say I, many personalities participated in a ceremony during which they unveiled 2 commemorative plaques. The first, submitted by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, highlighted the historical significance of the Arvida aluminum bridge, which then became a national historic civil engineering site. The second plaque recalled the names of the partners who contributed to the refurbishment of this work with a unique heritage / symbolic nature. And no, no one danced on the Arvida aluminum bridge in September 2008. Come on, be serious, please.

Have a nice week, and I hope you will enjoy the following photograph.

The aluminium bridge of Arvida / Saguenay, Québec. Wikimedia.

The aluminium bridge of Arvida / Saguenay, Québec. Wikimedia.

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Rénald Fortier