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Széchenyi’s Chain Bridge / Lánchíd
Széchenyi’s Chain Bridge / Lánchíd

The inscription on the lion still uses the "cz" for the "c"sound in "Lánczhíd". This was common usage until approximately the 1930's

Count Széchenyi István’s vision for the advancement of his homeland included the unification of the two distinct cities of Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube River, to create a flourishing capital. The first step in this overall plan was construction of a bridge to link the two cities.

His was not a new idea: King Zsigmond (Sigismund of Luxemburg – reigned 1387–1437) already contemplated building such a bridge.  However, his reign was notable for its great lack of funds, and so a bridge across the Danube remained a dream.  But by 1556, a pontoon bridge was realized during the Turkish occupation. Damaged a number of times, it was finally destroyed by the Turks themselves when they withdrew from Pest in 1686.

With the recapture of Buda and Pest from the Turks, a so-called ”flying bridge” or ferry was instituted.  The ferry, consisting of a deck built over two ships, which could accommodate 3-4 horse-drawn wagons and 300 passengers, was attached to a 750-meter long rope anchored in the middle of the river channel.  This rope was kept afloat by 7 flat boats. The ferry would use the river current to bring it across the river.  

By the 18th century, this ”flying bridge” proved inadequate for the increased traffic, so they once again resorted to a pontoon bridge.  In the beginning, the toll was exacted by the cities of Buda and Pest themselves, but was later leased out to the highest bidder.

A temporary pontoon bridge was put in place in 1767 for the visit of the Archduke Albert. For the national assembly that was convened in Pest in 1790, another temporary ”flying bridge” or ferry was used.

The Danube differs from other major European rivers in that it is covered with ice in the winter, and in addition to causing flooding, thawing ice can wreak great damage.  All this had to be taken into consideration when designing a bridge, and was one of the reasons it took so long to build one at Buda and Pest.

In 1832, Széchenyi traveled to England, and there consulted several British bridge designers.  On his return, he drew up an estimate of proposed costs, which he hoped to finance by the issuance of stocks and the imposition of a toll on a democratic basis, i.e., everyone – peasant as well as aristocrat – would pay the same toll.

This latter provision was considered revolutionary and caused an uproar in the National Assembly (Országgyülés), since the upper classes were exempt from all taxation, and they considered a bridge toll to be a tax, an infringement on their traditional privileges. They were finally persuaded to place the common good above their personal interests, and passed the law in 1836. The law also established a Delegation (Küldöttség) to handle all matters relating to the bridge’s construction.    

Széchenyi then set up a Bridge Society, and numerous (mostly unsuitable) designs to span the Danube were submitted. A plan was also submitted by Vasvári Pál, who later planned the regulation of the Tisza – see September issue of Magyar News Online.  (His bridge design included a drawbridge to permit the passage of ships – predating the Tower Bridge of London by half a century.)

The final design accepted by the Delegation was that of the English engineer William Tierney Clark for a suspension bridge.  Financing was handled by Baron Sina György, who himself made the largest contribution to the costs.  In consideration of his generosity, he received the right to collect the toll for 87 years! But after the Compromise of 1867, the Hungarian government bought the right from Sina and his heir.

Construction of the Lánchíd began in 1839.  A Scottish engineer, Adam Clark – no relation to William Tierney – who earlier had designed and built dredges for the Danube Steamship Company – was put in charge of the work. (Today, we would call him the Project Manager.) 

The first pile on which the structure would rest was driven on the Buda side in 1840.  It took two years to complete driving the piles, with often 800 people working at the same time. The Pest side foundation pit was completed first, and the laying of the foundation stone was celebrated on August 24th, 1842. 

The iron castings and chains were manufactured in England, the anchoring steel blocks in Austria. Installation of 11 chains went fine; however, an accident occurred at the installation of the 12th and last one.  One worker lost his life, and observers, including Széchenyi himself, were swept into the river from a floating scaffolding.  

This delayed construction on  the bridge.  But much more serious delays were caused by the Freedom Fight of 1848-49.  Each side wanted to make the bridge impassable to the other.  The Austrians shelled the bridge, and caused some damage, but more serious danger threatened when they began to make preparations to blow it up.  Adam Clark prevented this catastrophe by flooding the anchoring chamber, dismantling the pumps and breaking some parts.

It was by order of Kossuth himself that a wagon crossed the Chain Bridge even before it was completed:  On January 1st, 1849, it took the Holy Crown from beleaguered Buda to the train leaving for safety in Debrecen.

But others – officials, the military and pedestrians – used the bridge even before its official opening on November 20, 1849.

Only Széchenyi himself, who was responsible for its existence, never was able to cross it.  Because by that time, he was in a mental institution in Austria. Nor did he live to see his vision become a reality – the unification of Buda and Pest into one grand capital city, in 1873.

This is the early history of the iconic Lánchíd that became part of the Budapest cityscape.  Together with every other bridge in the capital, it was blown up during World War II, finally restored in 1949, and renovated in 1973.  However, by now, the Chain Bridge, Széchenyi’s dream, is once again in urgent need of renovation.

Erika Papp Faber is Editor of Magyar News Online. 

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