History · Pacific Northwest · Transportation · Vancouver

Georgia Viaduct Overweight…

That was the headline in the August 18, 1965 edition of the Vancouver Sun and the report went on to say that the then 49 year bridge “full of humps and bumps, is slowly collapsing under its own weight, city engineer Ran Martin reported Tuesday. Martin told city council $100,000 in maintenance work could keep the viaduct operating for three years. That is the minimum time needed to build a new viaduct if ratepayers approve the expenditure in a vote Sept. 29. He presented city council with a report by a firm of consulting engineers saying that: The bridge is now structurally inadequate to carry its own weight; Two spans have already required support to prevent a structural failure and the remaining portions are in a state of slow collapse; The viaduct would in all probability collapse during a major earthquake. The report, by Choukalos, Woodburn and McKenzie Ltd., summed up: Continued use of the viaduct beyond the earliest date at which it could be replaced is inadvisable. The continued vigilance and maintenance by the engineer’s department and the improbability of a catastrophic failure are the only reasons justifying the use of the viaduct even at the present time. The report said in addition that falling concrete from the span is a continuous hazard to properties and people underneath. 

The old viaduct was pretty much a hazard as soon as it was completed. Its footings were not very solid and the viaduct slowly began sinking into the False Creek mud. The projected streetcar line across the bridge that would have linked the East End, today’s Strathcona, to downtown was abandoned as engineers from the BC Electric Company expressed doubts about the stability of the structure. Over time the viaduct became known for its “humps and bumps” and the speed limit was dropped to just 25mph.

Its replacement hasn’t fared very well either. As part of a projected freeway system the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts were greeted with protests on its official opening and as an orphaned chunk of infrastructure it just moved traffic quickly to a variety of choke points. And like its earlier namesake the current viaducts are soon to be demolished. Interestingly, apart from the relatively low traffic counts the viaducts are also sinking.

under the georgia viaduct showing fish boats
Under the Georgia Viaduct on the False Creek slough with the fish boats and shacks

Looking at the area under and beside the viaducts at the eastern end with the seawall and the playing fields its hard to imagine the industrial landscape this once was. Quebec Street was once a slough to Keefer Street home to fishing boats, a variety of floating shacks along with a bunch of debris. The southern shoreline was roughly in line with the foot of Union Street and sitting there was the massive BC Electric Company’s coal gas plant which opened in the 1930s.

coal gas plant on False creek
The coal gas plant on False Creek, 1939. CVA 260-1269

Coal gas is produced by the distillation of coal a process that leaves behind a sticky substance known as coal tar. There are a number of uses for this stuff, soap for instance, but much of the tar ended up in False Creek. Some estimates say there’s a 30′ thick layer of the stuff of which a portion of the viaducts were built upon. kinda like building on a bowl of jello. Hence one reason for the need to demolish the current viaducts.

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