The Lions Gate Bridge, opened in 1938 and officially known as the First Narrows Bridge, is a suspension bridge that crosses the first narrows of Burrard Inlet and connects the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, to the North Shore municipalities of the District of North Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, and West Vancouver. The term “Lions Gate” refers to the Lions, a pair of mountain peaks north of Vancouver. Northbound traffic on the bridge heads in their general direction. A pair of cast concrete lions, designed by sculptor Charles Marega, were placed on either side of the south approach to the bridge in January 1939.
The total length of the bridge including the north viaduct is 1,823 metres (5,981 ft). The length including approach spans is 1,517.3 metres (4,978 ft), the main span alone is 473 metres (1,552 ft), the tower height is 111 metres (364 ft), and it has a ship’s clearance of 61 metres (200 ft). Prospect Point in Stanley Park offered a good high south end to the bridge, but the low flat delta land to the north required construction of the extensive North Viaduct.
In 1890, land speculator George Grant Mackay wrote in the local paper that he foresaw a bridge over the first narrows. The decision on whether to build the bridge was put to the electorate of Vancouver in 1927, but the first plebiscite was defeated and the idea was put to rest for the time being.
Alfred James Towle Taylor, an engineer with a land interest in the construction of the bridge, worked to overcome local opposition to its construction. Taylor was able to convince the Guinness family (of the Irish stout fame) to invest in the land on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. They purchased 1,902 hectares (4,700 acres) of West Vancouver mountainside through a syndicate called British Pacific Properties Ltd.
On December 13, 1933, a second plebiscite was held, passing with 70 percent in favour. After considerable further negotiations with the federal government, approval was finally granted, with the requirement that Vancouver materials and workmen be used as much as possible to provide employment during the Great Depression. The 1933 bylaw authorizing construction included a provision mandating that “no Asiatic person shall be employed in or upon any part of the undertaking or other works”.
The bridge was designed by the Montreal firm Monsarrat and Pratley, which was later responsible for the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, using a similar design. Other companies involved in the construction of the bridge included Swan Wooster Engineering, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc., Canron Western Constructors, Dominion Bridge Company, American Bridge Company.
Construction began on March 31, 1937. After one and a half years and a cost of CA$5,873,837.17, the bridge opened to traffic on November 14, 1938. On May 29, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth presided over the official opening during a royal visit to Canada. A toll of 25 cents was charged for each car or horse and carriage; five cents was charged for pedestrians or bicycles.
On January 20, 1955, the Guinness family sold the bridge to the province of British Columbia for $5,873,837.17 – the cost of the original construction. The newly constructed bridge differed from the current configuration of the bridge as it originally had only two lanes. Yet, as had been foreseen, West Vancouver’s population boomed as a result of the new connection. Thus, to accommodate the increased population, the lanes were divided into three with the middle lane acting as a passing lane. Eventually overhead lane control signals were installed, enabling traffic in the centre lane to be directed in either direction, and facilitating emergency vehicle access by closing off the centre lane.
Another difference with the original configuration was that in an effort to recover the expenditure it cost to build the bridge, the Guinness family had toll booths installed. The toll remained on the bridge until April 1, 1963. Changes were made shortly after, as the tolls were removed and overhead lane controls were added.
In 1975, the deteriorating original concrete deck of the North Viaduct was replaced with a lighter, wider, and stronger steel orthotropic deck with wider lanes. This was carried out in sections using a series of short closures of the bridge; each time, one old section was lowered from the bridge and its replacement was put into place.
In 1986 the Guinness family, as a gift to Vancouver, purchased decorative lights that make it a distinctive nighttime landmark. In July 2009, the bridge’s lighting system was updated with new LED lights to replace its system of 100-watt mercury vapour bulbs. The switch to LEDs was expected to reduce power consumption on the bridge by 90 per cent and save the provincial government about $30,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs.
From 2000 to 2001, the replacement of the entire suspended structure of the original suspension bridge was undertaken without interruption of peak-hour traffic – the first time an entire suspended structure of a major suspension bridge was replaced while in daily use. As with the 1975 replacement work, this was facilitated by a series of separate nighttime and weekend closures to replace one section at a time. The old suspended section was lowered to a barge, and the new lighter and wider orthotropic deck section raised into place and connected. The new deck was designed with the two pedestrian walkways cantilevered to the outside of the suspension cables and the three road lanes widened from 3 to 3.6 metres (10 to 12 ft) each. As a result of the 2001 replacement, the 63-year-old “suspension bridge, not designed for durability, was given a new lease of life”.