Ir­ish en­gi­neer de­signed grace­ful struc­ture that spanned 800 me­tres over Dnieper

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - ARMINTA WAL­LACE

The Dnieper is one of those stately, plump wa­ter­ways that tends to play a star­ring role in tele­vi­sion ads for river cruises. The fourth long­est river in Europe, it rises near Smolensk and flows through Rus­sia, Be­larus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, a vi­tal eco­nomic and cul­tural artery for the ar­eas it passes through.

“If the Volga is the soul of Rus­sia,” one travel web­site de­clares, “the Dnieper is the essence of Ukraine.”

His­tor­i­cally, its very size made the Dnieper no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to span. How­ever, in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury the Rus­sian em­peror Ni­cholas I was de­ter­mined to build a bridge in Kiev, where the river­banks are more than half a mile apart and where spring floods, swelled by melt­ing snow in the high coun­try of the central Rus­sian up­lands, could see wa­ter lev­els rise by 50ft or more, sweep­ing away all be­fore them.

What the em­peror wanted, the em­peror got. And so it was that one of the most suc- cess­ful An­glo-Ir­ish civil en­gi­neers of the Vic­to­rian era, En­nis­cor­thy-born Charles Blacker Vig­noles, set out from Eng­land for Rus­sia on the evening of Jan­uary 3rd, 1847, ac­com­pa­nied by two of his sons and bear­ing a set of very snazzy plans for a sus­pen­sion bridge that would be the envy of Europe.

Nowa­days a Lufthansa flight will whisk you to Kiev, via Frankfurt, in less than six hours.

Vig­noles and his party were ad­vised that Kiev in win­ter was off the travel charts al­to­gether, so they set­tled for a meet­ing with the em­peror in St Peters­burg – which was a sim­ple mat­ter of catch­ing a steamer to Flush­ing in the Nether­lands, fol­lowed by a train to Mainz, a ferry across the Rhine, an­other train to Hei­del­berg and car­riages to Stuttgart and Vi­enna.

On Jan­uary 18th, they took a train to Leipzig, fol­lowed by coaches through Bres­lau and Cra­cow. The trav­ellers had to strug­gle through heavy snow; it was so cold that at one stage a bot­tle of sherry froze and sepa- rated into its con­stituent parts of ice and al­co­hol. On an­other oc­ca­sion they lost their way and, un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with the lo­cal peo­ple, had to ask di­rec­tions from a lo­cal priest – through the medium of Latin. Some three weeks af­ter leav­ing Lon­don they fi­nally ar­rived in St Peters­burg by sleigh.

The tsar was suit­ably im­pressed – by Vig­noles’s dogged­ness, per­haps, as much as his de­signs – and the fol­low­ing year, work on the Ni­cholas Chain Bridge be­gan. At al­most 800 me­tres long, it was the big­gest of its kind in Europe. Old pho­to­graphs show it to have been an el­e­gant, grace­ful struc­ture as well as an engi­neer­ing tri­umph.

A very Rus­sian story with an Ir­ish con­nec­tion, then. But how Ir­ish was Charles Blacker Vig­noles, re­ally? His Huguenot an­ces­tors set­tled in Ire­land at the end of the 17th cen­tury and he was born at Wood­brook, near En­nis­cor­thy in Co Wex­ford, in May 1793.

In 1794, his fa­ther, also Charles, was sent to Guade­loupe as part of a Bri­tish in­va­sion force, where he, his wife Camilla and his baby son were taken pris­oner by the French. On the death of his par­ents from yel­low fever, an un­cle brought the in­fant Charles back to Eng­land, where he spent much of the rest of his life.

He did, how­ever, de­sign and build the first pas­sen­ger rail­way in Ire­land, the Dublin and Kingstown line. He lived to the age of 82 and was, in later life, closely in­volved with the work of the Royal Academy.

As for his bridge over the Dnieper, it sur­vived the va­garies of wind and wave un­til the Pol­ish-Soviet war of 1920, when it was blown up by re­treat­ing Pol­ish troops.

Re­stored in 1925, it was again de­mol­ished, this time by re­treat­ing Soviet forces in 1941. In 1965, a new bridge was built on the site, serv­ing both ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic and the lo­cal metro sys­tem. Prac­ti­cal, for sure – but noth­ing like as hand­some as Charles Blacker Vig­noles’s orig­i­nal.

The Ni­cholas Chain Bridge in Kiev, as it looks in later life and (right) Charles Blacker Vig­noles. PHO­TO­GRAPH: US LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS

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