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Painting by Pugwash artist showcases Wallace area history

The painting by Louise Cloutier of Pugwash depicts the historic Wallace Swing Bridge in operation in the early 1900s.

Louise Cloutier wants nothing more than to see a piece of the Wallace area’s history become more widely known across northern Nova Scotia and the rest of the province.

The veteran artist was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to show the Wallace Swing Bridge in its glory more than a century ago, completing a painting that depicts the bridge in operation in the late 1890s – a painting that has taken up permanent residence at the Wallace Museum.

“I’ve been living in Nova Scotia since 1989 and knew nothing about the bridge until Greg Nix took me to it after asking me to paint it in operation,” Cloutier said. “There are no pictures of the bridge in operation, although there is a picture of a train going over the bridge in 1905. That’s the only visual account we could find of its history."

Upon seeing the bridge and being hired to paint it, Cloutier worked with a small team to gather as much information as she could. She photographed the bridge from a couple of angles and studied the one existing bridge, while imagining what it would look like in the open position with a ship sailing through the passage.

“When I went down there (to the bridge) I couldn’t get over how close these ships, tugboats and barques would be to the land. It’s almost as if you could put a plank out and walk to the boats. I wanted people who were going to look at the painting to feel the crispness of that October day where I’m capturing the tugboat towing the schooner,” she said. “I wanted people to feel as though they were there.”

To get a sense of what she was doing, she created a scale model of the bridge and a tugboat while also using a wooden model of the Bluenose that she had.

“I just placed them as I pictured they would be,” she said.

Greg Nix of Cumberland Trails is impressed with the sharpness of Cloutier’s work.

“It’s a marvellous rendition of the bridge. We were so pleased with what she did. She obviously took great care and a lot of time to piece together a realistic picture of what it could’ve looked like in the late 1800s or early 1900s,” Nix said. “We had a great celebration in September and a lot of people who have worked on the bridge over the years were there that day. It was a special day.”

Nix said the concept of the painting came from a discussion he had with fellow committee member Charles Kennedy, who has done a lot of work with the Oxford portion of the destination trails plan.

“We were making a sandstone entrance into Wallace and during that work we found an image of a train steaming across the bridge in about 1905. He said it would be cool if we could find an image of the bridge when it was open with a boat going through on its way to get a load of sandstone,” Nix said. “We looked but couldn’t find a picture. I said we have this talented artist in Pugwash who could come down and have a look.”

The swing bridge is remotely located high above the Wallace River approximately two kilometres from Highway 6.

The bridge structure is composed massive sandstone foundation piers, iron spanning elements, a massive gear and replaced wooden decking.Heavily damaged by fire in 2002 and restored, the bridge is part of the Trans Canada Trail.It’s considered significant for its structural design and components and as an example of the intense industrial activity in Nova Scotia in the late 19th century and was part of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Dream to see a railway run the length of the Dominion of Canada.

The Nova Scotia Government Rail Line was built between Truro and Pictou in 1883 and subsequently a connection to Pictou from the Inter-Colonial Railway at Oxford Junction was built by the Great American and European Short Line Railway and acquired by the railway at its conclusion.Near the bridge were sandstone quarries and shipping piers with sandstone sent to building markets in Boston, New York and elsewhere.

To facilitate passage of ships from Wallace Harbour to the shipping piers at the quarry, the railway bridge incorporated a swing portion, pivoting on one of the sandstone piers.

Cloutier said she was proud to see it unveiled, although she admitted artists are their own worst critics and often thinks about what she could have done different.

“It’s really uplifting to see how much it is admired,” she said. “I’m still my own critic, but really what’s important is not the painting but the people who came together to rebuild the bridge – mostly the volunteers made it a part of our culture and history that will not disappear. The painting is another tool to help the history live on.”

Cloutier’s painting and an ekphrastic poem by her partner, Richard Dittami, commemorating the occasion has also been reproduced on an aluminum panel that has been located at the bridge location.Nix said the painting is the latest effort to celebrate the bridge.

Several years ago, Sheldon Conrad and the ATV club worked with Cumberland Trails to restore the bridge’s pillar – project that cost more than $240,000 and was collected through a lengthy fundraising campaign that was supported by the community and various companies.He also thanked landowner Wesley Blair for giving permission to access the bridge with machinery.

He added it’s the latest example of many partners coming together to bring the bridge back when it could have been forgotten after the fire – partners such as the Municipality of Cumberland, Communities, Culture and Heritage, Trans Canada Trails, ATV and snowmobile clubs and others.

“There has been a lot of work done on the bridge and in November 2021 we got the project completed,” Nix said. “The painting is like icing on the cake.”

Nix said the bridge has become a destination with a trail down to the water’s edge so people can see the bridge and its engineering. He said a lot of people come to the bridge and the trail to marvel at the structure and impressive scenery of the Wallace River.