Wrecking balls are threatening the beautiful bridges that Charles Mattaini designed and built throughout Southwestern Ontario …
ELORA, Ontario – A small, simple tombstone in this village marks Charles Mattaini’s final resting place.
It’s been heavily weathered since being carved in 1947, yet it might outlast the other massive monuments around Ontario that salute Mattaini’s time with us on this orb.
Nobody is swinging a wrecking ball at the small tombstone, but wrecking balls are threatening the beautiful bridges Mattaini designed and built throughout Southwestern Ontario. Many of those famous bowstring arch bridges are nearly 100 years old and having trouble carrying today’s heavy volume of road traffic across Ontario rivers.
They’re rapidly being replaced, but some heritage fans are campaigning to save the bridges; if not as active traffic bridges at least still standing beside their modern replacements as a footbridge over a river.
In one case a 66-ton bridge was picked up in one piece and moved 20 kilometres to the Wellington County Museum in Fergus. It’s now part of the 47-kilometre-long Elora Cataract Trailway that connects the Grand River to the Credit River and is part of the Trans Canada Trail.
Charles Borromeo Mattaini was 19 when he immigrated to Canada in 1892 from Italy and brought with him an appreciation and knowledge of concrete and stone arches that he had acquired while carving tunnels through the Alps to connect Italy and Switzerland.
Soon after he arrived in Fergus, 18 kilometres north of Guelph, be started his own construction company. At first he made concrete garden statues, often of naked women, but had trouble selling them to his Scottish neighbours. He said Irish immigrants did want them, but couldn’t afford them.
Mattaini had never built a bridge when Wellington County sought bids to build one over the Grand River. County councilors had never before seen the bridge design Mattaini submitted.
It had concrete arches soaring high above the bridge deck. Mattaini pointed out not only is it quite decorative; it also eliminates the need for supportive arches below the deck and therefore ideal for bridges where the riverbanks are not very high.
It was called a Bowstring Bridge because of its profile. The design was also often called a Rainbow Arch Bridge, again because of its shape.
Mattaini’s firm eventually built close to 70 of these bowstring bridges around Southwestern Ontario, primarily in Wellington and Waterloo counties, but also in Peel, Grey and Bruce counties.
The arch bridges are popular with photographers and landscape painters because they’re often in a rural or natural setting.
Mattaini never patented his arch bridge design. He said it was a gift to the country that welcomed him to a new life. He encouraged foremen on his various construction crews building bridges around the province to sign their names in the wet concrete. One bridge carries the name Marie Mattaini – Charles’ wife – who never went near the construction site. It was a joke/gift from her husband.
The construction crews often camped on the riverbanks where they were building a bridge.
Using Mattaini’s design the Randolph MacDonald Construction Company of Toronto built the longest bowstring bridge in Canada in 1927. It’s a nine-arch bridge stretching 213 metres across the Grand River in Caledonia, a few kilometres up stream from where The Grand empties into Lake Erie.
Even this historic bridge is scheduled to be demolished, although many locals are trying to find an alternative.
The seven-arch Freeport bowstring bridge on King Street in Kitchener was built across the Grand River in 1926 and still plays a vital role in the community’s life because it underwent a $3.5 million rehabilitation in 2003. When it was built in 1926 it introduced a new concept in road bridges – an attached pedestrian sidewalk.
Pat Mestern, Mattaini’s granddaughter, is a well-known novelist and blogger who lives in Fergus. She writes about her visits to some of her grandfather’s bridges to say goodbye, as they’ll soon have a date with a wrecking ball.
His construction firm did general construction work too. He built the Fergus Grand Theatre in 1926 and it is today one of the most popular entertainment venues in Wellington County.
If we can’t keep his bowstring bridges alive, shouldn’t a group or somebody at least see that his tombstone doesn’t succumb to Elora’s weather?