Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

June 15, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: Lockport's 'Big Bridge' through the years

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The History of the Erie Canal contains quite a few stories of men and women who received an “up-close and personal” understanding of the term “low bridge.”

Many of the stories pertain to the poor souls who failed to heed a captain’s shout of “down on deck” or “bridge.” During the construction of the original Clinton’s Ditch, bridges were kept intentionally low. The main reason for building the bridges so low was cost. In order to convince landowners to provide a right of way, the canal commissioners had agreed to provide a crossing bridge, free of charge, to anyone whose land was divided by the canal.

This created the need for several hundred bridges right from the get-go. In an attempt to control the burgeoning cost to build the canal, it was decided to build very simple, low structures without the use of large supporting members that could have been used to raise the bridge higher above the water level.

It should come as no surprise, with the Erie Canal cutting a path through the center of Lockport, that the village would eventually need several substantial bridges. Admittedly, the canal was here before most of the roads in Lockport, but the booming growth in population that accompanied the opening of the Erie Canal, created a need for bridges to cross over the canal. 

The current Big Bridge that is very familiar today, has not always been the bridge known as the “Big Bridge” in Lockport. In fact, three bridges have used that moniker over the 180-years of Erie Canal History. 

The first bridge over the Erie Canal in Lockport was located at the extreme eastern end of what we now know as the Big Bridge. It was far from big. According to the writings of Lockport’s first Historian, Joshua Wilbur, the “bridge” was a collection of logs, wide enough for only one-way travel. The canal at that time was 40’ wide and the bridge had two thicker logs on the outside edges to serve as a “guard rail,” and split logs were placed across the outer logs with their bark side face up. It was reported that it offered a very rough carriage “ride.” This bridge was known as the Main Street Bridge, and for some time, it was the only bridge across the canal in Lockport.

In 1843, during the first enlargement of the canal, a wooden bridge, 105 feet wide, was built to carry Main Street traffic across the canal. By 1851, part of that bridge was being used as a community market. Even at the width of 105 feet, this “Big Bridge” left 62 feet of open canal exposed, mostly in a direct line with Main Street, which resulted in several reported deaths and drownings.

It was 1852 before a simple guardrail was even built along the opening. In 1885, the wooden “Big Bridge” was condemned. On May 26, 1886, construction began on a new iron Big Bridge with $10,000 appropriated for the work. This time the bridge was 272 feet long and occupied the full width of Main Street and considerably more. 

At the dedication on Sept. 1, 1886, a big celebration took place with brass bands, lavish fireworks and many speeches. The newspaper of Sept. 2 reported 10,000 people gathered for the opening celebration. The Hon. Richard Crowley gave a brief history of the old Big Bridge, in which he recalled an accident when a guardrail gave way sending a considerable number of people plunging off the bridge.

By 1911, there was a need once again for a new, larger bridge, and so the modern “Big Bridge” construction was begun. The work was completed in 1914 and currently a historical marker stands at the eastern end of the bridge that states it is “one of the widest bridges in the world.” The bridge measures 389 feet wide and 129 feet in length.

This bridge survives still today. With high-speed automobiles replacing horse and buggies, many modern motorists don’t even realize that they have crossed over Lockport’s own “signature” bridge.

Doug Farley is the director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center, the best place to start your Erie Canal Adventure. His column runs every Saturday. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Join them at 11 a.m. today when local author Linda Covell will present a free, family friendly program about her book for young readers, "Beattie's Tale."