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Month: March 2024

Crossing the Gut in Placentia, NL

Crossing the Gut in Placentia, NL

Anyone travelling along the main road going through Dunville will pass Seven Island Lookout and spot it in the distance. The lift bridge spanning what is known as the gut is simply majestic as it rises from the water’s surface, both imposing and immovable. Built in 2016, it has a long history, one assuring its place in the hearts of residents and visitors alike.

Image of bridge from Seven Island Lookout (Source: Lee Everts).

In the Early Years

For the longest time, the idea of crossing the gut in Placentia was not of any real concern. In the sixteenth century, when the Basque arrived in what, to them, was Plazençia, short of walking, travel by boat was the primary means of getting around.

In the 17th through to the 19th century, similarly, residents would’ve had boats for all their transportation requirements. As seen in the map below, French residents living on the Placentia beach lived on the Orcan River, the channel that led inland from the gut. This was when France controlled the region, known to them as Plaisance, from 1662 to 1714 Most settlers possessed a small wharf for their boat.

Image: A plan of the settlement and fishing room belonging to the French inhabitants of the beach at Placentia completed in 1714 (Source: Library and Archives Canada).

It was only when more people began to settle on Placentia beach, Jerseyside, Freshwater, and Dunville that crossing the gut was of greater concern. People were just getting around on foot and so, the gut posed more of a challenge. Initially, cars were of little concern.

While, at present, the gut and surrounding waters no longer develop a covering of ice, in the past, some winter ice did form. As a result, it could provide a natural bridge, allowing people to walk across the gut.

Crossing the gut was no small challenge. In and of itself, the span of the gut at 73m and the tide, at about 4 knots, changing every eight and a half hours, posed a challenge. The spring tide rises 2.1m and neap tide rises 1.5m. So, there’s little question that if anyone wanted to get across, either a bridge or a boat would’ve been necessary.

Crossing By Boat

By the latter part of the 19th century, a Patrick Kemp ran a ferry known as the Black Punt across the gut. However, it wasn’t running as smoothly as hoped. And as the years progressed, residents complained about the poor service crossing the gut.

Image of people being ferried across the gut (Source: Anonymous).

Even a new and improved ferry was deemed not much better. In 1901, an editorial complained how people crossing were sometimes “drenched with water.” Later, in 1910, a letter to the editor remarked how “it was really laughable … to see a rope stretched across the gut and people pulling themselves … across to the town side on the broken down ferry.” Already during the early part of the twentieth century, a bridge had been promised by the government. Even a petition had even been signed by residents to bridge the gut.

As the years progressed, the government sought to undertake improvements. But it wasn’t enough. In 1917, a writer in a local editorial explained how the old black punt had been converted into a motor boat. Although, in their words “it should be burnt.” In 1920, a telegram was sent to the then Prime Minister with complaints of the “rotten broken down motor boats” being used. So, there was a clear need to cross the gut, once and for all.

First Attempts to Bridge the Gut

Everything changed in 1941 when the United States built a base in Argentia. The presence of the base and its service men and women meant it was imperative to have easy access to the Placentia beach. As a consequence, by September 1941, the government, with the assistance of the military, had decided to build a pontoon bridge.

The result was welcomed by residents with numerous people now freely crossing the gut. However, it wasn’t to last. The currents and tides relentlessly assailed the bridge and within a few months of being installed, the pontoon bridge broke free from its moorings leaving the Placentia area, yet again, with no way across the gut.

Image and pontoon bridge (Source: Anonymous).

All was not lost, for a year later, the United States army re-installed the bridge. However, due to the weather, the pontoon bridge had to be removed prior to the winter. Plus, the pontoon bridge was actually an impediment for fish harvesters who sometimes needed quick access to the harbour should the weather turn.

Besides, in the meantime, the United States base had developed a road that gave them access to the Placentia beach without having to cross the gut. Hence, the pontoon bridge was no longer necessary. Now, crossing the gut was again left an array of individuals who privately offered their services. They sometimes even managed to get cars across the gut.

Image of car being ferried across the gut (Source: Anonymous).

Back to the Ferry

With the arrival of 1954, initiatives to find a solution to crossing the gut were again undertaken by the government. The Newfoundland Transportation Company began providing service across the gut on the MV Ambrose Shea. Able to transport several cars and passengers, it was a definite improvement to what the Placentia area had become accustomed. Finally, crossing the gut was being taken seriously. Still, was it enough?

Image of MV Ambrose Shea ferry arriving (Source: Anonymous).

