Why No Suspension Bridges Over the Seine?

In the first half of the nineteenth century, France was a world leader in the design and construction of suspension bridges. And yet today not a single one of Paris’s nineteenth-century suspension bridges over the Seine remains. Why?

It was the image below that got me interested in this question. When a friend let me browse through his collection of early stereoviews of Paris, I found the above stereocard.

This old, faded photograph shows a very unusual bridge. Moving from right to left, we see three arched masonry spans. Above the top of the final masonry pier there is a short stubby tower that is part of a suspension bridge. This bridge continues on to the shore where a higher tower also supports the cables.

What was it? Where was it? I e-mailed the photograph to people I knew in Paris. Nobody had seen it before. One day in Paris, Philippa and I were having lunch in a crowded Parisian bistro with Adam Roberts, who writes the Invisible Paris blog, and we showed him an enlarged version of the image. He had never seen it before. The waiter and the two Parisian men at the next table also took a great interest in the photograph and an animated discussion ensued. The quest was good fun, but the mystery bridge was still a mystery.

Along the way, a retired bridge engineer friend told me about the 1839 bridge shown below, the Saint André-de-Cubzac bridge over the Dordogne River. It is one of many astounding French bridges from the early nineteenth century. The Bridgemeister website where I found this image rightly describes it as “perhaps one of the most fanciful suspension bridges ever built.” Looking at it, I wondered more and more why suspension bridges had vanished from Paris.

Then one day I found and bought the stereoview below, showing a suspension bridge. The handwriting on the back identified it as Pont Louis Philippe, Paris. It certainly wasn’t anything like the Pont Louis Philippe that stands today.

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