CASUAL COUNTRY 2021: The legacy of Rudy Johnson and the bridge

Rudy Johnson, 98, enjoys playing the accordion, and is often asked to play for the ladies at Seniors Village where he lives. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)Rudy Johnson, 98, enjoys playing the accordion, and is often asked to play for the ladies at Seniors Village where he lives. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
The Rudy Johnson Bridge continues to be an important connector across the Fraser River. 
(Monica Lamb-Yorski photo)The Rudy Johnson Bridge continues to be an important connector across the Fraser River. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo)
The Johnson Family Randy, left, Gary, Bob, Rudy (back row), Helen, left, Debbie, Janice and Donny (front row)The Johnson Family Randy, left, Gary, Bob, Rudy (back row), Helen, left, Debbie, Janice and Donny (front row)

Like the bridge that spans the Fraser River and bears his name, much of Rudy Johnson’s life has been about making connections.

“My life was busy, busy. I had so many things to keep up with,” the 98 year old said during a recent interview in his room at Seniors Village in Williams Lake. “I’ve really only been downsizing in the last 10 years.”

On May 30, 2021, his wife Helen passed away at the age of 97.

They had been married for 77 years and had six children – Gary, Janice, twins Randy and Bob, Don and Debby.

When Helen moved into Seniors Village about six years ago, Johnson said he followed her.

“I couldn’t get along without her,” he said. “I sure miss her.”

Johnson was born in Sweden and emigrated to Vancouver, B.C. when he was nine years old.

In his room at Seniors Village there is a framed photograph of the family home back in Sweden.

After his arrival in Canada, learning English was not as easy for him as it was for some of his siblings.

When he attended school, the principal told him to stay away, continue to learn the language and come back when he could get by.

“My dad said, ‘OK, I’m going to give you a team of horses and a scraper and you can go to work for the municipality,’ so I did,” Johnson recalled. “I got a dollar for each horse, a dollar for me so that was three dollars a day I got paid.”

He never did return to school and by the time he was 13 had rigged his first spar tree.

“Once when I was 14 or 15 I attended a Sunday picnic in Powell River. They had two spar trees and I beat all them guys by far, climbing up and down. Then when it was finished the Workmen’s Compensation Board had a little plaque that named me as verified second rigger.”

When Johnson asked why he didn’t get the first place trophy he was told he couldn’t have it because he was under age.

Johnson first visited the Cariboo during a hunting trip at Soda Creek in 1946 and returned a year later with timber rights, eventually building his first tie mill and moving his family to live with him.

About 1954, the Johnsons moved into Williams Lake to a home on Second Avenue where the post office is located today.

He moved his tie mill from the West Fraser Road area to 153 Mile House, which he later sold, and built a sawmill on the Beaver Valley Road.

Eventually he left the lumber industry and became very busy working on construction in Williams Lake.

“I was building roads, excavating streets, building homes, moving churches and homes, and digging basements,” he recalled.

Aside from tie mills and sawmills, Johnson was an owner or partner in companies such as Lovell Logging, Cariboo West Contracting, Chilcotin Airways, Aero Electronic Surveys Ltd., Central Aircraft Leasing and Salvage Ltd. and Western Line Cleaners.

It was also common for him to provide ambulance services because he had the means to fly into remote sites.

In 1962 the Johnsons purchased the Buckskin Land and Cattle Company on the west side of the Fraser River and the whole family helped run the ranch.

His son Randy said his dad was a good teacher and taught his children lots.

“He was good to work for and taught us how to do things right. It was great. We ran the ranch for 30 years as a family. Each one of us had a job to do. It was set up pretty good.”

At its peak the ranch had 600 cows and another 400 head of yearling, Randy said, nothing his mom, Debbie and he looked after the cattle and everyone helped with the haying.

“Bob was instrumental in setting up the water and irrigation system,” Randy added, noting Debbie and her family also ran a registered herd on the ranch for a few years.

It was an incident where Helen almost drowned in the Fraser River after falling off the Soda Creek Ferry that inspired Johnson to build the Rudy Johnson Bridge.

He learned through a friend in 1968 there was a surplus bridge available and purchased it for $40,000 from the Alaska Department of Highways.

“I had to phone my banker and tell him I was buying a bridge – he almost fell over,” Johnson said.

The bridge’s 3,300 pieces were transported on three railway cars to a dock in Alaska and then shipped to Prince Rupert, B.C. From Prince Rupert the pieces went by rail to Prince George and then to Williams Lake.

The bridge pieces were hauled by truck from Williams Lake and then placed along the road in numbered order.

Johnson contracted Dominion Bridge and foreman Jim English to build the bridge and had an engineer on site who signed off the work.

“We put the bridge together all on the hard ground and then we picked it up and swung it over the river onto cement buttresses that Martin Stacey, myself and a crew poured two months before that.”

He and Helen were the first ones to try out the new bridge, followed by the two cattle trucks.

“Sometimes we had 30 loaded trucks waiting to cross,” he recalled, noting the logging companies paid a fee to use the bridge, but it was open to the public at no charge.

Seven years later the government sent him a memo asking to buy the bridge and Johnson sold it.

“I could never have built the bridge today – not with all the red tape,” he said.

Eyeing his upcoming 99th birthday on Dec. 13, Johnson said his health is fair.

When asked for advice to impart on a younger generation, he responded ‘just keep working.’

In 2014, he self-published a book about his life and dedicated the book to Helen.

“With her loving support, her strength and her determination the accomplishments we have enjoyed together were made possible,” he wrote for an insert inside the book.

“Our children are a major part of our success and happiness.

“Some of our most cherished and happiest moments have been with our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren and with our friends.”

The book has been widely read and is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Johnson and the Cariboo.

As Johnson took out the accordion to play a tune, Randy said his dad never learned how to read music but played by ear.

“In the last couple of years he’s been playing it now and then and the ladies in here want him to come down and play them a tune. He’s getting better and better at playing it as time goes on because of a lot of the old stuff is coming back.”

Johnson said he has always remained grateful for the generosity shown to his family when they first moved to the West Fraser area so long ago.

“We would have starved if it wasn’t for our neighbours,” he said.

Randy said one time someone asked his father what was something that had a big impact on his life. “Dad looked at her and said, ‘electricity,’” Randy recalled.

“When you think about what someone his age has seen throughout his lifetime, it really is amazing.”

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