Connecting Countries and Commerce for Decades

WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES ARCHIVE PHOTO
During the Thousand Islands Bridge opening in August 1938 cars lined up to travel across to Wellesley Island for the first time.

BY: Eli Anderson
On a hot, windy Thursday in August 1938, a crowd of more than 25,000 people gathered on the rocky terrain of Wellesley Island, climbing atop boulders and craning their necks to get a glimpse of world history.

                On this same day – August 18th – as World War II loomed in Europe, Switzerland decided to close its borders to refugees without visas. But here, in rural Jefferson County, the United States did the opposite, opening its border with Canada. Sparing no pomp or circumstance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William Lloyd Mackenzie King officially opened the Thousand Islands Bridge System, allowing easy international travel across the St. Lawrence River.

                “The best symbol of common sense is a bridge,” President Roosevelt said during the ceremony. “Here a boundary is a gateway and not a wall.”

                This summer marks the 80th anniversary of this event, and the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority certainly hasn’t forgotten its significance.

                “It was huge for the region, because building a bridge system here had been talked about for many, many years – as early as the 1920s,” said Robert G. Horr III, executive director of the bridge authority.

                Early proponents of the bridge struggled for years to garner government approval and funding for the project. In fact, in those early planning years, many described the bridge as going “from nowhere to nowhere.”

                Approval was gained in 1933, allowing a five-man, county-appointed Thousand Islands Bridge Authority to form that same year. Funding, however, would be another battle.

                “They realized very quickly after the Depression in ’29 that they were not going to be able to raise money for the bridge through government, because the government didn’t have any money,” Mr. Horr said.

                Instead, he said, the bridge authority sold general revenue bonds – or pledges for future tolls collected on the bridge – to Wall Street. A $2.8 million bond was underwritten in February 1937, and ground was broken on the banks of the St. Lawrence two months later.

                While the section crossing the American channel to Wellesley Island is perhaps best known to Northern New Yorkers, those who have crossed the 80-year-old bridge system will notice that it consists of five bridges of various sizes.

                In the late 1930s, more than 20,000 cubic yards of concrete was poured over about 7,500 tons of structural and reinforcing steel, and another 550 tons of cables were suspended. Still, the entire bridge system was completed in 16 months – fast work even by today’s standards.

                                When explaining the history of the bridge system, Mr. Horr likes to separate it into decades – “I try to break it down into things that people can identify with,” he said.

                The first few years after construction were all about the buzz. Excited by the prospect of easy international travel, people on both sides of the border were eager to try out the new bridge system. Passenger and commercial traffic in these early years culminated in roughly 150,000 vehicle crossings per year.

                The 1940s were a different story, he said. As the United States entered World War II, gasoline and other resources grew scarce and fewer families were hitting the road for travel and leisure. Traffic hit a record low in 1944, when fewer than 66,000 vehicles crossed the bridge system.

                “World War II had a huge impact on the bridge right after it opened,” Mr. Horr said. “People couldn’t really drive, and the border became a challenge. Even the bridge lights were all shut off at night.”

                After the war, the bridge was quickly brought back to life as international commerce and tourism picked up speed. In the 1950s, Interstate 81 and Canada’s Highway 401 brought even more traffic to the bridge. Mr. Horr said this decade “probably had the biggest impact” on the bridge’s legacy.

                By the beginning of the 1970s, bridge traffic had exceeded 1 million vehicles per year, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of the 1990s brought that number even higher. Today, annual crossings exceed 2 million vehicles.

                “We work very hard at promoting the bridge as a viable crossing for commercial and tourism traffic,” Mr. Horr said. “It’s a unifying piece of linkage between the two countries – it’s more than just a conduit for cars and trucks.”

                As the third executive director of the bridge authority in 85 years, Mr. Horr believes that much of the bridge system’s success can be attributed to strong sense of ownership among staff, board members and the surrounding communities.

                “The pride of ownership here is really just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s personal for all of us; it’s a love affair with a living, breathing thing, and we have the pleasure of maintaining it and keeping it safe.”

                Even when the bridge authority was gifted Boldt Castle and its surrounding properties in 1977, conscious decisions were made to ensure that project remained separate from the bridge.

                “It definitely changed the authority, but they never lost the vision that the bridge came first,” Mr. Horr said.

                Highlights for the bridge authority include various maintenance projects done over the years, especially those that its own maintenance staff handled or had a hand in. The re-decking of the Canadian bridges in 1997 and the U.S. bridge in 2000 are favorites of Mr. Horr.

                “Those were major projects that really extended the life of the bridges for many, many years,” he said. “These bridges are machines, they are not static. They move, they have bearings, they have cables that have to be maintained.”

                Looking to the future, the bridge authority is working to replace its 25-year-old computerized tolling system and replace it with a more efficient electronic system. Mr. Horr said EZ Pass will be accepted, along with cash and cards to accommodate Canadian drivers who do not use the EZ Pass system.

                A brand-new U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility is under construction and will likely be finished in 2022, joining its updated Canadian counterpart facility, which opened last year after renovations.

                “Things are looking very bright for this crossing,” Mr. Horr said.

                No matter what anniversary the bridge may celebrate in the future, he believes it always will hold a special place our region, country and world.

                “Bridges don’t just go over water or big canyons,” he said. “They also link people together.”

“80th Anniversary Celebrations”

                On Saturday, August 18th, 2018 – exactly 80 years since the opening ceremony of the Thousand Islands Bridge System, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority will host an all-day celebration at the former Waterfun Village site on Collins Landing. Activities for the whole family will include a vintage car show, historical presentations, guest speakers, complimentary memorabilia, performances by the 10th Mountain Division Band, and more. Information can be found at www.tibridge.com.