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transbordeur/transporter bridges in France and the world 1:
why, who, when, where


transbordeur bridge, Brest

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the master of transbordeur bridges - ferdinand arnodin
transbordeur bridges built by ferdinand arnodin
some other transbordeurs around the world
those still existing
end notes

A transbordeur bridge, or transporter bridge, is also known as a suspended car bridge, or a ferry bridge, or an aerial transfer bridge, or an aerial ferry; the French term is un pont à transbordeur.

Such a bridge has two tall metal pylons with a horizontal travelway fixed high above the river. A gondola (or nacelle, or platform) is suspended from a shuttle, usually powered by electricity, that runs along the travelway. The gondola provides transport across the river, while the bridge itself still allows large ship traffic, such as sailing ships, to pass up and down the river. I am aware of at least twenty-two transbordeur bridges having been built around the world, seven being in France [Bordeaux, Brest, Marseilles, Nantes, Rochefort, Rouen, and a minature one at Montceau-les-Mines] and five in the UK.

There can be some degree of confusion over the label (name) for such bridges. The French name is pont à transbordeur, these bridges frequently regarded as having been invented by a Frenchman. Then there is the Anglo-Saxon name, transporter bridge, with its affectionate diminutive, tranny; and a mongrel hybrid of the French and English names, a transbordeur bridge. There is also another variation, the transponder bridge, and I have even seen the label transporting bridge. abelard.org tends to use the words transporter and transbordeur interchangeably, according to mood.

This article is not going to list every last known transbordeur bridge, whether still existing or not. This article will describe their origin and history, as well as some of the previous but interesting examples. A second article focuses on particular transbordeurs at Portugalete, Chicago and Rochefort-Martrou.

2007 Spanish stamp of tall ship passing under the Puente Vizcaya, Portugalete
2007 Spanish stamp of a tall ship passing under the Puente Vizcaya, Portugalete

Transbordeur bridges have their origin in the need to cross rivers used as maritime highways by sea-going sailing ships, particularly in port towns where providing the long approach ramp required for a very high road deck was impractical. The transbordeur bridge provided an elegant and efficient solution to this problem.

the master of transbordeur bridges - ferdinand arnodin

The transbordeur bridge design is often regarded as being invented by Ferdinand Arnodin, a French industrial engineer who had previously specialised in cable-suspended bridges. He designed about 25 such bridges, inventing their spirally-wound double torsion steel wire ropes, as well as several other improvements to bridge safety and solidity. The first of this new generation of suspension bridges built by Arnodin was the Pont de Saint Ilpize, Haut-Loire, completed in 1879. It still exists, having repaired in 2004.

Arnodin was responsible for nine of the eighteen known transporter bridges to be built at the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century.

The transbordeur bridges built by Ferdinand Arnodin were:

    with cables
  1. 1893 Portugalete, near Bilbao, Spain - Vascaya Bridge (sometimes spelt Vizcaya), still working and now a Unesco World Heritage site.

  2. 1899 Rouen, France - span 140 m, pylon height 70 m: destroyed on 9 June 1940 by French troops in order to slow the German advance
    transbordeur bridge at Rouen

  3. 1898 Bizerte, Tunisia - span 109 m: dismantled and rebuilt at Brest in 1909
  4. 1900 Rochefort-Martrou, France: still functioning and now a historic monument, restricted to pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles as tourist attraction
    transbordeur bridge, Rochefort-sur-Mer - across the fields

  5. with braces and counter-weights 1903 Nantes, France - 141 m: demolished in 1958. There are plans to build a new transbordeur in its place, to help revive a very run-down port quarter. This new bridge will be for fun and tourism, rather than maritime need. [A poll in November 2012 overwhelmingly voted for a transporter bridge.]
  6. 1905 Marseilles, France: destroyed on 22 August 1944 by the Germans, the day before the Liberation of Marseilles. (Prior to this, the bridge was due to be demolished so the metal could be recycled for war resources.)
    Nacelle of the Marseille transbordeur bridge

  7. with cables and braces 1906 Newport, Wales: 196 m span, closed in 2008, reopened in 2010 after £2 million restoration
    Transporter bridge, Newport, Monmouthshire

  8. 1909 Brest, France: reconstructed from Bizerte, used almost exclusively by the military arsenal at Brest.
    It was damaged in 1944 and demolished in 1947
    the military port at Brest - the outer harbour and the transporting bridge
    “the military port at Brest - the outer harbour and the transporting bridge”

  9. 1910 Bordeaux, France: never finished, dismantled in 1944 to prevent the pylons being available to the German invaders.








