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History

Introduction

The origins of the Bridge go right back to the end of the 19th century. This is during the reign of María Cristina (1885-1902) while her son Alfonso XIII was a minor.

The objective behind the construction of the Vizcaya Bridge was to link the two banks of the mouth of the river Nervión without hindering the shipping.

It was designed by Mr Alberto Palacio y Elissague, also known for his participation in the construction of the Cristal Palace in Madrid’s Retiro Park. The French engineer Mr Ferdinand Joseph Arnodin was in charge of the construction and the Bilbao textile entrepreneur Mr Santos López de Letona was the project’s main defender and financer.

The Vizcaya Bridge was the first shuttle bridge built in the world made with a metallic structure. It is situated at the mouth of the Ibaizabal river, at the point where Bilbao’s navigable estuary opens out to the sea up to the 19th century. It was inaugurated on 28th July 1893 and was designed to join, with its massive iron structure, the towns of Portugalete and Getxo, one with a steep rocky bank and the other with a low sandy bank. When it was built it facilitated communications between these two summer resorts without interrupting the shipping in one of Europe’s busiest river shipping ports.

The Vizcaya Bridge is the brilliant result of the mixture between two different innovative technologies: the modern engineering of bridges hanging from cables, developed in the middle of the 19th century, and the technique of large mechanical vehicles operating with steam machines.

However, when the Vizcaya architect Mr Alberto Palacio y Elissague started to develop the project to construct a system to link the two banks of the mouth of the Nervión, he worked meticulously, analysing practically all of the options available at the time: a shuttle on rails, floating barges and all types of bridges: revolving, platform, bascule, submarine, elevated, etc.

All of them were ruled out after their technical analysis, until he finally invented what he called a Palacio Shuttle Bridge. Its design fulfilled all of the necessary requirements, i.e. the possibility of moving passengers and cargo, without hindering the shipping, with a reasonable construction cost and which would guarantee a regular service.

The history of such a symbol was therefore started. An engineering marvel of its time, a sheet iron dream which would go beyond its own vital pragmatism and the mundane discussions, and would become the symbol of an entire region, of an entire people.

There were three different projects before the definitive one. The final project ruled out the use of cables as rails (cable railway style) and opted for a structure based on two horizontal girders to support the rails, supported on four pillars or towers standing on the quays of both banks.

The Vizcaya Bridge is one of the greatest monuments of the Industrial Revolution and one of the few surviving representatives of that period. During the second half of the 19th century iron was considered the most powerful symbol of History’s progress, and was the material used to manufacture machines, ships, railways, and towers like the Eiffel Tower, the massive halls of the Universal Expos and, above all, the new bridges in Europe and America which were more and more slender and audacious.

At the end of the 19th century, Bilbao’s river was experiencing the Industrial Revolution as a period of extraordinary economic activity linked to the mass export of a rich seam of iron which was over 25 kilometres long in Vizcaya’s mines. It was the same material used by Spain to transform the countries in its colonial empire in the past, but now exported and used for industry, and gave rise to an incredible boom in the mining companies, shipping companies, iron and steel companies, banks, etc. The Vizcaya Bridge was from the very beginning considered the triumphal arch of this newly-formed industrial civilisation.

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