Cultural heritage report for historic bridge doesn’t capture cultural identity that some call “island time”

The latest report on the replacement of the Little Current swing bridge recommends removal and commemoration.

one lane metal bridge spans narrow channel on a bright winter day
The Highway 6 Little Current swing bridge is the only fixed link that connects Manitoulin Island to the mainland. Built in 1913 for the Algoma Eastern Railway, cars started to use the bridge in 1944. Maureen Strickland/Kicker

Maureen Strickland
Kicker

LITTLE CURRENT, Ont. – The recently released report on the cultural heritage value of the Little Current swing bridge gives those with Manitoulin Island connections pause, much like the iconic bridge itself.

Manitoulin Island, situated in Lake Huron, is the largest freshwater island, in a lake, in the world. The island is 160 kilometres long, covers an area of 2,766 square kilometres and has a population of just over 13,000.

The swing bridge provides the only year-round road access from Manitoulin Island to the mainland. Its 172-metre length crosses the North Channel of Lake Huron between Goat Island and the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI). 

Built in 1913, the one-lane swing bridge is an Ontario heritage bridge.  In summer, the bridge swings open at the top of each daylight hour for 15 minutes to let waiting boat traffic pass through the North Channel.

In 2017, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) identified the bridge as being at the end of its service life.

The MTO contracted Stantec Consulting to undertake the Highway 6 Little Current Swing Bridge project. Stantec is tasked with completing a planning, preliminary design and class environmental assessment.

Public consultations began in 2018.  

“Any change in a community creates stress, and whenever a new aspect of the bridge project is released there is an increase in online debate and comments,” said NEMI Mayor Alan MacNevin.

Two-lane swing bridge preferred replacement

In March 2021, the MTO announced a two-lane swing bridge, just west of the current bridge, as the preferred replacement. 

The two-lane swing bridge option scored the highest in the preliminary assessment based on community, environmental and engineering considerations.  

In early January 2022, the Heritage Impact Assessment for the bridge project was released by Stantec.

The report outlined several reasons the swing bridge is a valuable part of Ontario’s heritage: It was part of the Algoma Railway. It is the longest running example of a swing bridge in Ontario. And it is a highly recognizable local landmark, useful for branding and other business purposes.

The report recommends removing the bridge and making up for its loss through documentation, some form of commemoration of the history and structure of the bridge and sympathetic design of the replacement bridge that is reminiscent of the original

view from dashboard of car of two stop lights in the foreground and a metal bridge in the background
A car stops on the mainland and waits to cross the one-lane bridge to Manitoulin Island. In the summer, traffic stops in both directions when the bridge swings for 15 minutes every hour on the hour during daylight to let waiting boats pass through the North Channel. Maureen Strickland/Kicker

What does it mean for “island time”

Comments, with names redacted, shared in the appendix of the report reflect the bridge’s less tangible cultural value.

  •  “The swing bridge adds to island culture by forcing us to slow down to ‘island time’.”
  •  “Slowing traffic down is not just a negative, it has psychological and cultural impacts that most consider positive.”
  • “With the 15-minute delay when the bridge is swung, it gives you a chance to unwind, think and just be in the moment.”
  • “Why would anyone want to change the entrance to such a magical, spectacular place as the Manitoulin Island?”

Like many with connections to the island, Jennifer Millard of Peterborough, Ont., follows the swing bridge project. Millard’s family moved to a farm outside of Kagawong on the island in 1976.

“As someone who lived on the island for a short period but returned regularly, I feel like the bridge is a portal,” Millard said. “I’d start looking for the bridge 15 minutes before it was actually there, and once I saw it, it always struck me that I’m leaving behind the day-to-day and entering this different world.”

This feeling of a different world does not surprise Dr. Laurie Brinklow, chair of the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, whose particular interest is the power of place and story – and their impact on island identity.

One must think in terms of paradoxes, binaries and tension to begin to understand islandness, Brinklow said, as islands exist “apart” from the mainland and are both “bound and connected by water.”

The bridges and ferries that connect islands to the mainland over the water that surrounds them are a space of “time out and time to be, a space of the in-between,” said Dr. Brinklow.

While crossing the Little Current swing bridge to Manitoulin Island, you are on the brink of something new but you are not quite there yet.

This feeling happens on any type of bridge or connection to an island, said Dr. Brinklow. It is shared by island dwellers worldwide and is just one of the many ways islandness is unique.

The recommended two-lane bridge with sympathetic design addresses the visual loss of the original landmark and the branding concerns in the report.  

With two lanes, drivers will not have to stop as often at the bridge.  However, in summer, the bridge will continue the decades-long practice of swinging for 15 minutes every hour on the hour to let waiting boat traffic pass on the channel below.

Perhaps the choice of another swing bridge is the cultural commemoration for “island time”.

But it is the nature of islands themselves that create islandness and a distinct cultural identity, no matter what type of link joins the island to the mainland.

The animation shows the preferred two-lane replacement bridge in relation to the existing bridge. Its design is reminiscent of the existing bridge. Stantec Consulting

2 Comments

  1. Nice recognition of the uniqueness of islandness, and the importance of the bridge to Island time. Great summary of the report recommendations balanced against concerns around Island identity.

  2. Repair the bridge and keep it. If you are in that much of a hurry you should have driven around on the highway. Don’t destroy heritage. You don’t have that right.

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