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some other transbordeur bridges around the world

Now, some other transbordeur bridges around the world, some still existing and others no more. This list is not exhaustive, structurae.de and museumstuff.com have a few more.

  • 1905 Widnes-Runcorn: 304 m span, dismantled in 1961
  • 1906 Newport, Monmouthshire: 196.6 m span, closed in 2008 for £2 million restoration. In service, reopened 30th July 2010
  • 1911 Middlesborough, over the River Tees: 259 m span, still in service
    modern postcard of Middlesborough transporter bridge
  • 1915 Warrington: 57 m span, disused since 1964, but kept in good condition and working on demand
  • 1998 Royal Victoria Dock Bridge, London: 128 m span, so far only used as high-level footbridge

  • 1905 Aerial Bridge, Duluth, Minnesota:
    Duluth transbordeur bridge
    120 m span, converted in 1930 into a lift bridge, which still exists.
    Duluth lift bridge

  • 1933 Chicago Sky Ride: part of the 1933-34 World Fair, demolished in 1935
    postcard of Chicago Sky Ride

  • Montceau-les-Mines, a miniature transbordeur spanning the Canal du Centre; later demolished and replaced by a bascule bridge.
    Transbordeur at Montceau-les-Mines

  • 1913 Rendsburg, only known combined railroad/transporter bridge, still in service
  • 1909 Osten: now in use as tourist attraction
  • 1910 Keil: 128 m, demolished in 1923

  • 1955 Stalingrad/Volgograd: demolished

  • 1914 Buenos Aires: built by Germans, in use until 1960

    Niagara Falls
  • Not strictly a transbordeur bridge, but included for fun!
    1913-1916 Constructed by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo [1852 - 1936, born in Cantabria, about 130 km from Portugalete]. The Spanish Aero Car or Whirlpool Aero Car, spanning 550 metres on the Canadian side of the Falls, still operates today. It is also called a cableway.
    1913 postcard of transbordeur above Niagara Falls, built by Torres Quevedo

Marker at abelard.org

In all, seven transbordeur bridges are still working today. The bridge at Duluth, Minnesota, though it is now an aerial lift bridge, sort of makes an eighth. The seven are

  • the Vascaya Bridge at Portugalete, North Spain;
  • the Rochefort-Martrou Transporter Bridge at Rochefort, Charente-Maritime in France;
  • Newport and Middlesborough transporters in the United Kingdom,
    with another at Warrington used ‘on demand’;
  • two in Germany - at Rendsburg and Osten (Oste).


end notes

  1. The first transbordeur bridge was the Puente de Vascaya at Portugalete, in Spain, opening on 28 July 1893. Designs for a transbordeur bridge had been deposited in the Patent Office at Paris by Ferdinand Arnodin at 11am on 5th November 1887. However, at 11am on 5th November 1887 - the same hour and day, Alberto de Palacio had also deposited identical plans (except for the words being in Spanish rather than French) at the Bilbao patent office. The two men would later collaborate in building the first transbordeur bridge, completed in 1893.

    Note that Arnodin and Palacio had studied drawings by the Englishman Charles Smith, for a transbordeur to cross the Tees at Middlesborough, and those by the American J.W.Morse for a project to cross the East River, New York, both dated 1873.

  2. With a bascule, or balance, bridge the roadbed moves out of the way, having a counterweight to balance it. Here are pictures of the bascule bridge that replaced the transbordeur bridge at Montceau-les-Mines, shown both closed and open:
    bascule bridge at Montceau-les-Mines
    Image: Aroche
    Note that the curving arch is not part of the bridge, but carries pipes from one side of the canal to the other

    bascule bridge at Montceau-les-Mines
    Note the level crossing-style traffic barriers (to the right of the ‘no entry’ sign)

    A bascule bridge made famous by Vincent van Gogh paintings.
    The bridge near Arles is still preserved:
    Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing by Vincent van Gogh, 1888
    Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

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