There is a battle going in on Dieppe and it’s over a bridge. Not on it, but because of it. A battle of heritage, hydraulics and hope.
Linking Dieppe to Pollet
The Pont Colbert has linked Dieppe to the old Pollet district for over 100 years. Pollet was for centuries the home for Dieppe’s fishermen, sailors and their families. They had their own language, songs and stories. The Polletaise were recognisable by their costume and the area known as much for the riotous celebrations of sailors back from long months at sea, as for the cramped housing and constant smell of fish.
The Pollet was rough, tough and essential to Dieppe’s success.
Making way for progress
The Polletaise were rightly horrified when plans to develop the port in 1880 included knocking down 173 of their houses to make room for a new channel, dry dock and basin. Of course as the poorest members of Dieppe’s society they had no say and the destruction went ahead. Pollet was now separated form Dieppe by a 40ft channel.
In 1883 the municipality agreed a new bridge was need to link Pollet with Dieppe and plans were made for Grand Pont, later named the Pont Colbert. The bridge was a modern marvel, designed to swing open, powered by hydraulics.
Marvel of 19th century engineering
The bridge was designed by architect and engineer Paul Alexandre and assembled in only four months in 1888. The main structure was built by the Company of Bridges and Iron works (now Eiffage Metal Construction) who’s bid undercut that of Gustave Eiffel, while the mechanism was made by Fives-Lille Cail Co., builders of the Pont Levant lift bridge in Paris.
A staggering 70.5m in length and made of wrought iron, Pont Colbert briefly held the swing bridge world record until the 90m Arenc was opened in Marseilles.
The mechanism – cousin to Tower Bridge
The hydraulic mechanism, just like that of Tower Bridge in London, turns Pont Colbert using the power of the channel water. Two ‘pontiers’ bridgemen operate the bridge, their skills passed down generation to generation since 1889. Opening Pont Colbert takes just 2-3 minutes, but this time can be cut to 90 seconds.
In winter, in order to prevent the risk of freezing which could jam the mechanism, manure is used for insulation. If temperatures drop lower than -8°C, a brazier is bought in.
The bridge was officially inaugurated in 1925 and named the Pont Colbert in homage to Jean-Baptise Colbert. He was an official of King Louis XIV who ensured the port was rebuilt and expanded after a terrible storm clogged it up with shingle in the 17th century.
Life of a bridge
There have been some changes; in 1929 the steam engines that filled the two hydraulic cylinders with water were replaced with electric pumps. The original bridge was 810 tons but this increased when pedestrian walkways were added (1938) then decreased a little when the wooden deck was replaced with grating in 1980.
The Pont Colbert and the next bridge, the Ango, were dynamited by the departing German army in 1944. Fortunately only a 12m section collapsed but the pivot was damaged. After the war, because of the lack of manpower and raw materials, it took two years for the bridge to be rebuilt. It was back in service in 1947.
A new century and an old bridge in danger
At the beginning of the new century the bridge was unknowingly under review. Around 12,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily, was it up to the job?
In 2009 the Le Syndicat mixte du port de Dieppe (Joint Syndicate of the Port) and the municipality made an announcement. They planned to demolish the Pont Colbert and replace it with a modern bridge. The mayor of Dieppe said he was “open to any proposal likely to offer a second life to the metal structure“.
Was the town hall surprised by the local’s reaction? The bridge, now a rare example of 19th century ingenuity, still works well and is a much loved part of Dieppe’s heritage.
Comité de sauvegarde du pont Colbert – Committee for the Safeguarding of Colbert bridge – was set up and campaigned passionately to save this, the last hydraulic turning bridge in Europe. Thanks to their hard work the bridge was added to the inventory of historical monument’s list in February 2017.
But what makes the Pont Colbert truly unique, is not safe.
Plans to automate the bridge are still being discussed. There is a strong chance the hydraulics will be taken away and become a metal relic, a disconnected sculpture lost to its heritage, ‘saved’ in a distant museum.
The hydraulics still work smoothly and spare parts are made locally. The cost of automating the Pont Colbert is estimated at 3m Euros, equivalent to the cost of 20 years using the existing mechanism.
The campaign continues.
The bridge today
While the future of the mechanism is uncertain, the bridge works quietly on. A few times every day a bridgeman signals across to his partner, opening and closing Pont Colbert with slick precision. As a crowd of pedestrians gather he smiles and jokes with them, the centre of this old ceremony, appreciated all the more for the knowledge that one day, it could be for the last time.
Find out more about the bridge on the Pont Colbert website (Fr).
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About the campaign on Normandy.fr (Fr)
The bridge in action