Vancouver Was Awesome: The Cambie Bridge and ‘Swingspan’

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Vancouver Was Awesome

This year, the DOXA documentary film festival really connected with the archival community in B.C. and Vancouver, and to the filmmakers that recorded rare moments in time.

One screening brought three works of Allan King‘s out of the CBC vault and onto the screen at Pacific Cinematheque, which is more than worthy of a post — but that will have to wait.

Last night, an equally-amazing collection of four short films of 1960s-80s Vancouver from the B.C. Provincial Archives, from CBC, and from Cineworks — along with six new short-shorts by up-an-coming documentarians — was shown to a sold-out audience at the Rio Theatre.

One of the featured short films, Swingspan, was particularly touching for me; partly because it functioned as a dirge and a eulogy for the old Cambie Street Bridge, which came down in 1985, and partly because some of the footage showed False Creek and Yaletown as industry zones, as well as buildings for Expo ’86 under construction along False Creek.

The screening was also made ultra-special because the filmmaker, Bruno Lázaro Pacheco (below, getting a handshake from Videomatica’s Graham Peat), had flown in from Spain and was present for the revival of what was his first documentary film. (Pacheco is also in town for Saturday’s DOXA screening of another one of his works, There Are No Outdoor Ice Rinks in Madrid.)

Pacheco’s film follows the journey of a semi-fictional character ‘Dirk,’ a Vancouverite just like any of us, who had grown to love the bridge and underwent a big of existential panic once he found out it was going to be torn down within a matter of weeks. Dirk starts walking over it almost daily, and becomes obsessed with experiencing all the bridge has to offer before it’s gone for good.

Dirk’s fascination with the bridge becomes a segue into some great archival footage and stills.

Dirk learns that the first Cambie Street bridge (above, left) was built in the 1890s, but didn’t last long. The next incarnation, which lasted until it was closed in November of 1984, was officially opened in 1912. It was christened “The Connaught Bridge” by some visiting Duchess, but no one gave a rat’s ass and everyone continued to call it Cambie. The ‘swing’ allowed the bridge centre to swivel and open to allow tall boats to pass under, but became a traffic headache as more and more cars used the route.

At the time, False Creek was a heavy industrial centre, and the Cambie would open daily. Over time, False Creek’s activity wound down, and the narrow bridge couldn’t keep up with car traffic. The World’s Fair was the bridge’s death sentence. There was money, there was access to the waterfront, and there was a good solid reason to replace what some saw as an unsafe eyesore with a shiny new modern bridge.

The control tower (see below, left) was removed and relocated to the B.C. Museum of Transportation. The steel was removed (see below, middle-left) and scrapped and some of the wood was incorporated into the seawall around False Creek. The centre pillar was exploded (see below, middle-right and far right).

Pacheco spoke briefly after the screening about the film co-op he worked with in Vancouver in the 80s through Cineworks, and also about the sad circumstance around the ‘Dirk’ character and how ‘Swingspan’ came to be:

It’s in memory of Gary Young, who is credited in the film. He’s the young guy who had the idea to make this film. He came to Cineworks and proposed making a film about the Cambie Bridge, which he really loved, because he was kind of the character in the movie: He always walked over the bridge, he always liked it. At the co-op everyone liked the idea, but Gary had a motorcycle accident and was killed.

The co-op went forward and negotiated access to the bridge with The City of Vancouver, and then took a vote and put Pacheco in charge of making Gary’s vision real.

You can watch ‘Swingspan’ (1986, 28 minutes) on the City of Vancouver Archives’ web site, thanks to a negotiated agreement with Cineworks, which still owns the copyright. The copy you can watch is low-res, but it’s good enough to get the picture, and see the old bridge in action.

As for the current Cambie Bridge, it was completed and opened in December of 1985, on schedule to be part of Vancouver’s 100th birthday and also in time to feature nicely in the 1986 World’s Fair. (Check out the giant Swatch, peeking out from between the pillars in the centre photo, below.)

And you know that big red metal ring in Yaletown? I thought was an Expo leftover, but I never took the time to stop and read the plaque. It’s actually part of the swingspan’s turning mechanism and dates to 1911, making it 100 years old this year!

Like Dirk, and Gary Young, I get sad sometimes when I hear about old Vancouver structures being torn down.

What Pacheco did, so carefully capturing the Connaught’s finals days of glory, lessens the loss a little and inspires me to keep on documenting all the things I love in Vancouver.