I recently visited Ironbridge Gorge in Great Britain. I’d heard about it decades ago and was finally able to see this important site in world history. The area is a bucolic river valley today, with the village of Ironbridge rising up a steep bank of the Severn River. But back in its industrial heyday, the landscape would have looked quite different… industrial waste, scattered equipment, machines belching smoke. It was famous for having more furnaces and forges within 2 miles of riverbank than anywhere else in the world.
The centerpiece of the area is the recently restored first iron bridge in the world, originally opened in 1781. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and property of English Heritage, the bridge is a wonder of 18th century technology. The US had nothing like it (and was just a little busy at that moment fighting a war for independence!).
Iron had been produced in the Severn valley since the time of Henry VIII. In 1709, a Quaker ironmaster decided to use coke, a byproduct of coal, instead of charcoal and with the change, the area soon became one of the most important industrial areas in the world during the 18th century.
As industrial traffic on the river increased, the area started to grow and the number of river crossings did not meet the demand. The erratic nature of the river with flooding at regular intervals meant ferry service was often interrupted. The river ruled the area. An Act of Parliament authorized a new bridge. Although work began to clear the site in 1777, the first ironwork probably did not go up until 1779. Where the iron was cast is not known for certain, probably 1 miles away at Abraham Darby’s furnace. Total amount of iron used was 378 tons (384 tonnes). Surprisingly, only one sketch of it under construction is known to exist. How the bridge was raised is still uncertain. Darby’s firm constructed the bridge and his accounts mention a large scaffold. Its design continues to intrigue engineering students.
The company that built the bridge promoted its feat with an 18th century media campaign, with public relations and advertising promoting the versatility of cast iron and the skills of the company. People from all over came to see this wonder of the world and artists and writers drew inspiration from its graceful appearance. Even future US president, Thomas Jefferson, when minister to France, bought engravings of the bridge from a friend in London.
The company charged its first toll on January 1, 1781. Perhaps it was Darby’s Quaker sentiments that made him add a footnote to the table of tolls, for it says that everyone must pay regardless of their status in society (royals, too). Unfortunately he had offered to cover cost overrun and construction of the bridge put Darby into debt for the rest of his life.
“But of the Iron Bridge over the Severn, which we crossed and where we stopped for half an hour, what shall I say? That it must be the admiration, as it is one of the wonders of the world…” John Byng, Viscount Torrington, 1784
The setting reminded me a bit of Harpers Ferry stateside in West Virginia, a former US armory complex located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The area of Ironbridge is filled with various attractions including the Blists Hill Victorian outdoor museum, a place I really wanted to see. But due to a late start, we ran out of time. Even so, it was fascinating to walk across the first iron bridge in the world.