22 April 2021

"Transporter Bridges: an Illustrated History" by John Hannavy

Transporter Bridges by John Hannavy (Pen and Sword, 268pp, 2020) is, I think, the first book to bring these unusual structures together in a comprehensive record. Subtitled "An Illustrated History", this is indeed a highly pictorial and well-detailed account of what was a very short-lived type of structure. Nineteen were built between 1893 and 1916, before the growth in motor traffic made them a less attractive form of river crossing.

The concept of a transporter bridge dated back to the mid-19th century. At a time when tall boats still used major rivers, there were essentially four ways to transport vehicles across such an obstacle. Ferry boats were common, but could only carry a few vehicles at a time, and could be unreliable. Fixed bridges were the highest-capacity, most reliable solution, but expensive both in construction and land-take. Moveable bridges were, in their earlier years, complex and expensive, and suitable only for moderate spans. The transporter bridge could cover longer spans, but carrying loads more in line with those on a ferry.

Hannavy documents early proposals for transporter bridges in detail: H.N. Houghton's idea for a railway crossing in New York (1852); J.W. Morse's plan for a similar crossing (1869); Charles Smith's proposal in Middlesbrough (1873); and others.

However, the first proposal to be built was the Viscaya bridge at Portugalete near Bilbao, completed in 1893. The designers Alberto Palacio and Ferdinand Arnodin took out patents for the transporter concept, and Arnodin went on to complete eight more such bridges.

Hannavy's history covers most of the transporter bridges with relative brevity - I say relative as they all get plenty of detail. He takes the story right up to recent decades where new transporter bridges have been proposed (e.g. at Royal Victoria Dock, Nantes, Marseilles and Brest). Of these, the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge is the only that was built, but its transporter gondola was never installed.

Beyond the basic history, the book discusses the "Systeme Arnodin" in detail, and there are chapters covering five of the few surviving transporter spans at length as fine examples of the type: the Viscaya bridge, Newport Transporter Bridge, the Tees Transporter Bridge, Crosfield's Warrington Transporter Bridge (and its now-demolished sibling), and the Rochefort Bridge. A further chapter considers the Widnes-Runcorn Bridge, which was closed in 1961. All five of the transporter bridges ever built in the UK are therefore given close attention.

Each of these is covered thoroughly, with quotes from contemporary journals and an excellent variety of historic and recent photographs. Hannavy's research has clearly been in-depth. The chapter on the Rochefort bridge is particularly interesting, as it mainly documents the massive refurbishment project undertaken to prolong the life of the bridge and to restore it closer to the original Arnodin design.

In addition to the main chapters, the book concludes with a series of one-page summaries of all the known transporter bridges both built and unbuilt.

This is, without any doubt, the definitive book on transporter bridges, and essential for anyone with an interest in them. More generally, it should appeal to those with a broader interest in historic bridges. It is not entirely faultless, unfortunately, as there is no bibliography and no referencing of any sort. This is a shame for any serious researchers, but probably not a big issue for the more general reader.

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