Site #3 of 160 – The West Montrose Covered Bridge
You may have seen this beautiful romantic red covered bridge in the remake of Stephen King’s horror movie, “It”. Or, maybe not. But what’s so special about the West Montrose Covered Bridge? Why do thousands of visitors come to this tiny village to see a centenary wooden structure? Why has it inspired painters, photographers, young couples in love, and countless other individuals worldwide to seek out this quaint spot on the quiet banks of the Grand River?
Located 15 kilometres north of Waterloo off Regional Road 22, the charming village of West Montrose in Woolwich Township is home to the #2 TripAdvisor attraction in the Waterloo Region. Who would have thought a simple wooden bridge, found in a small Scottish- and Pennsylvania German-settled town, could be so popular?!
- Location: This world famous attraction is located in a tiny rural Ontario village of 257 people
- Dimensions: The bridge is 60 metres long (198 feet) with a 1.8 metre overhang at each end of the bridge (which, it turns out, is an unusual feature)
- Historical Designations:
- 1960: declared a Provincial Archeological and Historic Site
- 2007: Township of Woolwich announces it as a cultural heritage site according to Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act
- 2018: became one of 8 structures in the Waterloo Region’s Heritage Bridge Recognition Program. It received the 2nd highest score of all of the Heritage Bridges in the area, with Kitchener’s Freeport Bridge in 1st and Cambridge’s Main Street Bridge in 3rd. Bridges need a score of 50+ points to be considered a heritage bridge. West Montrose’s pretty red covered bridge received a score of 76 points.
- Listed on the Canadian Register of Historic Places
- Maintenance: The Regional Municipality of Waterloo has owned and maintained the bridge since 1998
A Brief History
In 1880 the Township of Woolwich hired John Bear, a Mennonite barn builder who had never before built a bridge, to design and build the West Montrose Bridge. Bear and his brother Benjamin won the contract. After some consultation, they decided that the new bridge should replace 3 already standing bridges. One of the bridges’ locations was chosen as the location of the new covered bridge. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Communications and the Township of Woolwich paid for the completed bridge at a total cost of $3,557.65.
At the time, wooden bridges were common because wood was less expensive to build with. Bear’s covered bridge used local hardwood (oak) for the timbers and white pine for the rafters. The white pine was cut in the Blair and Doon areas, and everything was prepared at the West Montrose sawmill.
To protect the bridge from the elements, the walls and roof were important necessary additions. Bridges without these features typically lasted around 10-15 years, but Bear estimated that his covered bridge would last 70-80. Today it stands as a ripe 139 year old, with reinforcements of course, as one of the oldest surviving bridges in Waterloo Region. Even though it was his first bridge, Bear was in demand afterwards as both a barn and a bridge builder. For the historians in the crowd, visit the Doon Heritage Crossroads Museum for a glimpse of Bear’s drafting instruments.
On November 15, 1881 the brand new wooden bridge officially opened for traffic. At the time, traffic included horse and buggy and pedestrians. Today you’ll find people crossing in vehicles, on bikes and motorcycles, by foot, and also by horse and buggy.
In order to light the bridge, provide some airflow, and protect it from rain, 20 shuttered windows were incorporated into the design. However, according to some sources, there were only 2 windows initially installed in the middle of the bridge. Starting in 1885, coal-oil lamps provided light. It was the job of the locals to oversee daily bridge chores, cleaning the glass chimneys and filling the lights with coal oil, using long hooked poles to reach high up. As time went on and technology changed, 100-watt bulbs replaced the coal-oil lamps. Unfortunately, tall trucks continuously hit and broke them as they drove through. A few years later in 1954 electric lanterns replaced the accident-prone bulbs and still provide a warm glow today.
In winter, regular maintenance was crucial for the safety of travellers and the structure’s stability. A local farmer “snowed” the bridge which allowed sleighs and cutters to cross without damaging the oak planks. How much did it cost to hire the farmer? In 1885 the job paid $5 and in 1888 it rose to a whopping $8 – for the whole winter!
Modern Day Updates
Up until the 1960s, the quaint West Montrose Covered Bridge was the only option in the area for crossing the Grand River. Eventually a concrete bridge was built nearby to accommodate heavier traffic and vehicles. It also provides the vantage point from where I took the picture below.
Approximately once a decade, repairs and major maintenance occur on the bridge. Beginning in 1895, new paint, a cedar crib, and a centre stone pier were added. Over the years, the bridge has become a hybrid structure with multiple reinforcements and repairs to the original wooden structure. Today a mixture of materials including wood, stone, asphalt, concrete, and steel make up the bridge. The most recent repairs happened at the end of 2019 when an overweight vehicle crossed and cracked a floor beam. For the enthusiasts who want to learn more about the repairs over the years, click here. Despite the additions, the bridge still maintains its original form. Lucky for us, that means we’re able to peek into the late 1800s whenever visiting the bridge!
