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The iconic Howrah Bridge

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In Photos: Here’s How The Iconic Howrah Bridge Came To Be 

As the Howrah Bridge turns 75, here’s a look at how the majestic structure, a pioneer of its time, was made.

5 min read

Comissioned in 1943, the Howrah Bridge connects Kolkata to the bustling town of Howrah, across the river Hooghly. Over the years, the Howrah Bridge has become synonymous with the city of Kolkata. Ask anybody in the city and they’ll tell you that it is a symbol of love, a sight of majesty and a sense of belonging.

Currently, the bridge is one of the busiest in the world and handles traffic of over 100,000 vehicles and over 150,000 thousand pedestrians. While it was renamed the Rabindra Setu on 14 June 1965, it continues to be popularly known as “The Howrah Bridge”. It is the sixth-largest cantilever bridge in the world right now.

The end of the 17th century saw the emergence of the city of Calcutta – formed by merging three villages – Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti. While Kolkata transformed from a small hamlet of artisans and the mercantile community to a commercial hub and metropolitan city- Howrah, across the Hooghly river, became its industrial satellite.

In view of the increasing traffic across the river, a committee was appointed in 1855-56 to review alternatives for constructing a bridge across it.

The legislative department of the then Government of Bengal passed the Howrah Bridge Act in 1871 giving the Lieutenant-Governor the right to have the bridge constructed with government capital under the aegis of the commissioners of the Calcutta Port Trust.

A contract was eventually assigned to Sir Bradford Leslie to build a pontoon or floating bridge. Different parts of the bridge were brought in from England and assembled in Calcutta. After multiple hurdles in the assembly process, the bridge was opened to the public on 17 October 1874.

The bridge was then 1528 ft long and 62 ft wide, with 7-foot wide pavements on either side.

However, since the early 20th century, the bridge started showing signs of deterioration. In 1906, the Commission of the Calcutta Port Trust, which maintained the bridge, appointed a committee to look into the matter. The committee submitted a report stating that the present width of the bridge was not sufficient to handle the major source of traffic – bullock carts.

The committee, after considering the financial aspects and traffic statistics, zeroed in on installing another form of a floating bridge. It decided to call for tenders from 23 firms for design and construction of the new bridge. A prize of money £ 3,000 (Rs. 45,000, at the then exchange rate) was announced for the firm whose design would be accepted.

The construction of the bridge was postponed due to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In 1921, a committee of engineers named the 'Mukherjee Committee' was formed, headed by Sir RN Mukherjee to re-look into the construction of the bridge.

In 1922, the New Howrah Bridge Commission was set up, to which the Mukherjee Committee submitted its report. In 1930 the Goode Committee was formed to investigate and report on the viability of constructing a cantilever bridge between Calcutta and Howrah. Based on their recommendation, British company, Rendel, Palmer and Tritton were asked to create a design for a suspension bridge.

Once the design was created, a global tender was floated. The lowest bid came from a German company, but due to increasing political tensions between Germany and Great Britain in 1935, it was not given the contract. A Howrah-based firm – the Braithwaite, Burn and Jessop Company was awarded the construction contract that year. The project began the year after.

The bridge did not have nuts and bolts and was formed by riveting the whole structure. It was to consume 26,500 tons of steel but the Second World War which ensued at the time meant that all the steel from England was diverted for war purposes, hence only 3,000 tonnes could be supplied by the country. Tata Steel was thus called on to deliver 23,000 tons of high-tensile alloy steel, known as Tiscrom. The entire delivery was made by the company in one go.

By the end of 1940, the erection of the cantilevered arms was commissioned and they were completed in mid-summer of 1941. The two halves of the suspended span, each 282 feet (86 m) long and weighing 2,000 tons, were built in December 1941.

The project was completed in 1942 and was opened to the public on 3 February 1943. The entire project cost 25 million rupees (2,463,887 pounds) and was considered to be a pioneer construction in India. The first vehicle to function on the bridge was a solitary tram.

Today, the bridge is known as the “Gateway to Kolkata” as it connects the city to the Howrah Railway Station. It has come to assume immense cultural significance in the city as many popular movies and songs were pictured with the bridge as the background.

The Kolkata Port Trust now looks after the maintenance of the bridge, responsible for carrying out elaborate maintenance and repair works. Over the years it has withstood the changes in mode of transportation and traffic density and silently borne the ravages of time. Yet it has successfully stood the test, remaining as functional and reliable as ever.

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