Friday 31 August 2012, 12:17
The transporter bridge in Newport is an iconic symbol, the one structure that any visitor to the town has to see. It is one of only three such bridges in Britain, one of only eight in the whole world.Newport Transporter Bridge. Photo: Paul Elliott
The bridge was opened on 12 September 1906. Designed by French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin and built by the contractor Alfred Thorne of Westminster, it was the culmination of many years' discussion and consideration.
There had been numerous proposals for bridges and subways under the River Usk at this eastern end of the town but none of them had come to fruition, mainly due to the nature of the work required and the high cost.
The banks of the river were - and still are - very low at this point and it would have required long steep approach ramps to build a bridge with sufficient height to allow ships to pass underneath. A subway or tunnel would have been prohibitively expensive. A ferry would not do the job as the rise and fall of the river has always been great and at low tide boats would simply not be able to dock.
And so nothing was done until 1896 when John Lysaght proposed building a new steelworks to the south west of the town. In order to attract and encourage him the Borough Council decided that they would have to "bite the bullet" - a crossing of some sort would have to be built.
Borough engineer RH Hayes had heard of transporter bridges and travelled to Rouen to see an example that had been built by Ferdinand Arnodin. The idea of a transporter bridge - in effect an aerial ferry - would eliminate the problem of the low banks and it would be considerably cheaper than excavating a tunnel below the waters of the Usk. Hayes returned convinced, and by 1900 Parliamentary approval had been granted. Work began.
The transporter bridge was to have tall twin towers on either side of the river, reaching up nearly 250 feet into the air, while the horizontal beam from which the transporter platform or gondola was to hang was some 70 feet lower. This gondola would travel the 600 feet above the water at a rate of 10 feet per second.
The transporter bridge cost just £98,124 to construct and was intended to take both vehicles and passengers across the river. At the opening ceremony on 12 September 1906 - the official opening being conducted by Viscount Tredegar - the new bridge was described as:
"A giant with the grace of Apollo and the strength of Hercules."
The bridge has featured in numerous television programmes and films over the years - notably the 1959 film Tiger Bay which gave Hayley Mills her screen début. The film was supposedly set in Cardiff but was shot in Newport, causing many later visitors to Cardiff to ask where their transporter bridge was located.
The bridge has had a chequered history, having been closed for a £3 million refurbishment in 1985. Despite being reopened in 1995 it closed again in 2007, but was reopened once more in the summer of 2010.
When it is fully operational the transporter bridge can cater for up to six light vehicles and 120 pedestrians. It remains the largest of the world's eight transporter bridges and is an important part of Newport's history. With the town likely to be inundated by visitors, from Europe and from the USA, for the 2010 Ryder Cup it is highly likely that this incredible structure - a Grade 1 listed building - will see more visitors in a single month than it usually sees in a whole year.
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