What Makes the West Montrose Covered Bridge so Special?
Over the decades, the treasured West Montrose Covered Bridge has also been a gathering place for community festivals, Christmas carollers, public speakers, engagement and wedding photography shoots, and more. The gabled roof and dim lighting provide an intimate space to sneak a kiss in public without being seen, hence the nickname.
The most colourful bridge in Waterloo Region, the bright red “Kissing Bridge” has inspired and attracted photographers, painters, historians, bridge enthusiasts, and young lovers alike from around the world. In 2019, Canada Post honoured the West Montrose Covered Bridge in its Heritage Bridge series with its own stamp. Five bridges were featured for their “engineering and design and their role in transportation” and as symbols of rural Canadian life.
Its claim to fame is its place as the last wooden covered bridge in use in Ontario. At the time of its construction, wooden bridges were popular on the east coast of Canada, but not Ontario. The Ontario British army road builders preferred not to use wood. With only 12 wooden bridges built in the province, the tradition gradually disappeared. Former Ontario covered bridge locations include Trenton, Frankford, Napanee, and 2 in Glengarry County in Williamstown and Martintown. Nationwide, only a 10th of the covered bridges built remain. At the beginning of the 19th century there were around 1,400. Today there are less than 200.
According to bridge experts, the structure of the bridge is also unique, with hybrid Queen Post trusses, a Howe-timber configuration, and a recycled Bailey steel truss reinforcement added in 1944. If you’d like to learn more about the specifics of the bridge’s unusual design, you can read more here.
When researching for this piece, I came across some other neat facts about West Montrose’s famed bridge. For example, when it was first built, laws forbade anyone to travel over bridges faster than a walking pace. Is anyone else curious to know who would stand there and how they would police the speed? What if someone was going for a jog?
Another neat excerpt I found was from a 1952 KW Record article titled “Students leave bus”, detailing how Elmira District High School buses would traverse the bridge. Due to the 2-tonne weight restrictions, the 13-tonne school bus would have to stop once it arrived at the bridge. A student would exit the bus, walk across, and stop the opposing traffic with a red flag. Then the rest of the students would exit the bus and walk across. Voilà! The bus was light enough to now cross over! I don’t know about you, but stories like these paint such a vivid picture about what life must have been like. Can you imagine that happening today? Everyone would go bonkers with how time sensitive North American life is.
The West Montrose Bridge divides the village into north and south ends. On one side there is a small parking lot and a friendly-looking local mom and pop convenience store. (I say “friendly-looking” because my most recent visit was during COVID shutdowns.) The bridge connects Hill Street, Covered Bridge Drive, and Rivers Edge Drive. There is also a second larger parking lot at Letson Park (1232 Rivers Edge Drive, West Montrose) which is a short walk away.
For active souls who prefer to see the bridge while in transit, there is the Kissing Bridge Trailway. It’s a 45km route that follows former rail lands through rural communities, rivers, and Elmira’s wetlands. There are ample views year-round as you hike, run, bike, cross-country ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile (in certain areas) along the trail. Horses and motorized vehicles aren’t permitted on the Kissing Bridge Trailway.
If you’re curious to dig further into the archives, the Kitchener Public Library’s Grace Schmidt Room and the Elmira Municipal Archives are great places to immerse yourself. There is also a community group called the Bridge Keepers who help to document, preserve, and celebrate this treasured local landmark.
How to Get There
- Highway 401 W
- Exit 278 for ON-8 toward Kitchener-Waterloo
- Continue on ON-8 W
- Take 85 N to Arthur Street / Waterloo Regional Road 85 in Woolwich
- Continue on Arthur Street / Waterloo Regional Road 85
- Take Sawmill Road / Waterloo Regional Road 17 and Northfield Drive E to Covered Bridge Drive in West Montrose
Have you ever visited Woolwich Township’s pride and joy? Do you know anyone who has celebrated a special occasion there? Have you visited any of Ontario’s other historic bridges? Let me know in the comments below or via email!
Ontario’s 160 Unusual Places Adventure Continues!
Where to next? In my quest to visit Ron Brown’s 160 unusual things to see in Ontario I’ve got a plane crash site, a beautiful and surprising natural gorge, and a funky looking church to check out. If you’re on Instagram, hop on over to follow along! To check out the first adventure in my series, visit the blog post on Waterloo’s Pioneer Memorial Tower. For more local reading, head on over to learn about the Ontario’s Cryptic Gravestone. Happy browsing, fellow adventurers!
Sources and Further Reading
- Ontario Trails
- Spanning the Generations, A Study of Old Bridges in Waterloo Region
- Canada Post – Historic Covered Bridges collection
- Woolwich Township – Communities and Landmarks
- Canada’s Historic Places
- New Hamburg Independent newspaperr – Local landmarks shine on the big screen in IT remake
- Kitchener Today newspaper – Famous West Montrose bridge set to undergo repairs later this fall