The Year the Bridge Went Out

The winter of 1916-17 had been brutal. Blizzards every other week. Snow up to the eaves. Bitter cold. Chickens froze in the coop. Coal piles ran dangerously low. A bachelor asphyxiated in his homestead shack. People feared winter would never end.

It did, with a vengeance. Spring came early and suddenly. The mercury shot up, and the snow melted down. A heavy two-day rain worsened the situation. Meltwater spread out across The Flat to the east and the west of town, submerging pastures, fields and trails. Through it all flowed Pinto Creek, normally a placid trickle of water, now a torrent tearing past the south edge of town.

Everyone kept an eye on the creek as the thick ice cracked and shifted and groaned ominously. They all agreed, there’d be hell to pay once it broke.

It happened Thursday afternoon. A huge BOOM! Then another, and another.

“The ice’s going!”

The cry rippled through town. Like moths to a flame, everyone came. Kids hustled out of the school yard. Men sauntered out of the beer parlour, long-necked bottles in hand. Shoppers exited stores, clutching their purchases. Everyone gathered along the railroad track that separated the town from the creek to watch disaster unfold.

“Hey, anyone seen Noah? We need his ark!” Laughter.

The water rushed by, faster and faster, tearing at the thick ice that began to buckle. Then, it began to move. Huge ice floes, the length of box cars, high as a man’s knee, slid under the bridge, grating and grinding against each other. Chunks of ice heaved up on both shores, chasing back those who stood too close. Boys grabbed smaller chunks, ran to the still-rising water’s edge and threw them onto the growing ice jam. They ran back, chortling, daring others to do likewise, ignoring mothers’ pleas: “Stop that! Come back here! That’s dangerous! You’ll fall in and drown!”

 The water rose higher and higher, flooding the trail to the elevators and lapping up against the rail bed.

“Should’ve hauled grain yesterday.”

“Yup, too late now.”

“You’ll have to wait a couple o’ weeks, I bet.”

“Wonder if the train’ll get through.”

The ice piled up, a higgledy-piggledy churning, heaving, thrashing mass, slowly, then faster, advancing to the little bridge that spanned the creek. BAM! The first one hit the bridge. It shuddered.

“Jesus H. Christ! Will you look at that?”

“Ain’t never seen nothin’ like that.”

 Ice floes continued to ram into the bridge. Boom! Boom! Louder than cannon shots. Little girls covered their ears. Mothers grabbed their children’s hands. Everyone stood, gape-mouthed, as the creek began to flow over the bridge deck. Muddy water swirled away as the road disappeared. Men edged back.

“Hope the bridge holds.”

“The south country will be cut off if it goes.”

The bridge was now a dam, holding back the mounting pile of ice. The rushing water propelled a slab up over the ice jam and into the guard rail, mashing it into a mangled mess. The south end of the bridge gave one final shudder, then twisted.

“Oh, my God, it’s going!”

“Stand back, everybody!”

The bridge wrenched free from its southern mooring with a piercing screech and bobbed violently. The weight of the jammed ice was too much for the northern moorings, and slowly, as if in a dream, the entire bridge tore loose. It swung wildly as the now-freed ice rode up and catapulted it over before shoving it down into the depths of the water. One end popped up briefly and then it was gone, borne downriver by the rushing water and the never-ending ice floes.

“Oh. My. Lord!”

The ice was gone by midnight, except for a few giant slabs stranded up on the banks, bearing testament to the height and strength of the water. The flood abated two days later, and Pinto Creek returned to its banks and its lazy meandering ways. The remains of the bridge were found the following week, miles downstream, embedded in the creek bank. People living in the south country had to wait two weeks before a temporary foot bridge crossed the creek, and two months for a permanent bridge to be constructed.

The story of the flood lived on for years.

“I was this close when it happened!”

“You could hear those booms five miles away.”

“Pete got enough ice to keep his beer cold for months, he said.”

“Ain’t never been another flood like that since.”

“And I hope to God there never is.”

#CarrotRanchChallenge #99WordStories #HighWater #Flood #1917 #Meyronne #PintoCreek #HannaMemories #SaskatchewanHistory #1997 #MargaretGHanna

This story began as a response to the Carrot Ranch’s 99-word story challenge, to write about “high water.” As you can see, my response overflowed its limits, just like Pinto Creek.

I took a few liberties with the actual event. Pinto Creek did flood and people did congregate to watch, but the bridge survived, as you can see in the photograph. But why let a few facts get in the way of a good story, I ask.

I am not sure about the year. It is definitely post-1913 because another photo of the flood shows telegraph poles flanking the CPR line that came through in 1913. However, the cut of the men’s clothes and hats suggest the late 1910s, maybe very early 1920s.

This was not the only time Pinto Creek flooded. I recall a time in the early 1950s when, just as in 1917, everyone stood on the railroad bed and watched the water lap at their feet. I was somewhere between 4 and 6 years old at the time.

Pinto Creek flooded again in 1997, following a bitter winter that seemed never to end. Most of southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba were under water. Once again, Pinto Creek raged against its banks. Once again, the bridge held.


9 thoughts on “The Year the Bridge Went Out

  1. Exciting story Margaret. I guess if the same event happened today it would be deemed apocalyptic with a demand that all coal and oil use be prohibited immediately! Or, is that already happening when a snowflake falls?


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