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A fiery 40th

July 10th,2024 | News

On July 10, 1984 – exactly 40 years ago from this edition's publication date – an arsonist or arsonists rolled a car full of gasoline onto the Wakefield covered bridge and set it ablaze. It took seven minutes for it to burn down. To this day, the crime remains a mystery, with plenty of theories about who torched the bridge. Photo: David McAfee

When Joan Garnett peered out her Wakefield window in the late evening of July 10, 1984, all she could see were flames. 

Wakefield’s treasured wooden bridge – a village icon that had spanned the Gatineau River for 69 years – was a fiery inferno. Villagers were out on their docks or scattered along the riverbank, watching the structure crack and bust apart span by span – many of them, like Garnett and her partner, Norma Walmsley, aghast as the violent flames tore through the nearly 90 metres of wood in a matter of minutes. It was precisely 40 years ago from this edition’s publication date. 

“We were up, and we saw it start,” said Garnett from her home in Wakefield. Back then, she was living with Walmsley just off Wakefield Heights Road, and their living room had a clear, first-row view of the bridge. The two would spend hours on their deck, taking in the iconic site they loved so dearly. But that night, they couldn’t bear to watch their beloved bridge burn. “We saw it, and we pulled the curtains closed.”

After a few minutes, the pair decided to walk down to the water’s edge, where several other residents were gathered “in their nightclothes,” Garnett said. “It didn’t take long [for it to burn]. It broke in two; one part remained, and the other floated. It was just like an ocean liner going down and crackling all the way. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Garnett recalled hearing the steam off the wood hiss as the walls and the roof became ablaze, and within minutes, bits of the burned bridge were floating down the river. 

By morning, all that was left were two grey piers – a difficult sight to see, according to many locals. Garnett said the whole ordeal was “surreal.”

“It didn’t really sink in until the next morning, and I saw the piers,” said Garnett. 

Investigators from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) deemed the incident arson, as the culprit or culprits rolled a car full of gasoline onto the bridge around 11 p.m. The 69-year-old structure was lit on fire, entirely burned, and its several charred sections sent floating down the Gatineau River – all within seven minutes.

Mysteries within a mystery

Forty years later, the case remains unsolved, and the police files – the 9-1-1 call, the police report and any other authoritative information about the case – have been sealed. It has become Wakefield’s own whodunnit. The Low Down tried to unseal some of the documents through an access to information request, but was told that some of the files have been “purified.”

“Depending on the nature of the files, they are destroyed after a certain number of years,” wrote SQ Media Relations Officer Sgt. Marc Tessier. “This file is no longer available.”

Typically, the Low Down would be a perfect source for this information, as the local paper covered the burning, the criminal case and the impressive and successful campaign to rebuild it 13 years later. But when we looked in our files, someone had ripped out all the coverage from our bound archive books – every article about the case is missing. We only found a Gatineau Valley Historical Society feature article by former Low Down reporter, the late Ernie Mahoney. 

In his Up the Gatineau article from 1997, he noted that the Low Down ran the headline, “Heart Torn Out of Village”. The article also referred to David McAfee’s gripping photograph “of the blazing bridge spans collapsing into the water.” 

“Even to this day, some people will not look at the photo, as they claim it is akin to looking at a dying relative, so much was the intense passion associated with the famous landmark,” wrote Mahoney. “Witnesses said that there was nothing that could be done to stop the fire, and that even a nearby house was in danger of catching fire. Its aluminum siding was hot to the touch.”

Despite the mystery, Wakefielders in the 1980s certainly had their theories. 

“You would get all these people phoning and saying, ‘I think I know who did it, I know who did it,’ and that went on for about two weeks,” said Judy Grant, the editor of the Low Down at the time. 

She also didn’t know about the ripped-out pages in the Low Down’s archives. 

When asked about it, Grant said she couldn’t recall much of the Low Down’s specific coverage, but she did remember the day after the fire – when she arrived at the office to see a large photograph of the bridge on fire pinned to the Low Down door. 

Grant said she refused to run the photo, thinking the arsonists wanted to see their “dirty work” on the front page. 

“I was afraid to put it on the front page. Someone had set this fire, and I thought, ‘Somebody wants this printed very badly.’ And so I didn’t put it on the front page…”

Why then-publisher Art Mantell didn’t enforce the journalism mantra of “if it bleeds it leads” is yet another mystery.

“When something like this happens, everybody has their ideas of who did it, but what a stupid thing it was to do something like that,” said Grant, pointing out that it left people on the other side of the Gatineau River stranded.

The ‘congestion’ theory

Despite the mystery surrounding the identity of the arsonist or arsonists, many witnesses, residents and journalists agree on the motive: truck drivers sometimes had to wait hours to cross the single-lane bridge to get across the Gatineau River. 

The original bridge, built in 1915, was the only bridge between Chelsea and Low linking both shores of the Gatineau River, and delays could be long on busy weekends, holidays or during rush hour. The only other option was a nearly 30-kilometre detour to the nearest crossing. The bridge was also in extreme disrepair, and the province had not committed any funding or action to repair it. 

The theory is that a trucker, or truckers, torched the bridge so that the province would be forced to build another two-lane bridge, which it did in 1987 – the concrete and steel bridge that you now see near the Wakefield police station. 

“There would be lineups on weekends, and the delays would be high during the ski season,” said Wakefielder Neil Faulkner. He wasn’t living in Wakefield when the bridge burned down but became a significant player in the rebuilding efforts during the 13-year build. “I used to go over [to Wakefield] to go skiing, and it wasn’t too bad. But there were periods where there’d be quite a lineup. There are pictures of trucks that had [partially] fallen through – it was in really bad shape.”

It didn’t take long for Wakefielders to rally for a new covered bridge. In fact, Mahoney reported that it was the night of the fire when Walmsley vowed to rebuild it. 

“Norma Walmsley viewed the conflagration in a state of shock from her home high on the hillside overlooking the bridge,” wrote Mahoney. “It was then that she vowed that the bridge must be rebuilt, even as the flames were dying.”

Walmsley took charge of fundraising and spent the next decade-plus raising money and rallying the community to build a new bridge. 

The new bridge was finally completed on Oct. 4, 1997, but what happened between 1984 and 1997 “would astound even the greatest skeptics,” as Mahoney put it. 

Read Part 2 of this series on July 31 and the story of how a small village built a multi-million dollar bridge against all odds. 

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At the Low Down, we are passionate about delivering quality local news to Gatineau Hills residents. But passion alone cannot pay the bills.

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