The Kelowna Bridge Over Okanagan Lake

An Important Piece Of Okanagan History

The building of the original Kelowna bridge was one of the most important milestones in the history of Kelowna not only for it's economic development, but also for a vital social link, by opening transportation to the South Okanagan and beyond.

Built in 1958, the Okanagan Lake Bridge was also referred to as the Kelowna Floating Bridge. The bridge served as a major landmark and a primary north-south highway corridor in the province of BC, and an important link from the Pacific Northwest United States to British Columbia and north on to Alaska.

The bridge itself was a pontoon bridge, or floating bridge that contained a vertical lift span which could open up to allow boats to pass under it.

Pontoons would support the bridge deck floating on the water. According to history, floating bridges have been around since the 11th century -- amazing isn't it?

Over the years we've collected a few postcards from visits to the Okanagan. This one is of the floating bridge over Okanagan Lake showing how boats pass under the lift span. Behind you can see the city is not a developed as it is today.
kelowna bridge old postcard

Historically, from the mid 1880's to the mid 1930's, Sternwheelers such as the SS Okanagan and the SS York provided transportation to people and goods down and across Okanagan Lake. From the mid-30's, until the original Kelowna bridge was built, ferries would carry vehicles across Okanagan Lake from Kelowna to Westbank, BC, now known as West Kelowna.

The alternative to crossing the 110 km long Okanagan Lake was a very long trip along back roads, around the north end of the lake. A long trip considering the actual destination was just a very short distance away.

Some interesting facts about the original Okanagan Lake bridge...

  • The Kelowna floating bridge was the first of its kind in Canada, and one of the few floating bridges in all of North America.
  • At the time of it's opening, the bridge was longest floating bridge in the world.
  • The bridge was constructed by Dominion Bridge and Kelowna Bridge Contracting and was made up of 12 reinforced concrete pontoons totalling about 700 metres in length, 15 metres wide and 5 metres in depth, each bolted together to form a continuous rigid unit.
  • The Okanagan Lake bridge had a lift span of 85 metres in length, and it could provide 60 feet of vertical clearance. The lift span sat upon about 700 piles driven into Okanagan lake bottom.
  • From it's completion time in 1958, until April 1, 1963, the bridge was a toll bridge. This helped pay for the cost of building it, which was $7.5 Million.
  • The Okanagan Lake Bridge in Kelowna was officially opened by H.R.H. Princess Margaret and the Premier of British Columbia, William Andrew Cecil (W.A.C.) Bennett on July 19, 1958.
This is part of another old postcard we saved from a visit years ago. It shows the Kelowna bridge from 'Okanagan Lake beach' in Kelowna from the other direction.
kelowna floating bridge on okanagan lake old postcard

In 2007, by the BC Ministry of Transportation, suggested that the Kelowna floating bridge, which was designed for a capacity 37,000 summer average daily traffic, was actually seeing numbers far beyond that, showing summer average daily traffic of 52,000. And, at that time, the bridge had been upgraded from it's original 2 lanes, to three lanes.

If you've ever driven across the old Kelowna bridge, you'll likely remember the third, alternating lane, that would open to traffic in opposite directions depending on the time of day and the peak direction of traffic flow. The original bridge only carried 2 lanes of traffic, one in each direction and was later converted to three lanes with an alternating counter-flow centre lane. I definitely remember times waiting at one end of the bridge for the gate to open for traffic going in our direction, so that we could get across.

The Okanagan Lake floating bridge today...

Officially renamed from Okanagan Lake Bridge to the William R. Bennett Bridge after the son of W.A.C. Bennett, the new bridge, also a floating bridge, opened in 2008, 3 years after it's construction began. It was estimated that 69,000 vehicles would use the new bridge every day. Check out this amazing view of the bridge here.

Today the view of the William R. Bennett Bridge bridge can be enjoyed from many different vantage points. The view from Knox Mountain below is one of those places.
view of new kelowna floating bridge today from knox mountain

Interesting facts about the new bridge...

  • The new Kelowna bridge is also a floating bridge supported by pontoons.
  • The new bridge has 5 lanes - 3 for westbound traffic and 2 for eastbound traffic.
  • The bridge now provides nearly 60 feet of clearance for marine travel under the deck.
  • Pedestrians and cyclists can cross the bridge on the south side of the bridge on a designated path.
  • The speed limit across the bridge is 60 km/hr.
  • There are no toll fees.
  • Driving across the new Kelowna bridge is much more pleasant these days. ;-)

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Historical Fact

The first Okanagan sternwheeler was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1893. Her name was the S.S. Aberdeen after Lord and Lady Aberdeen. S.S. stands for steamship. The CPR sternwheelers used steam power to drive the boats. These boats were also called paddlewheelers because of the large paddlewheels at the back, or stern, of the boats. On the SS Aberdeen and the SS Okanagan there were staterooms, smoking rooms, ladies saloons, and dining rooms. :-)

Authored By: E. Friedrich Copyright© 2008-2020-forever All Rights Reserved