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PEI’s iconic Confederation Bridge turns 20

Confederation Bridge

Confederation Bridge Twenty years ago today, on November 19th, 1996, the construction of the nearly 13 kilometre long Confederation Bridge, which spans the Northumberland Strait and connects Borden-Carleton, PEI to Cape Jourimain, NB, was completed.

Construction preparation for the Confederation Bridge, which is widely considered one of Canada’s top engineering feats of the 20th century, began in the fall of 1993. Parts were assembled around the clock from 1994 until mid 1996, with the actual construction of the bridge starting in fall of 1994 and ending in fall of 1996. The majority of the bridge is 131 feet above the water below and is made up of 62 piers and is 36 feet wide, but it also has a higher section of 197 feet to allow for marine traffic.

The large task of constructing the mammoth structure was undertaken by multiple companies including GTMI, Ballast Nedam, Strait Crossing Inc., and Northern Construction. Extremely durable concrete and reinforcing steel were used to give the bridge a life expectancy of 100 years, at which time the final cost of around $1-billion might seem like a bargain.

The bridge, which many Islanders referred to in the days before its creation as the “fixed link”, was a big deal, economically. GDP on the island rose a full five per cent during construction and provided the province sometimes referred to as “Canada’s million acre farm” with a short economic boom. The official opening of the bridge came a few month later, on May 31 1997. The CBC aired the opening ceremony which included the Bluenose II, Canadian Coast Guard ships, a flyover by The Snowbirds, and a goodbye to the ferries which made their final crossing on that evening.
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Before the bridge’s opening there were four ferries that would transport vehicles and people to and from the island. Those vessels were sold off, joining the beloved (and often bemoaned) Abegweit, in retirement.
The decision to replace the ferries with a fixed link to the mainland was an extremely heated topic on the small island throughout the 1980’s. Farmers, fishermen, tourism operators and retirees of Prince Edward Island all had different outlooks on how the bridge which provided year-round access to the island would affect their islander way of life and even their livelihoods. On January 18, 1988, a poll was held to decide if a link would be built. It passed with 59.4% of islanders voting “Yes”.

Islanders were amazed on July 13th, 1995, when the world’s largest floating crane, the imposing sounding Svanen, arrived off the shores to begin construction. The Svanen stood over 330 feet high, which was three times as tall as the island’s tallest building. It was such a big deal at the time, in fact, that CBC Charlottetown would track its movements and broadcast it to islanders over their radios.

Construction of the Confederation Bridge was no easy task. During the winter months, Northumberland Strait fills with ice. Many of the people working on the bridge had doubts the feat would be possible, and certainly not in the time frame provided.

“We had to make believers out of our own workforce, it wasn’t until the spring of 1996, when all the phases were in full construction, that people started to say, ‘Hey, this is really going to happen, ” says project director Paul Giannelia.

Below: ATV Evening News -Bridgefest 97- Opening of the Confederation Bridge

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