Montrealers line up for souvenir rivets from old Champlain Bridge

MONTREAL — Like many Montreal-area residents, Jeff Harris has spent a lot of time on the old Champlain Bridge, commuting to the city from his former home on the South Shore.

When asked about his lasting impression of the now-retired span, he says he recalls the traffic -- "lots and lots of traffic," that is.

While not all the memories are good, Harris and his daughter were among those who braved the pouring rain on Sunday to collect a souvenir rivet from the bridge that connected the city and its suburbs for nearly 60 years.

As of 9:30 a.m., people were lined up on foot and in vehicles at the giveaway site on Montreal's Nun's Island to get one of the 2,000 rivets that were being given away as souvenir keepsakes. Another 2,000 were quickly scooped up on the first day of the giveaway, which was held in Brossard on Saturday.

The original Champlain Bridge was decommissioned in 2019 when it was replaced by a new $4.4-billion span.

Harris, who also owns a token from the original bridge's toll booths, said the old Champlain Bridge, for better or worse, is part of Montreal's history.

"Hopefully the new one lasts longer," he said.

A spokeswoman for the federal Crown corporation that manages the old bridge said the structure was the most-travelled bridge in Canada and played a major part in the economic development of both Montreal and its suburbs.

Nathalie Lessard, of Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc., said the giveaway was popular and people began lining up at 7 a.m. on the previous day in Brossard.

"With 50 million trips a year on that bridge, a whole lot of people used that bridge and it became significant in the lives of people," she said in an interview on Sunday.

She said rivets -- essentially big nails -- are special because they helped hold the bridge together and are a reminder of the era when it was built, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were removed from the old bridge as part of a $400 million, multi-year effort to dismantle the span, which Lessard said is on schedule to finish in early 2024.

"(Rivets) aren't used to build bridges any more, now they use nuts and bolts," she said.

While some of the people who lined up for rivets shared an appreciation of the bridge's history and pleasant recollections of travelling on the bridge while heading out on vacations, others had memories of the bridge that were far from universally positive.

The bridge, which opened in 1962, was plagued with problems, including a lack of drainage, that led to rapid corrosion. The federal government announced the plan to replace it in 2011, when the existing span was less than 50 years old, after a series of alarming reports chronicling its deterioration.

For Leah Lavoie, the rivet she picked up on Sunday will serve not only as a souvenir, but also a sign of the pitfalls to avoid when she starts her future career as an engineer.

She said she remembers being scared to be driven over the bridge as a child because she was afraid it would fall down.

Now university-aged and with an iron ring on her finger, she said the rivet is a reminder: "Don’t repeat what people did in the past, don’t make the same mistakes," she said.

The rivets come with a disclaimer warning that they may contain traces of lead paint, which has been mitigated by a protective coat of varnish.

Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc. said over the weekend the giveaway is part of its effort to recycle some 90 per cent of all the bridge materials, including 25,000 tonnes of steel.

Other pieces of the bridge have been recycled into different projects, including a bicycle, a footbridge for a scout camp, school furniture and watches.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press