A brief history of the Forth Bridges

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The newest addition to the Forth Estuary, the Queensferry Crossing bridge, is set to open on 30 August 2017.

People have been crossing the water at Queensferry since as far back as the 12th century, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that it became one of Scotland’s most important transport hubs.

A history at the Forth Bridges.

A history at the Forth Bridges.

With the rapid expansion of the railways in the 19th century, there was huge demand for a crossing that would allow trains to move quickly between Edinburgh and Fife on the east coast route.

The traditional ferry system obviously wasn’t suitable for rail transport, and proposals for a tunnel were also rejected. Engineer, Thomas Bouch, then set out plans for a suspension bridge across the Forth, and the foundation stone was laid in 1873.

READ MORE: FAQs: What you need to know about the Queensferry Crossing opening

Engineer, Thomas Bouch, then set out plans for a suspension bridge across the Forth, and the foundation stone was laid in 1873.

The crossing between North and South Queensferry was a busy ferry route from the 12th century up until the 1960s (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

The crossing between North and South Queensferry was a busy ferry route from the 12th century up until the 1960s (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

Bouch was also responsible for designing the Tay Bridge in Dundee, which opened in 1878. Disaster struck just one year later, when the Tay Bridge collapsed during a winter storm, killing 75 train passengers.

Confidence in Bouch wavered, and work soon stopped on the Forth Bridge, although the foundations for the original bridge can still be seen today from North Queensferry.

Despite the setback, desire for a new bridge continued to grow, and so engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, submitted a new design, for which building work began in 1883. The replacement design was a cantilever bridge. This wasn’t a new concept, but one of this scale had never been attempted before.

When it was built, the Forth Bridge was the longest cantilever bridge in the world – to this day, it is outranked only by the Quebec Bridge in Canada.

Plans for the original bridge fell through after the Tay Bridge disaster, but the current Forth Bridge was built soon after in the 1880s (Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Plans for the original bridge fell through after the Tay Bridge disaster, but the current Forth Bridge was built soon after in the 1880s (Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The Forth Bridge (not the Forth Rail Bridge as it is often incorrectly called) was also the first major structure in the UK to use steel rather than iron.

Around 60,000 tonnes of steel was required, sourced mostly from the Steel Company of Scotland in Glasgow, and Dalzell’s Iron and Steel Works in Motherwell.

Constructing the bridge was an enormous feat, which took the efforts of over 4,600 workers.

It is estimated that around 73 people lost their lives during the construction of the Forth Bridge, from falling, drowning, being crushed, being struck by a falling object, fire, or decompression sickness.

The Forth Bridge – which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was finally opened on 4 March 1890 by the Prince of Wales.

Not only did it create a route for local travellers, but the bridge also cut the rail journey time from London to Aberdeen from 13 hours to eight and a half hours.

These days, around 200 trains cross the Forth Bridge every day.

READ MORE: Queensferry Crossing illuminated to mark handover of bridge

A great deal of maintenance is required to keep the bridge running safely, but many people incorrectly assume that the bridge is constantly being repainted.

The local expression ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ refers to a never-ending task (stemming from the idea that as soon as repainting was finished, workers would return to the other end and begin all over again), however the bridge has only been fully repainted once in its life. In 2011, the structure was given a new coating which is designed to last for 25 years, so workers will no longer need to regularly repaint weathered sections of the bridge.

The next big hurdle for travelling across the Forth came in the 1920s, when cars began gaining popularity.

READ MORE: Queensferry Crossing to ‘rival San Francisco and Sydney’

Proposals for a road crossing were put forward as early as 1923, but various delays (including the Second World War) meant that construction of the Forth Road Bridge didn’t begin until 1958.

Like the rail bridge, the new Forth Road Bridge was a pioneering structure. The suspension bridge was the first of its kind in the UK, the longest outside of the USA, and the fourth longest in the world.

Based on the design used to create the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, nothing like it had ever been built in Europe before.

A specialist training school had to be set up in South Queensferry to teach workers how to properly spin cables together across the estuary in order to create the bridge’s support system.

Unlike the original rail bridge, however, the Forth Road Bridge hasn’t stood the test of time.

The number and weight of vehicles crossing the bridge has dramatically increased since it was designed in the 1950s, meaning the structure can’t keep up with the demands of modern transport.

After an inspection of the Forth Road Bridge in 2004, which showed major deterioration, planning began for a new crossing.

Keeping up with tradition, the new Queensferry Crossing will be the longest three-tower, cable-stayed bridge of its kind in the world when it is opened on 30 August.

The bridge’s name was chosen by public vote, and other shortlisted options included the Caledonia Bridge, the Firth of Forth Crossing, the Saltire Crossing and St Margaret’s Crossing. Once the Queensferry Crossing opens to traffic, the Forth Road Bridge will be reserved for public transport, cyclists and walkers.