A history of the Menesetung Bridge

Provided by Mike Dawson, Director of the Menesetung Bridge Association
March 21, 2022

Ryerson Neal researched the history of the bridge and found many stories for his book “Bridge To The Past – A History of the Menesetung Bridge” which was published in 2007. The Menesetung Bridge Association has a few copies left. It has been a fundraiser for our association courtesy of the Neal family.   Following are some excerpts from the book. 

Rail history in Goderich dates to 1958 when the Buffalo Brantford Railway established the Stratford – Goderich line. Soon after, the Grand Trunk Railway [GTR], while building a line to Sarnia, tore straight through some of this track. This was just the start of GTR shenanigans. The GTR eventually absorbed the line from Buffalo Brantford and this line is still in operation.

“The Challenge”
To build the Guelph – Goderich line, 132 km in length, required four major bridges, with the biggest effort to cross the Maitland at Goderich. The tracks would be 60 feet above the river to meet the north bank, and the bridge would be 700 feet in length, resting on enormous concrete pillars. The south end required a massive earth embankment which demanded 20,000 cubic feet of fill for each running yard. And then another tough obstacle: crossing the GTR line.

This project was to be one of the biggest in the nation for those years, and the rail bridge would be the longest in the province.

“It Begins”
In 1905, contractor M.A. Pigott of Hamilton took on the job.

1000 men
50 teams of horses
6 small locomotives
3 gigantic steam shovels

It is amazing that they were able to maneuver the heavy equipment into place, having to cross the river and scale the steep banks. Landslides were common and equipment was damaged but fortunately no casualties.

The initial wood trestle somehow survived the 1905 spring flood. There are some great photos of the Goderich Canoe Club in their canoes in front of the wooden trestle.

“Bring On the Steel”
By 1906 the cement pillars and abutments were ready. Now to install the 96 foot/38 ton steel beams. Several giant lifts were anchored on the pillars. Beams were brought in on the competitor’s line. Somehow they kept arriving backwards and had to be sent back to be turned around.

“The Perils of Construction”
On October 29th, 1906 a donkey engine derailed on the bridge. A gust of wind caught the girder the engine was hauling and sent the entire train plummeting to the river below. A dozen men jumped free but the engineer, Emanuel Maddeford, died instantly.

GTR – legal challenges
Valuable time was taken by a court challenge from the GTR attempting to prevent the new line from crossing over their line. Later, the GTR decided they needed a retaining wall and started excavating right under the new tracks. Another landslide and another round in court.

“The Final Stretch”
By August, 1907 the new CPR station had been built and the final track laid. The entire town celebrated as the inaugural train left the station in September 1907. Mr. Pigott, on the other hand, had had enough of construction and retired from the business.

The CPR line was very successful for the next 60 years but then faced a gradual decline. By the 1970’s there was no passenger service. By the 1980’s the freight service was losing money. By 1989, across Ontario, thousands of kilometres of track were abandoned.

“On The Chopping Block”
“In 1989, the CPR bridge and adjacent sections were sold to a scrap metal dealer. It would only be a matter of months before the structure was stripped of its iron beams and left naked in the middle of the river. Virtually no opposition was raised by a complacent town, and demolition was set to commence after Christmas of 1989. It seemed the storied structure would end its days atop a scrap heap”. “The Town Council was apathetic.” In the 1988 waterfront development plan, all that appeared beside the bridge was “Contact CPR regarding demolition”.

Some of Mike’s Memories

[In 1989] I was working with Dr. Thomson and Dr. Walker at our office on Caledonia Terrace. I could see the bridge out the back window but never thought much about it. It was a train bridge! I heard the Town had an opportunity to own the bridge, but not much was happening. Took a walk on the bridge one windy November day and although I didn’t get too far I was struck by the qualities of the bridge and the fantastic views up and down the Maitland River Valley.

In December, 1989, I attended a Hospital Board/Medical Staff Christmas party at the Bedford Hotel. I expressed my concern about losing the bridge to my tablemates and Dr. Ken Lambert agreed. He jumped up on his chair, got everyone’s attention, waved his fork in the air, and said it was a crime to lose the bridge and we must do something about it. He then sat down and that was his contribution.

I spoke to some others that evening and we got a petition started. I took this to John Smallwood, who I knew had been promoting the bridge. The petition became a little more formal and within one week there were 800 names on it.

With 2 weeks to go until demolition, concerned citizens packed the next Council meeting. The petition was presented. We asked for three months to find support and funding. The vote tied 4-4 and the bridge’s fate hung by a thread. Mayor Palmer cast her deciding vote in our favour.

The Community Rallies

A lot happened between this Council meeting and the bridge and Tiger Dunlop Trail opening to the public in 1992. I enjoyed reviewing some documents and newspaper clippings from that time. What a busy time it was. Then Jane and I had our first child in February 1990. Grant is now a director and Chair of the Menesetung Bridge Association.

Following are some notes about the personalities and events of that time. I cannot mention all of the individuals involved as there was so much community involvement. Numerous volunteers contributed much time and effort.