It became apparent that, no, a ferry crossing could not provide adequate service for the growing populations in the Placentia area. On the 22nd July, 1959, a local news paper, The Evening Telegram ran a story stating how the Gut was to finally be bridged.

A Bridge At Long Last

The McNamara Construction Company began operations building the bridge on 29th August, 1959. After a range of details regarding land and materials needed in the construction were ironed out, on 28th October, 1961, a crowd of residents and officials celebrated the opening of the Sir Ambrose Shea Lift Bridge. The centre would lift to allow boat traffic to traverse the Gut while vehicles could freely travel overtop.

Image of original Sir Ambrose She Lift Bridge (1961-2016) (Source: Lee Everts).

The Ambrose Shea Lift Bridge serviced the region for decades, the obstacles of crossing the gut fading into distant memory. Although, all good things come to an end. For the lift bridge, it was in 2010, when the provincial government began making plans to replace this bridge with one of similar design located alongside the site of the old bridge.

Everything Good Comes to an End

Unfortunately, these plans didn’t move fast enough and on Sunday, 3rd August, 2014, the bridge suffered a major collapse. It inconvenienced residents who regularly travelled over the bridge for work and to do their banking or shopping. Also troubled by the bridge being unable to lift were the fish harvesters. This followed ongoing repairs required to allow the bridge to function.

Although the bridge reopened on the 12th October, it would have to undergo continued repairs and maintenance for the next six weeks. Anyone needing to reach Placentia beach would have to drive a secondary route using a gravel road going through Southeast Placentia.

Time to Change

Despite the difficulties, the new bridge was finally completed and on the 23rd September, 2016, it opened for traffic. Eventually, the price ended up being $8 million more than that contracted. Blamed on additional costs required for external consultants, many were simply happy the new bridge had been completed.

And in all respects, it was an engineering feat. Consisting of a three-span structure, the centre movable span, connected on each side by two simple fixed beam support spans.

Image of new Sir Ambrose Shea Lift Bridge which opened in 2016 (Source: Lee Everts).

The goal was to accomplish the need of the bridge to lift, but to do so in an aesthetically pleasing manner, one accordant with the heritage of the area. The resulting bridge was wider than the first Ambrose Shea Lift Bridge. The machinery required to raise the middle section was located at the top of the towers of the two spans on either side.

The designers were well aware of the harsh environment in which the bridge would be located, trying to take this into account.

Nothing’s Perfect

But nothing’s perfect. So even the new bridge succumbed to various problems, having to be closed at times to both road and marine traffic. Customarily ingenious, some fish harvesters dealt with the inability of the lift bridge to rise by cutting the heights of their vessels. Some would alter their equipment so the masts could simply be bent in order to get under the bridge and raised once into the harbour.

For the most part, the bridge operates unimpeded. Still, every now and then, a problem will arise. However, the problem is eventually addressed and traffic resumes.

An Iconic Presence

It’s now 2024 and in two years, we’ll mark the tenth anniversary of the new Sir Ambrose Shea Lift Bridge. Without question, there’ve been several periods that may have left residents and others wondering, was this really worth the cost? Still, for the hundreds regularly crossing the bridge, the answer would definitely be, yes, it was worth it. And without question, the bridge has become an iconic feature of the Town of Placentia.


Canadian Consulting Engineer 2013 “Lift bridge in Placentia has to be durable”

CBC News 2014 “Placentia’s lift bridge out of commission for time being”

CBC News 2018 “Fishermen frustrated and fuming as Placentia lift bridge leaves boats stuck in harbour”

Everts, Lee 2016 Placentia Area — A Changing Mosaic

Library and Archives Canada 2014 “A plan of the settlement and fishing room belonging to the French inhabitants of the beach at Placentia” [cartographic material] Local class no. H3/140/Placentia/[1714] 140 – Metro areas, Newfoundland cartographic material, architectural drawing

“Placentia Ferry” Evening Telegram Editorial Notes (St. John’s, N.L.) 1901-04-30

Roberts, Terry 2016 “Cost of Placentia bridge nearly 20 per cent higher than contracted”

“Telegram to R.A. Squires” GN 8, File # 157, Folder 1, [District of] Placentia-St. Mary’s The Rooms, Provincial Archive of Newfoundland and Labrador

“The Old Black Punt Again to the Rescue” Evening Telegram (St. John’s, N.L.), 1910-09-16

“The Placentia Ferry” Evening Telegram (St. John’s, N.L.) 1917-12-14