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Jan. 28, 2020 | Tuesday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: Crossing the river used to be much simpler
The first Queenston-Lewiston Bridge in 1859. (Kathy Thomas via Getty Images)

Until the 21st century, the citizens of Lewiston, N.Y., and Queenston, Ont., had much in common. The Niagara River, an international border, separated them, but the barrier was minor.

During the 1970s, boys in the village of Queenston challenged themselves crossing the Niagara River. At least one swam across.

Because his friends didn’t believe him, he did it again, ran up to one of the outdoor tables at a riverside bar, stole an ashtray and returned. His friends believed him this time. Meanwhile, a prominent citizen of Niagara-on-the-Lake chose to climb across the under-structure of the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. We have only his word that he made it over.

The more traditional way of crossing the river is using the road deck of that bridge.

The present structure, which opened in 1962, is a couple of kilometres south of Queenston at the top of the Niagara escarpment. It had two predecessors.

The first bridge was built around 1850, replacing a ferry service between Lewiston and Queenston. Although it blew down in a storm in 1864, it was left swinging on its cables until a new bridge was built at the end of the 19th century.

In the meantime, the ferry service resumed. It ran until July 22, 1899, when the second bridge was finally opened. As the 20th century progressed, this bridge proved to be too narrow as motor vehicles, particularly trucks, became wider.

T. Alan Clifford’s story of a fire that happened in Queenston in 1949 confirms the problem. Clifford said, in his unpublished memoirs, that the fire was seen in Lewiston. The bridge could not carry the weight of Lewiston’s new fire truck and it was forced to go to the Lower Bridge at Niagara Falls to make the crossing.

The bridge, however, remained important to pedestrians. The Robinson sisters, whose grandparents owned a small house on Princess Street, spent their summers in Queenston. While they were in the village, they accompanied their mother to the Lewiston Library once a week. “We would walk across the bridge in both directions with heavy bags of books,” the youngest sister, Vivian, said in an interview from her home in Tennessee.

Until well into the 20th century, it was impossible to get a drink in Ontario on a Sunday. Queenston residents were in a unique position to slake their weekend thirst. They simply walked across the bridge to have a beer in the pubs in Lewiston. The customs office closed at midnight, however, the officers knew everyone in the village, so they didn’t worry about contraband from the United States.

A person well acquainted with life and the bridge was Marian Murray, a teacher at Laura Secord School. She met her husband Jack in Queenston. Jack was a Scot who had enlisted in the American army during the Second World War.

Apparently, he was blind in one eye, so was discharged. He came to Canada intending to enlist here, but didn’t. He worked on the bridge, eventually becoming an immigration officer.

The Murrays crossed the bridge regularly for meals, shopping and visiting friends. Mrs. Murray, who died in 2015, told me she believed that when the old bridge was torn down, life in the village changed.

The second bridge was closed in October 1962. An abutment on the Canadian side and a piece of the superstructure on the American still mark its location.

When the present bridge was opened, there was a sidewalk, but people didn’t use it. They would have had to walk up the escarpment to get to the bridge. This wasn’t so bad, though, because they could get to it from the Niagara River Parkway. The sidewalk was eventually taken out, and an entrance from the Niagara River Parkway to the bridge was closed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on New York City.

The authorities did allow bicycles to cross the new bridge early on. A friend of Mrs. Murray, Queenston resident Mary Pompetzki, told me she and her husband liked to camp near Youngstown, N.Y.  On one occasion, their son did not go with them. He arrived a few hours later, however, having cycled across the bridge.

When she talked about the earlier bridge, Mrs. Murray said, “There was an incident where a truck was leaking gas on the bridge. In order to prevent accidents, it was towed across. Someone had heard that one enterprising rescuer put a Sunlight laundry soap bar on the place where the leak was happening, and caused it to stop. It worked, so the bridge staff kept laundry soap around just in case.”

The latest bridge has also had its own set of adventures.

Rob Copeland, a former Queenston fire chief, recalls a call coming through to the fire department about a suspicious package that had been left on the side of the road near the bridge.

The local police authorities responded with a robot that was supposed to be able to climb curbs and open the package. The robot, however, would fall over every time it got to the curb. Exasperation finally set in and a police officer decided to shoot the package open. The suspicious package turned out to be a postage meter.

Another call involved a transport truck leaking fluid as it was  travelling to the United States. When the fire department arrived and contained the spill, they were shown the contents of the truck. Inside were parts for a cruise missile. The truck was coming from Alberta and heading to a U.S. Air Force base.

The following article appeared in the Niagara Falls Evening Review in January 1962:

Giant steel arch sections, stretching out from the Canadian and U.S. shorelines of the lower Niagara River, are expected to meet at midstream in about 10 days, setting a record for the world’s longest hingeless steel arch.

The distance between the abutments of the new $17,000,000 international bridge at Queenston and Lewiston N.Y., is 1,000 feet. The structure being erected by Bethlehem Steel Co., will total 8,000 tons of steel.

The yet-to-be-completed superdeck of the bridge will carry motorists across the border at an elevation of 368 feet above the river, linking the New York Thruway with Highway 405 and the Queen Elizabeth Way.

Separated by a four-foot mall, the deck will provide two 24-foot wide roadways. On the south side of the bridge an eight-foot pedestrian walk will give travellers an unsurpassed view of the giant Canadian and American power-generation complex.

The steel arch, at its midway point, curves some 340 feet above the river.

The temporary ladder-like supporting bents are as much as 310 feet high and are believed to be the tallest ever used on a bridge construction project. They are, of course, scheduled for removal after the arch and superdeck are completed.

The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission expects to open the structure to traffic later this year.

No name has yet been announced by the bridge commission for the new span. It will replace the 69-year-old (sic) suspension bridge, about one and a half miles downstream, scheduled for demolition.

The new bridge has been designed as a “twin” of the Rainbow Bridge, (an) architectural award-winner when it was designed and built two decades ago.

Although Queenston residents still occasionally shop in Lewiston, life no longer revolves around the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. Getting to it requires a six-kilometre drive. The wait times have been known to be as long as three hours. In it’s heyday, though, the bridge added an important element to life in the village..

References: Niagara Historical Society and Museum, Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Biography Dictionary, Rod Dale.


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at,, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.