It’s long gone but for over a generation it was a local landmark, a romantic rendezvous, a challenge to cross if you were timid or it was stormy, and a traditional target for vandals throughout the years, and especially at Hallowe’en.
This was the Gaspereau River’s famous swinging bridge that for at least 50 years connected White Rock to a power company generating station known as Hell’s Gate. No one knows for sure the year the swinging bridge was put in place but it must have been after 1929, the year the Hell’s Gate generating station was built. The best guess, by residents of the area, is that the then Nova Scotia Light and Power Company constructed the bridge early in the 1930s, either 1930 or 1931, but it might have been later.
While it was popular with kids living along the Gaspereau River and it attracted people far who viewed it as a challenge and a curiosity, the bridge was built by the power company solely as a convenience for its employees. At one time the Black River power system at Hell’s Gate employed 12 people year around with staff on hand 24 hours a day. Some of the former staff at Hell’s Gate recall that it was necessary to maintain staff continuously at the station and the link the bridge provided was vital.
Garfield Langille, a 32-year-employee with Nova Scotia Light and Power Company who is now retired, says the bridge definitely was handy for staff who worked on the Black River system at Hell’s Gate and lived in White Rock, on the south side of the Gaspereau River. “The drive around the roads from White Rock to Hell’s Gate was roughly 10 kilometres,” Langille said, “and it was quicker timewise to park on the White Rock (Deep Hollow) Road and walk across the bridge to work. The bridge came in handy in the winter when snowstorms blocked the roads leading to the Hell’s Gate station.”
John Van Buskirk of White Rock is another former Nova Scotia Light and Power employee who remembers the importance of the swinging bridge. Van Buskirk worked for the power company for 33 years, most of it at Hell’s Gate. “I walked across the bridge every day going to work,” he recalls. “I parked on the White Rock side and it saved a lot of time.”
More than just power company employees used the bridge as a convenience. Marnie Parker, a White Rock native presently living in Kentville, grew up at the Hell’s Gate site where her father William (Nat) Parker was the supervisor for many years. The family lived in the power company house provided for her father. During the years Marnie and her siblings were growing up at the site the swinging bridge was used every day to get to school.
“I walked over the swinging bridge and adjoining footpath every school day of my life,” Parker says. “First going to the little two-room White Rock school, and then to catch the bus to Horton High School in Greenwich. The maintenance crew for Nova Scotia Light & Power were diligent in ensuring the swinging bridge and footpath were always accessible for walking traffic, for families using the route daily for school or to attend neighbourhood activities. This would include snow removal in the winter months.
“Also, this was a convenient route for the hydro plant operators at Hell’s Gate, who would park their vehicles on the White Rock side and easily walk to work. It was a shorter, more efficient, time-saving routine to leave their vehicles over at the big bridge at the base of White Rock Mountain than driving the alternate route around the river to Lumsden Dam and to the Hell’s Gate powerhouse.”
Recalling the vandalism at the site, Parker said she “remembers several November 1st days,” after Hallowe’en night, when vandals had tampered with the swinging bridge structure. “It proved to be a fascination for them and a likely challenge to attempt to remove the bridge from its moorings. On one such morning, a friend and I were walking to school and the swinging bridge had an obvious list. We cautiously maneuvered our way over a profoundly slanting, non-swinging bridge to the other side.”
The swinging bridge was so difficult at times to cross, even when it wasn’t tampered with, that the power company decided to anchor it more firmly. Even this didn’t stop the vandalism. After vandals had torn planks off the walkway, pulled the handrails off and tried to set the bridge on fire several times, the power apparently company had had enough. According to a story published in the Advertiser, dated January 11, 1984, the old bridge was torn down and replaced at that time with a new steel structure. The new bridge, according to the paper, was “constructed of steel I-beams, gratings and handrails and is hoped to be vandal-proof.”
The old swinging bridge was gone and while it was removed decades ago, it’s still well remembered and its memory is cherished. As mentioned, the old bridge was believed to have been built circa 1930 and various accounts describe it as having being held up with steel cables with boards for the walkway. The bridge actually did swing wildly when being crossed and an attempt to stop it from swaying was made in the 1950s when pilings were driven into the river bed and connected to the span.
Eventually, the power system at Hell’s Gate was automated, late in the 1970s or early in the 1980s (the date has been difficult to pin down) which eliminated the requirement for staff being on hand 24 hours a day and in effect making the bridge irrelevant. Over the years there had been ongoing safety concerns since the public had easy access to the bridge and the pathways leading to it. Reacting to these concerns, Nova Scotia Power decided the bridge had to go and in 2001, during a period when the water was shut off, it was torn down. Denton Orde of New Minas, who was the plant supervisor when the bridge was demolished, says it was removed simply because there were safety issues.
Today, the site where the bridge once spanned the river and the paths leading to it are off limits and are posted.