Crossing the Exploits: The Hard Way
The Sir Robert Bond Bridge is not in the best of shape, after fifty or more years of cars, trucks, rain, river, ice and snow the old bridge is being replaced. As bad as having to slow down and cross the deteriorating old bridge might be, it is still better than what was there before. Getting across the Exploits is a joke compared to what it once was.
Besides the Bond bridge, the Exploits is crossed by the rail trestle at Bishop’s Falls and behind the mill at Grand Falls-Windsor, and across the dam at Red Indian Lake.
The Exploits River was first bridged in 1893 or thereabouts by the Reid Railway.[i] The first trestle was wooden, mostly likely built out of local material. It washed away in 1897. Then they built another wooden trestle and it washed away. Finally a structure was built to withstand the rigors of rafting ice and massive spring runoff was put in place. This trestle was constructed of steel and rested on solid stone piers of granite quarried in the Gaff Topsails. It was completed in 1901, never washed away still and stands almost 115 years later. The trestle would be the only fixed link across the river for many years.
Other than crossing the Exploits by rail, getting across the Exploits could be quite the adventure. Up until the 1950s there wasn’t much need for private citizens to cross the river anyway. For one there was no road to Gander and most trans-island travel was done on the railway. In fact if you had a car you could put it on the train and bring in to Grand Falls. But if you wanted to head east in the pre Trans-Canada and pre Bond Bridge days Joe Hampton had a ferry not far from where the bridge was today.
Hamptons ferry consisted of a flat bottomed scow that was attached to a cable. Propulsion was presumably by motorboat. The scow cold fit two or three vehicles at a time. It may surprise people to know that this scow was not in operation for very long before the bridge was built. Because as mentioned before-there wasn’t a road to Gander until after the Second World War.
Today if you are in Grand Falls and you want to get over to the south side of the Exploits River yo simply cross the steel bridge that spans the gorge. This bridge has only been there since the early 1960s. Before that if you wanted to get across the Exploits you had limited options.
During construction of the mill and dam at Grand Falls there was a cable car used to ferry men to the other side of the river. The collapse of this cable car on one occasion led to the death of several workers in what was known as the Grand Falls Tragedy. Residents hunting or cutting firewood would use boats to cross the river. If you wanted to drive across the river you could not do it from Grand Falls.
For decades the main crossing point for men, equipment and supplies crossing the Exploits River was at Badger. Here the company had a cable scow similar to the one at Bishop’s Falls. Everything being transported in to the camps on the south or Sandy side of the River crossed on the scow, hundreds of men, trucks, equipment, tractors, horses, everything. This solidified Badgers importance as a woodland depot. On the south end of the Badger scow was a portage road that became known by the 1940s as the “Sandy Badger Motor Road” and was the gateway to the camps all the way to Sandy Lake many kilometers in the interior.
Some of the camps further towards Millertown were accessed by another river crossing. According to an old topographic map that I have from the 1950s there was a ford across the Exploits River near the present Buchans highway a few kilometers Southwest of where Noel Pauls Brook flows into the Exploits. Men and supplies would have been offloaded from the Railway and portaged down to this crossing according to the map. This ford was presumably only used when conditions were suitable in low water or in the winter when the river was frozen.
Crossing the river when it was frozen was quite a common practice, and it was not limited to just people or horses walking. Cars and trucks routinely crossed the Exploits on the ice to get into the camps, not only in Badger and Millertown division but also in Bishop’s Falls. Once the ice reached a certain thickness it became much easier to get on the other side of the River.
Loggers going into the camps on the Great Rattling Brook line at Bishop’s Falls crossed the river in a motor boat The motor boat picked the men up in Bishop’s Falls and steamed southwest towards Grand Falls and dropped the men off at the Depot. Rattling Brook Depot is now the site of Max Simms camp. Cars and equipment were ferried to the same location on a scow.[ii]
The last place that you could cross the Exploits was on the main dam near Millertown. Here the Harpoon Tramway crossed the river and continued one some 18 miles into the woods. After the Harpoon Tramway was discontinued the tram engine and track was kept in place at the dam and used to ferry men and equipment across for a number of years.
Around 1962 the present crossings were in place which made traveling to the south side of the river much simpler. I don’t know why it took so long to build a bridge across the river at Grand Falls but I speculate that they didn’t want nor need to. The wood around Grand Falls was mostly cut over in the early days of operations, plus much of the area had been burned over badly by a couple of large forest fires shortly before 1905. In the 1960s the trees near Grand Falls were now mature and the AND Company started to intensively use trucking in its operations. Without a bridge at Grand Falls it would take hours reach wood that was only a few kilometers away. Driving still continued at this point, but wood in the Bishop’s Falls area began to be trucked directly to the Mill which also necessitated the construction of a bridge.
If anybody has a good picture of the scow that crossed the Exploits at Badger it would be greatly appreciated.
[i] Halls Bay or Newfoundland and Northwestern, whatever it was named at that point-the Reids were the contractors
[ii] It seems strange but no logger I ever interviewed or interview I have ever read mentioned crossing the trestle to the Depot to go to work. This is likely because it was five kilometers from the trestle to the Depot, whereas the boat trip was about a kilometer. I have no doubt in my mind that tractors may have been ferried across and driven the five kilometers to the Depot. There is an old road present.
Rattling Brook Depot was actually the headquarters for Bishop’s Falls logging Division and was actually a small community as well.