The Old Mill Bridge
Ever since Roman times the stone arched bridge has been a symbol of form, style, and functionality. They were built throughout Europe and Britain and have been the subject of poets and artists alike who, over the years have tried to capture their graceful flowing lines and substance on canvas and lyrics. In addition, during the Settlement Period, whenever sufficient stone and skilled workmen were at hand, masons put their skills and knowledge to work to replicate stone arched bridges to span the rivers and streams throughout Ontario. The tradition continued through to the early 1900s, when new techniques supplemented those of earlier materials and skills.
The Old Mill Bridge still exists in the west end of Toronto. It is situated on what was originally an Aboriginal Trail leading from the Lake Shore Blvd. near the old Village of Windermere (Swansea) to what is now known as Bloor Street in Etobicoke (Toronto). It was built in 1916 to replace a wooden bridge where Thomas Fisher's grist and saw mill was formerly located on the west bank of the Humber River. The old wooden bridge suffered the same fate as many bridges before it, which were periodically demolished and carried away by Spring ice flows.
The Municipal Councils of the Township of Etobicoke and York County whose jurisdictions were, at the time, located on either side of the Humber River, decided something more substantial was needed . They retained the services of Frank Barber, a well-known Consulting Engineer, to come up with a suitable design. To mark the occasion and their joint participation, it was decided to have their respective municipal Coats of Arms carved in stone and affixed to either side of the new bridge, where they may still be seen to this day.
Frank Barber's design was a complete success. It not only survived subsequent ice flows, but survived the full fury of Hurricane Hazel while many bridges up and down the Humber were not as fortunate. Barber was a progressive thinker and somewhat ahead of his time. He experimented with concrete as a building material long before others thought it to be practicable. He designed the first concrete arch bridge to be constructed in Canada in 1909. By 1913 only nine concrete bridges existed in Canada and all were designed by Barber. The Old Mill Bridge, however, is cited as one of his best works.
Part of Barber's success can be attributed to his role in making the use of concrete widely accepted as a building material for major projects such as bridges. Although the use of concrete can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, it is one of the great oddities of our time that one of the world's most successful construction materials suddenly disappeared from use for more than 1000 years. The disintegration of the Roman Empire by the end of AD 400 also meant the disappearance of the art of producing and using concrete. It wasn't until 1824 when an Englishman by the name of Joseph Aspdin produced a product he called Portland Cement, that concrete once again began to be used as a construction material.
Barber's extensive use of concrete in designing the Old Mill bridge was a major deviation from the traditional method of constructing what appeared, for all intents and our purposes, to be a typical stone bridge. It had the usual barrel shaped arches, stone parapets, voussoirs or ring stone and hump back roadbed. However, instead of using stone to construct the bridge, he used concrete with a veneer of stone on the side walls.
Actually, this method of construction was used by the Romans in the 1st and 2nd century largely because they preferred the exterior appearance of marble, travertine and tuff more than exposed concrete. Barber's design was a success to the designation of the bridge as a heritage property under the Ontario Heritage Act. It reads; "In so doing he designed a fine example of engineering and architectural skills by producing an aesthetically beautiful structure that blends in with the nature of the surrounding landscape."
It should be remembered that concrete was a relatively new material, when Barber came up with the proposal to use it instead of stone to build a bridge. It must have caused some to wonder about its safety, durability and suitability. After all, it was less than ten short years since he had designed the first concrete bowstring truss bridge ever built in Canada. That bridge was, and still is, located a few miles to the west on the Middle Road spanning the Etobicoke River between Etobicoke and Mississauga. When he designed that bridge there was still a lot to learn about the strength of concrete. So to prove its durability, on the day it was officially opened, Barber arranged for a herd of 70 cattle, 'all that could crowd on the bridge', weighing some 35 tons to show that they had little, if any, effect on its stability. It is obvious that he was not only an engineer, but a bit of a showman as well.
It is not known if Barber added a stone facade to the Old Mill Bridge to convey a sense of traditional strength and security or because he was not pleased with the austere appearance of the exposed concrete. As reported in the March 26,1919 issue of the Contract Record 'that he (Barber) wished to show that concrete made it possible to introduce an infinite variety of design as the true basis of art, in concrete'. Whatever the reason, the results were the same. The bridge is a prized asset and as Pat Mestern wrote, ".... it fits into the landscape like fingers to a glove".
Article written by Robert B. Hulley.