The construction of the Victoria Bridge was one of the greatest technological innovations of the nineteenth century. It was a colossal undertaking, both in terms of engineering and logistics.
More than 3,000 workers, largely of Irish stock, took part in this gargantuan project. To maximize the number of working hours, many of them were housed in “Victoriatown,” a series of temporary camps set up in Montreal and in St. Lambert on the South Shore. There were even children as young as nine to fifteen years old labouring on the site.
Just imagine the challenges that faced chief engineer James Hodge, who was in charge of building this enclosed tube. One of them was the environment itself: the water froze every winter, the river was 2.5 km wide here and the current flowed by at a speed of 11 knots. Caissons therefore had to be installed so that work could proceed in dry docks and the piers could be firmly anchored. It took more than 1,500,000 rivets to hold together this immense structure completed in five years and five months!
The bridge's tubular shape turned it into a virtual sarcophagus when oil and coal began to supplant wood as engine fuel in the 1870s. A dense, black smoke remained trapped in the tube and made some passengers ill on the journey between Montreal and St. Lambert. The engineer even had to stop the train before crossing the bridge to make sure that all the windows in the cars were properly closed!
The tubular structure could not accommodate the double track needed to handle rail traffic between Chicago and Montreal, and was also exposed to side winds. In 1897-1898, this long tube was replaced with a larger, open structure, made of steel trusses, that had two tracks instead of one and a cantilevered roadway on either side. This structure, renamed the Victoria Jubilee Bridge, is the one we know today. It was during its construction, moreover, that Mohawks from Kahnawake developed their legendary reputation for their ability to defy the dizzying challenge of working at great heights.