November 1989   A photo in Maclean’s Magazine. Alice Munro and Gerry Fremlin. Her new book “Friend of My Youth” had been published, including a story called “Menesetung”. They were early proponents of the bridge and trail. Beautiful photo of the bridge and harbour with tracks still intact.

January 1990  Friends of the bridge committee. Artist Mike Scott sketched a design. Stephanie Scholten contributed a landscape architect plan. Alan Avis wrote up a plan for organization structure and business proposal. Mike Lapaine interviewed on the bridge for London newscast.

March 1990   $5000 raised but Council again 4-4 tie with Mayor Palmer once more voting in favour. Signal Star “CP bridge has six months”. Would need another

$13,000 by Sept 1st.

May 1990   School contest to name the bridge and the winner Menesetung Bridge.

Incorporation.  Paul Ross legal staff helped with application. Notice of incorporation arrived just in time on August 30, 1990 as on September 1 the bridge was to be purchased from the demolition contractor. Later charitable status established.

1991   Plank and Railing Campaign. 1400 planks at $20 each, and 150 railings $100 each. Raised close to $40,000.

September 1991   Rod Lafontaine had to respond to Highways Department letter to prevent loss of the Highway 21 bridge.

January 1992   Land deal closes. Menesetung Bridge Association purchased block of CPR land south end of the bridge, guaranteeing access from North Harbour Road.

Letter from Goderich Elevators:  George Parsons, Dan Murphy, Eric Kirk. Trail could cross Elevator property. Apparently Elevators directors passed this by one vote.

Peter Strickland spent much time as a team leader and project manager. Contractors from Bayfield [I can’t remember their names – please help]and many volunteers helped with construction of walkway and railings. Plaques installed and 1400 planks inscribed. Newspaper clipping of Greg Gordon cartoon with Peter responding to -THUMP “What was that?” with “Just another councillor trying to jump on our bandwagon”.

Enormous rock finds a home.   22 tons. Huron Concrete Products contributed.

Trail construction from North Harbour Road with donation of excavator machine time by Garth Postill Contracting.

Photo.   “Whirlwind Tour”. Lieutenant-Governor Henry Jackman hammering in the last nail on the bridge walkway.

Canada Day 1992   Official opening of the bridge. MPP Jack Riddell auctioned the last plank. Hike to the bridge. Paul Klopp and Eileen Palmer for the ribbon cutting.

Announcement of a Ministry of Tourism grant.

John and Mary Lo Graham provided leadership. Having sold their cable TV business Classicom in Richmond Hill, they had moved back to Goderich. John helped the Kinsmen Club start the yearly TV auction, with funds the first few years being directed to the bridge. John also produced a short film “Miracle on the Maitland” about the bridge’s early and recent history.

Total value of the work in 1992 was more than $100, 000 with Town of Goderich and Township of Colborne $20,000, Tourism grant $20,000 and the rest donations of money, volunteer time and professional services.

1992 – 2021    Rod Lafontaine was long standing director, trail captain, project manager and volunteer organizer. He also helped preserve the abandoned CPR station until the Marshall family moved it to the lakefront and converted it into a beautiful restaurant, The Beach Street Station.

November, 1992    Letter from CP Rail Tony Rastrick “Province of Ontario is currently in the process of acquiring the CP rail lands from the bridge to Hwy 21.”

“Bridging The Gap” Mac Campbell, with many others, was very involved in our 100 year anniversary celebrations in 2007.

The Province purchased the entire CPR property, 132 km, between Goderich and Guelph. The Menesetung Bridge Association has maintained the Tiger Dunlop Trail. The Maitland Trail Association manages the GART. In the past few years the G2G Rail Trail has made great strides and we look forward to the G2G being a world class attraction for hikers and cyclists.

Every 6 or 7 years we have tackled a major repair. We have had provincial and federal grants. Town, township, and service clubs have helped. We have a yearly newsletter; members and donors fund our year to year costs.


Our current Chair is Grant Dawson and other long standing board members include Marian Lane and John Smallwood. We hope to add a director this spring. [any volunteers?]

Engineering report:   Andrew Ross of BMRoss provided a structural assessment last year. If we want the bridge to stand another 100 years, major concrete repairs are required. The tops of several piers, that hold the bearing seats for the steel beams, are a priority, with a timeline of 3-4 years. Other work should be addressed in 10-15 years.

Costs of the priority work are estimated at $450,000. Access to the site is difficult and the firms doing this work are already quite busy.

Town and County are on board to help. Permits have been obtained and engineering preliminary work has been completed. Thank you to the Rotary Club and the Lions Club for helping fund these initial costs.

Unfortunately, our application to the Trillium Community Building Fund was recently declined. We will apply again for funding as we are now “shovel ready”.

If you would like to receive our newsletter, let me know by email mjdawson@cabletv.on.ca. We will also have copies in the mailbox at the south end of the bridge. The newsletter should be out by mid-April.

Happy Trails
Mike Dawson Director, Menesetung Bridge Association