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Celebration marks T.I. Bridge project’s start 75 years ago

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For the hundreds of Great Depression-era men who flocked to the Thousand Islands in 1937 and 1938, it was just a well-paying job when living was tough. Who could resist 55-cent-per-hour pay when the minimum wage was closer to 25 cents?

Historian Brian R. Phillips, who spoke Monday at the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority’s celebration of the bridge’s groundbreaking exactly 75 years ago, said these workers risked their lives building a piece of history back when “safety equipment” wasn’t a phrase tossed around too often.

Proof of their bravery and skill is shown in archival photos and films showing construction workers balancing on high steel beams with no rope or safety net to break a potential fall.

It was no easy task to build such a structure in the 1930s either, Mr. Phillips said, as the technology was primitive and hydraulic excavators were not available until years after the completion of the 16-month project.

“These guys certainly knew the meaning of hard work,” he said.

Yet the Thousand Islands Bridge was finished in “record time,” some 10 weeks ahead of schedule.

And despite the poor safety standards of the time — which likely helped expedite the work — the only death during the construction occurred just days before the bridge opened when a high-beam worker, a Mohawk tribe member from Montreal, died in a fall.

Mr. Phillips noted there were also those working diligently behind the scenes, well before the first shovel hit the ground.

It wasn’t until after several years of political struggle for funding and approval from four levels of government that the $3 million project — a large sum of cash at that time — to connect Collins Landing to Ivy Lea, Ontario, gained real traction.

Today, Mr. Phillips said, a project of that scope would likely cost more than $120 million.

Some 5,000 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony in 1937 — a small crowd compared with the 25,000 people on Wellesley Island on Aug. 18, 1938, who came to watch President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William L. Mackenzie King cut a ribbon together in the backseat of a customized black Cadillac.

Monday’s luncheon with local dignitaries at the Black River Valley Club in Watertown, where the bridge authority had held its meeting back in the days, was the start of TIBA’s 18-month celebration leading up to the 75th anniversary of the bridge’s opening next August.

None of the original construction workers is alive today but the bridge authority, in conjunction with PBS, is preparing a documentary with interviews of those who attended the dedication ceremony.

Mr. Phillips plans to make a similar presentation at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Mallorytown Community Center in Mallorytown, Ontario.

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