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Gustave Eiffel’s first work:
the passerelle Eiffel, Bordeaux


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  A fifth bridge coming to Bordeaux: Pont Chaban-Delmas, a new vertical lift bridge
Gustave Eiffel’s first work: the Eiffel passerelle, Bordeaux
a dream unfulfilled - the transporter bridge, Bordeaux

more bridges in France

New translation, the Magna Carta

now safe as a historic monument
threat of demolition
the name of a bridge
a bridge’s history
construction and other statistics

End notes

Engineering art - a Passerelle bridge pier
Engineering art - a Passerelle bridge pier

now safe as a historic monument

At Bordeaux, there is an 504 metre long iron railway bridge, now ‘retired’ by cutting away any access at each end. The bridge is the Passerelle Eiffel. Started in 1858, its construction was completed by Gustave Eiffel, its construction manager, in 1860. This was his first construction project, finished when he was 26 years old. Of course, Gustave Eiffel’s most famous project was the Eiffel Tower, in the heart of Paris, another major construction by Eiffel is the viaduc Garabit in Avergne.

The Passerelle Eiffel after the two approches were removed.
The Passerelle Eiffel in 2008. Image: Association Sauvons la passerelle Eiffel

On 17 March 2010, the Passerelle Eiffel was declared a historic monument by Fréderic Mitterand, the Culture Minister (and brother of François Mitterand, previously President of France).

the Passerelle Eiffel in 1861
the Passerelle Eiffel in 1861

threatened by demolition

The bridge had previously been saved from imminent demolition in 2008 by an emergency listing as a national monument. This was granted only after UNESCO threatened to withdrawn Bordeaux’s World Heritage status if the bridge was destroyed.

the name of a bridge

At first, this bridge was colloquially known as the metal bridge [le pont metallique] and as the iron bridge [le pont de fer]. In 1862, an external footbridge and access stairs had been added to the Iron Bridge for the passage of pedestrians and cyclists. The original official name was le Pont du Chemin de fer du Midi - the bridge of the Midi railway.

Passerelle Eiffel between the two world  wars
Passerelle Eiffel between the two world wars

A view along the passerelle [footbridge] on the Eiffel bridge
A view along the passerelle on the Eiffel bridge

The footbridge [la passerelle in French] at th3e side was used daily, so much so that the whole bridge, including the larger part carrying the railway tracks, became known as the Passerelle. In 1981, the footbridge was deemed unsafe and was dismantled, but the name remains.

All that remains of the footbridge on the Eiffel Passerelle
This wrought iron rail is all that remains of the footbridge on the Eiffel Passerelle

history of a bridge

Originally the bridge was intended to link the two Bordelaise stations, that of Orleans railway, to the north, and the Railway of the Midi, to the south. Before this bridge, the carriages were transferred between two stations on a ferry across the Garonne River, passing under the Pont de Pierre.

The new railway bridge was designed by two Highways and bridges engineers, Paul Regnault and Stanislas de la Roche Tolay. However, today the name remembered is Gustave Eiffel. He was the construction chief.

This bridge, built during the era of coal and steam, has known all the successive generations of trains, right up to the regional Corail trains and the high speed TGVs. With more than 80,000 trains crossing a year, the traffic on the Passerelle in the 21st century was far from the first train that included Empress Eugenie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, as a passenger.

the Bordeaux bottle-neck

The quality and strength of the bridge has never been in question, it is the volume of traffic that led to the plan to retire the Eiffel bridge. In fact, over the years, the narrowness of the bridge [just one track in each direction] had prevented increasing the number of tracks. This had become a real obstacle to developing the railway network. With this major route, crossing of the Garonne river to reach the Gare Saint Jean, being commonly called “the Bordeaux bottle-neck”, it became urgent to remedy the problem.

The Garonne railway bridge being built next to the Eiffel Passerelle. Image: Bernard Fockeport
The Garonne railway bridge being built next to the Eiffel Passerelle. Image: Bernard Fockeport

When the decision to build a new railway bridge was taken, the destruction of the old one - the Passerelle - was sealed. But soon protests started that this historical work called “the magic entrance” by Francois Mauriac should not be destroyed. An association was started [including several descendants of Gustave Eiffel] and several conversion projects emerged: using it as a pedestrian and bike bridge, a restaurant, entertainment centre, a Gustave Eiffel museum, and even the idea of setting up the bridge to make a “Bordeaux Eiffel Tower”.

An end of the Passerelle Eiffel cut away from the bridge.  Image: Bernard Fockeport
An end of the Passerelle Eiffel cut away from the bridge.
Image: Bernard Fockeport

But all these suggestions relied on considerable financing, more than could be borne solely by the city of Bordeaux. By June 2008, the future of the bridge proved more uncertain. The Gustave Eiffel bridge was stripped of its two ends, which had obstructed completion of the nearby new Pont Garonne.

Passerelle Eiffel and the Pont Garonne
the Passerelle Eiffel (on the left) and the Pont Garonne -
old and new railway bridges

UNESCO heritage title in question

But at the end of June 2008 came news that the destruction of the Eiffel bridge could call into question the classification of Bordeaux as a UNESCO heritage site. It must be said that the topic of bridges in Bordeaux is particularly sensitive. After the destruction of the Perthuis bridge at Bacalan, the last bridge à culasse in France, and the debate on the Chaban-Delmas bridge project, the destruction of the Eiffel bridge could also become a touchy subject. This was compounded by Dresden in Germany being removed from the 2009 UNESCO listing because of their proposed bridge over the Elbe.

So, it was no longer a simple matter of just keeping an old bridge. Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe requested central government to help, and the Ministry of Culture took over. Using an emergency procedure, one year stay from demolition was granted while the procedures continued for the Passerelle to be classified as a historic monument.

construction and other statistics

Map locating the Passerelle Eiffel. Image: Google
Note: the satellite view (right) shows how closely the new TGV bridge has been built to the Passerelle.
(The Passerelle does not show on the Google Map (left), although it is marked.).

  • Constructed between 1848 and 1860.
  • Bridge deck length: 509.69 metres
  • Bridge deck width: 8.60 metres.
  • With 12 piers and 2 abutments (end foundation on which the bridge superstructure rests)
  • Designed by Paul Régnault et Stanislas de la Roche Tolay

Beneath the bridge is a maintenance gantry with a handwheel to move it.
Beneath the bridge is a maintenance gantry with a handwheel to move it.

Le pont Eiffel, Cubzac-les-Ponts : 2:19 mins
This is another bridge built by Eiffel to replace the longest suspension bridge in France, destroyed by a strorm. Dismantled during WW2, the bridge was rebuilt by Eiffel's grandson. Currently (2016), the bridge is undergoing two years of restoration.

From 1889 postcard of the Eiffel Tower


There is a bit of Bordeaux in the Eiffel Tower. For the building of his first work (1858-1860), that of a railway footbridge, christrened by the Bordelais  “Eiffel footbridge” , Gustave Eiffel experimented with the foundation system. This system would later be used for the feet of the Parisian monument. Metal tubes driven into the ground, using compressed air, by means of four hydraulic presses and a pressurised casing. This forced water back inside the tubes.

end notes

  1. Pont à culasse - swing bridge, pivoting on an axis at one end of the bridge.

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