Road Trip: Hagwilget Bridge Over Time

The second aboriginal bridge, reinforced with telegraph wire and additional wood supports, is in the foreground. Higher up is the wood and wrought iron bridge opened in 1914. Image A-04014 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

From planks and cedar ropes, to steel and concrete, the Hagwilget Bridge near Hazelton has evolved over a span of more than 150 years.

These days, the Hagwilget Bridge, a 140-metre long steel and cable, single-lane suspension link is being structurally upgraded and strengthened by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. This ensures that commercial vehicles, residents and tourists will continue to safely cross over the plunging Bulkley River Canyon. A new pullout is also being constructed on Highway 62, near the bridge, to create more room for motorists to park, take in the impressive view, walk across the bridge and look 80 metres down to the craggy depths of the canyon.

Every year, about 50,000 tourists are drawn by the area’s wilderness scenery, outdoors opportunities and cultural interests to cross the bridge and visit historic Old Town Hazleton, Kispiox Village and the K’San Historical Village and Museum. Interpretive signs are posted by the bridge, and nearby Eagle Down Trail offers a dazzling look at the Seven Sister Mountains. About 29 metres north, the concrete footings of a 1914 bridge remain.

The first Hagwilget Bridge on record, was ingeniously constructed by aboriginal people. Charles Morison, who visited the area in 1866 to install the Collins Western Union Overland Telegraph wrote, “They had built a wonderful bridge across the Bulkley River Canyon on the cantilever principle, a bridge with not a single nail or piece of iron in its composition nothing but wooden pegs and all the timber fastened together with cedar withes, it was really a wonderful piece of work.”

Today’s Hagwilget Bridge of concrete and steel is being upgraded. Photo courtesy of Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine

The second suspension bridge was also built of wood, with additional supports added. It spanned about 150 feet across the craggy Bulkley River canyon, some 200 feet above the rushing waters. Telegraph wire abandoned by Morison’s employer, was later used to strengthen the bridge.

These bridges were part of a vital trade route which connected the Gitxsan and Wet-suwet-en communities, and other inland First Nations communities, with coastal First Nations. Hunters, traders, explorers and prospectors travelled its six foot width. Its support posts were graced with carved heads.

As the years passed, the bridge’s composition and uses continued to change.

About 50,000 tourists cross the Hagwilget Bridge, annually. Photo courtesy of Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine

Pioneer communities formed around the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers, and eventually a new nine-foot wide bridge of wood and wrought iron was built downstream from the aboriginal bridge. The provincial government’s Land and Works Department (now the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure) hired the wire and cable company of Craddock and Co., to complete the new bridge in 1914.

As time and technology progressed, this bridge was replaced by one to accommodate heavier loads. Alexander Carruthers designed the new bridge for the B.C. Department of Public Works, in Victoria. The bridge, opened in 1932, is the same one being upgraded today. At the time, it was the highest suspension bridge in Canada.

The bridge has had other fixes along the way. In 1990, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation hired engineers Buckland & Taylor Ltd. to increase the bridge’s capacity to handle loads. Further upgrades were made in 2003.

To cross the Hagwilget Bridge over the Bulkley River is to journey a historic route used for hundreds of years. For the full experience, walk across the bridge while imagining it’s one of the earlier cedar rope and wood Hagwilget bridges. The trip is a tribute to bridge builders of long ago and today.

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