Countdown to Forth Road Bridge’s 50th anniversary

Sunlight illuminates the famous span and towers, ready for the 50th birthday salute in 2014. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Sunlight illuminates the famous span and towers, ready for the 50th birthday salute in 2014. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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As the one-year countdown begins to 50th anniversary of engineering marvel, a celebration programme has been unveiled.

It was going to take something special. Building a road bridge next to the world-famous Forth Bridge, which since its completion in 1890 had been proclaimed an engineering marvel and attracted thousands of sightseers from around the world, was not going to be easy.

Whatever was to be built would have to contrast favourably with the red cantilevered rail bridge and boast its own world-class features to showcase a modern Scotland.

When the Forth Road Bridge opened on September 4, 1964, it ticked all the boxes. Today, as it celebrates its 49th birthday with the launch of a programme of events to take place next year when it hits the big 5-0, its design – cosmetically at least – still stands the test of time.

“Together, the Forth Road Bridge and the Forth Bridge are icons of Scotland and present a powerful
visual image that is recognised the world over,” says Tony Martin, vice-convener of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority.

“Since 1964, the bridge has made a real difference to the lives of Scottish people. It is a genuine success story, carrying over twice the weight and volume of traffic that it was originally designed for, and providing a valuable transport link used by 25 million vehicles a year.

“It’s fantastic to take the opportunity to celebrate this golden milestone with a real party atmosphere that everyone can take part in.”

The Forth Bridges Festival, described as being a “key event” in the Homecoming Scotland 2014 celebrations, will take place from September 4-13, across both North and South Queensferry – including tower-top tours, sailing regattas, torchlit processions, parties and a fireworks display, as well as the chance to leave a lasting memorial on the bridge with an engraved padlock.

As Malcolm Brown, chair of Queensferry Ambition, adds: “The festival really does have something for everyone – business, the wider community and, of course, for the thousands of visitors who will help make this a really special time.”

There were certainly thousands – 50,000 people to be precise – who turned out the day the bridge was officially opened by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh with a 21-gun
salute in 1964. It had taken six years to build, but had been talked about since the 1940s as an answer to the overcrowded ferry service, which by then was carrying 1.5 million people and 800,000 vehicles a year.

From the late 1800s onwards suspension bridges were all the rage. The Brooklyn Bridge, followed by the Henry Hudson (both New York) and then the Golden Gate across San Francisco Bay in California helped inspire engineers Mott, Hay & Anderson and Freeman Fox & Partners when the search was launched to find a new structural wonder across the Forth.

Then, to save the construction contract going overseas, the three largest engineering firms in the UK formed a consortium to take on the mammoth project, with work beginning in September 1958. Cable anchorages were bored into rock on either side of the Forth, the twin towers were erected and then the “cable spinning” began.

The method had never been attempted before in Europe, so a special school was set up in South Queensferry for the spinners – and by 1962 they had created the bridge’s two enormous cables from 30,000 miles of steel wire. By December 1963, the two final girders to complete the main span of the bridge were swung into place – remarkably when they met the two halves of the bridge were no more than an inch out of line.

Six years, £19.5m, 8241ft and the lives of seven men later, the world’s fourth-longest suspension bridge opened. It lost that title 78 days later to the Ponte Salazar – now the Ponte 25 de Abril – in Lisbon, Portugal.

Mike Cantlay, chairman of 
VisitScotland, says: “The festival is going to be truly spectacular, and in the Forth Road Bridge’s 50th birthday year, what better way to celebrate all that they mean to Scotland.”

• For more information visit www.forthbridgesfestival.com.