Guinness legacy turns from beer to bridge in Vancouver

Guinness is a name that has long been associated with beer. In Canada, the Irish brewing company became associated with liquid of another kind in the 1930s ? water.

Instead of drinking it, the focus was on crossing it. A bridge, not a beverage, was the issue.

After being incorporated as a city in 1886, Vancouver experienced a great deal of growth. Combined with the surrounding waterways, this growth created unique challenges for early residents of the area.

Although ferry service was available to shuttle people and eventually vehicles across Burrard Inlet, which separated Vancouver from the North Shore and communities to the north and west, there had been discussions about building a bridge as early as 1890.

Concerns about the impact of a bridge on Stanley Park led to plans to consider building a tunnel to link the two sides. Instead, the Second Narrows Bridge, the first bridge to the North Shore, was constructed in 1925.

While some people saw problems amid the growth, others saw opportunities.

Through the efforts of local engineer and entrepreneur Alfred James Towle Taylor, a consortium of investors formed British Pacific Properties Ltd. to develop real estate in West Vancouver. Lord Southborough, an acquaintance of Taylor, was among those involved. As a representative of the trust overseeing the Guinness family investments, he was able to secure the support of Rupert Guinness ? one of the richest men in the world at the time.

Community leaders in West Vancouver had also recognized the potential for development in the area. Before it could become a reality, financing and a link between Vancouver and West Vancouver were required.

In the early 1930s, the company purchased 4,700 acres on the mountainside in West Vancouver. In addition to the bridge, the Guinness family also committed resources to build roads, sewers, water lines, a school and a golf course.

For the Guinness family and the other principles involved, the success of the development relied upon the construction of a bridge to provide easy access.

The British Columbia government approved construction of the Lions Gate Bridge in 1933, but Prime Minister R.B. Bennett refused to give his approval. When Mackenzie King succeeded Bennett as prime minister in 1935, Southborough convinced his friend to give the project his blessing.

Other concerns and objections, such as the construction of an access road through Stanley Park and the possible blockage of the shipping channel, were also overcome. The fact that it would offer employment to many workers during the Depression was one of the project?s selling points.

Construction on the suspension bridge began on March 31, 1937 and was completed by November 1938 at a cost of just over $5.8 million.

To help recoup some of the cost, the owners collected tolls from drivers. The province purchased the Lions Gate Bridge from the Guinness family in 1955 for more than $5.9 million, but the tolls weren?t removed until 1963.

The Lions Gate Bridge was originally constructed with just two lanes, but increased traffic levels required it to be reconfigured to three lanes.

In 1986 the Guinness family had a reunion of sorts with the bridge. As part of Vancouver?s centennial celebrations, the family paid for decorative lighting to illuminate the structure.

By the 1990s, the Lions Gate Bridge needed to be upgraded or replaced. Taking cost and traffic concerns into consideration, the decision was made to renew the existing structure.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net).