Bridge is part of Portage la Prairie’s soul

Island Park Bridge is the focal point of this community. I hate to see the community being taken down the garden path by a misguided determination to erase it from our sight.

At the turn of the century, our old councils ran into endless costly problems in their efforts to raise the lake level. They first attempted to widen the lake into more of a small lake in appearance by doing some dredging and pumping water from the river. This proved to be futile so the city brought in a qualified engineer from Minneapolis to do the job. W. Armstrong was the engineer in charge of the project. His job was to determine the cheapest method of pumping large quantities of water from the river to the lake. (By the way, the city actually purchased the plans in 1965 do just that from Wardrop and Associates, but we can’t get this council to even say the words, Wardrop and Associates!!!)

The method Armstrong decided to be the best was a long conduit of cement tile trenched in from the Assiniboine to the lake. The city soon received 4,000 feet of 18-inch tile and the project began. Between 1906 and 1909 a large water wheel was installed and although it did work it proved to have a limited capacity that could not keep up with the rate of evaporation in the lake

A needle dam was the next hopeful idea to be tackled. Its cost was to be $35,000 and earth was moved for it in February 1909. To make this work the canal had to be deepened and the dam base concept was changed several times. Woefully this concept was a total failure and one spring a heavy ice flow ripped away most of the work!

But that council had the spark of success and another system was soon being tried. This involved a huge pump at the river and Westinghouse got the tender to supply Portage’s largest pump ever! By 1911 the pump had been installed and a further $5,193 had been expended.

The results were gratifying however as that summer the Parks Board was overjoyed at the new depth of four foot four inches in the Lake! In celebration, they purchased a large houseboat and were charging for rowboats and motorboats to skim over this new recreational asset!

Sadly enough the joys of Crescent Lake seemed always to be short-lived for each Spring damage was sustained to the river pump emplacement but the community feeling of pride in Crescent Lake and the bridge was so strong that there was nothing for it but to make the repairs! The value of this new lake asset just kept growing! Since 1902 the Parks Board had hired a full-time caretaker and in 1906 a system of roads was ploughed through the ancient forest that made up the park. Undulating curves and scenic drives were created to our delight.

In 1913 the deer pen was erected and three deer that were to form the basis for the present herd were purchased. Also in 1913, a bear pit was created with fancy iron fencing. Living at the base of this cement pit may have seemed like fun to the locals but it was inhumane to the bear and perennially there was a problem with kids throwing popcorn in to feed the bear. These interesting and frightening denizens of the woods were not to fare well in our bear pit. Eventually, they were slaughtered and I spent my childhood playing on the rugs they became.

In 1913 council passed a law protecting the fish and fowl contained in and around Crescent Lake. We need to do some research there I think.

Soon the council okayed the creation of a bandstand on the site of the old La Verendrye mission and school (southeast corner of the Park) and by 1918 the superintendent of the Park was planting bedding plants in lovely flower beds each spring. The park greenhouse was a winter mecca for visitors.

Island Park was now so popular that weekends saw a steady stream of wagons and cars streaming over the rather rickety bridge to enjoy a picnic or a walk in a natural setting.

In the 1920’s the deteriorated wooden bridge was replaced with a well-designed bridge with ornamental lighting and a walkway for bikes and citizens. By now the traffic over the bridge was much heavier and at Fair time the Island became a crowded pleasure ground of celebrating Portagers.

The Mayor of the day, W. H. Burns, favoured the construction of a creosote pile bridge that was thought to best withstand the heaving that our climate provided to such a structure. The CPR was successfully using such a structural method across the west.

Many years ago Jack Miner visited our Park and was so impressed by its natural serenity that he shipped six Canadian Geese back to Portage which has formed the nucleus of the present burgeoning stock that we see each Fall. There is a photo of a view over Crescent lake from the pine tree entrance to the Turf Club’s Beer Garden next to the bridge.

Why can’t we have a beer at tables on the bridge and enjoy the lake and scenery? It would be a magnet for a great flow of tourist dollars.

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