The Outlaw Bridge

by Brian G. Spare

Thunder Bay and Duluth have enjoyed a good relationship for well over a century. Initially, the only way to travel to Duluth was by the three times weekly steamboat. The turn of the twentieth century saw more and more motorcars. The people of the Lakehead wanted to explore the townships around them, and they needed a land route to Duluth. William Scott, an American businessman from Wisconsin Rapids, and Rotarian, who settled in the Lakehead, lobbied to build a road to Pigeon River. By 1916, a one-lane gravel road was constructed through the efforts of Mr. Scott. It wound its way south following the old Pigeon River logging trail and was aptly named The Scott Highway.

People could now drive 40 miles to Pigeon River, but when they got there they had to turn around and come back. The Americans had built a similar road from Duluth. It ended at the Pigeon River opposite the Canadian one and the two stared at each other across the 50 ft. wide river gorge. Mail from the United States, after being driven to Pigeon River, had to be ferried across, hauled up the bank, and then driven to the Lakehead. This wouldn’t do. A bridge had to be built.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

Since the bridge would cross an international boundary, the United States and Canadian federal governments had to approve it. William Scott, at his own expense, travelled to Washington to lobby the US government, but his words fell on deaf ears. World War I was raging in Europe then and both federal governments had much more pressing issues to deal with than building a local bridge. Mr. Scott came back empty handed. Not seeing any end to the government stalemate, the newly formed Rotary clubs of Fort William and Port Arthur along with the Duluth and Cook County Rotary clubs, decided to take matters into their own hands. As war was tearing Europe apart, the Rotary clubs of Port Arthur, Fort William, Duluth and Cook County linked hands across the border to pull people together. They raised $5,500 to build the bridge. Neither government took any notice. So, over the winter of 1916-17, pre-fab sections of the bridge were constructed at William Scott’s sawmill, The Pigeon River Lumber Company, at the foot of Van Horne St. from wood donated by Mr. Scott. The sections were drawn by horse and sleigh to the river’s edge. Sometimes it took a week to get to Pigeon River from the Lakehead and the men and horses were put up by local farms along the way. By mid-summer the bridge spanning the chasm at Middle Falls was constructed to connect the two roads at a cost of $6,268. August 18, 1917 was set for the grand opening.

On opening day, at 7:30 AM, a motorcade of 65 Model T’s and Cadillac’s all festooned with Union Jacks, brought 250 dignitaries, Rotarians and Lakeheaders including a Pipe Band to Pigeon River. All motorists were advised to bring chains for their tires in case it rained lest they stuck in the mud. Also, bringing up the rear of the motorcade was a mobile repair shop equipped with tires, tubes, belts, spark plugs and a blacksmith’s forge. A similar parade of American motorcars made its way to Pigeon River from Duluth. The two parties met half way across the span of the bridge and then proceeded to Grand Marais for the opening ceremonies without being under the watchful eye of any customs or boarder officials. Would we ever see that today? The motorcades were met by a welcoming committee of enthusiastic US citizens at the Court House grounds which had been set up for the occasion and where a triumphal arch had been erected.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

Rotary president Rev. Leslie Pigeon presided over the lengthy ceremonies. George H. Ferguson, Ontario Minister of Lands, Forests and Mines, addressed the crowd hailing the international bridge as a monument to international co-operation and underwrote the outstanding balance of $768 owing on the cost of construction. This made the bridge somewhat official. The first international bridge was nick-named “The Outlaw Bridge” because it was built without any official government involvement. In fact, Minister Ferguson knew nothing of it until he was invited to the grand opening. When all the speeches were finished, the bridge that was never meant to exist was opened for international traffic.

It was a great day! The Rotarians were guests of honour. No detail for the comfort and entertainment of the Rotarians and their quests was overlooked. When the festivities were over, the motorcade drove home. After many flat tires, engines boiling over and cars stalling on Skunk Hill, they returned to the Lakehead weary and sore after a long day, but victorious. The Rotarians were well aware of their huge accomplishment.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

The wooden Outlaw Bridge was in service for 13 years. In that time, the site became a destination. A community sprang up around it complete with a hotel, The Pigeon River Hotel, on the Canadian side. In 1930, a new steel structure, this time an officially government-sanctioned bridge, was constructed beside the wooden one. The cost was equally shared between the Canadian and American governments. The steel bridge was opened to traffic with much less fanfare, and the Outlaw Bridge was dismantled.

Image courtesy of Thundr Bay Historical Museum

In 1919, two years after the Outlaw Bridge opened, 17,000 vehicles crossed it. The tourist and commercial traffic kept increasing to the point the steel bridge was being overtaxed. A new concrete and steel bridge, the one in place today, was constructed in 1963 just south of Middle Falls at a cost of $325,000. The Scott Highway, now Highway 61, was realigned to connect to it. The opening of this bridge was a gala affair with over 1,000 people in attendance. The ribbon to inaugurate its opening was cut with a broad ax to acknowledge the original Outlaw Bridge.

Appropriately, on August 18, 1970, a plaque commemorating the Outlaw Bridge was erected in Middle Falls Provincial Park close to where the original Scott Highway comes to a dead end at Pigeon River. The Outlaw Bridge was decommissioned 85 years ago, and there are only traces left of where it once stood. But its memory lives on as an example of what we can achieve with co-operation, friendship and trust. And it serves as a testament to the fortitude of the people of Thunder Bay.

Thank you to the following who assisted with this article:

Thunder Bay Public Library

Thunder Bay Historical Museum

Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com

*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*

Published by Brian G. Spare

I am a thinker and very creative person by nature and love to work with my hands and head and put my heart into all of it. Life is a journey and I am with it all the way ready to embark on the next adventure that life has for me.

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