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In 1893, Ottawa was suffering from a smallpox pandemic. Planners and physicians at the time recommended that patients needed to be quarantined. Ideally, a quarantine hospital was to be located hundreds of feet away from populated areas. Porter’s Island, a small island in the Rideau River, was considered to be a good site. In addition to its isolated location, it was surrounded by flowing water, which was believed to reduce disease transmission and help alleviate the outbreak.
A hospital was built to receive the patients. A separate contract was let by the City to construct a connecting bridge. It was built in 1894 and provided the only access to the island. The bridge was to provide a one-way trip to the isolation hospital. Those that survived the virus would be allowed a return trip.
The bridge is a pin-connected through Pratt Truss. The hospital building was partially finished, but it had a series of construction flaws and was never completed. The island turned out not to be a good site for quarantine. It was low-lying and frequently flooded. After a decade, the hospital building was demolished, and the island was used as a garbage dump. Twenty years later, a second hospital building was built to receive patients from another smallpox outbreak. This building was designed with no basement and other flood-resistant features. The hospital served patients from Ottawa’s last major smallpox outbreak in 1920-1921.
The old truss bridge still spans the river today, but it is closed. Connections to the island are provided by a more recently constructed bridge at Island Lodge Road. The hospital and garbage dump are long gone, replaced by a retirement and nursing home. The bridge superstructure is reported to be in satisfactory condition, but the wood deck is deteriorated, so it is not usable for pedestrians without repair.
The usual metaphor of a bridge is of a structure that connects and brings people together. The old Porter’s Island bridge had a different use and intent. It serves as a quiet sentinel to a time long past, or so we thought.
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