How the historic Lansdowne Bridge was built on Indus River

Named after Viceroy of India Lord Lansdowne, the bridge between Sukkur and Rohri was opened on March 2, 1889.

When completed in 1889, the Lansdowne Bridge became the longest rigid girder bridge span in the world.

By John C. 

The Royal Commonwealth Society Library had acquired at auction a stunning presentation album commemorating the opening on 25 March 1889 of the Lansdowne Bridge, which spans the Indus River between Sukkur and Rohri in the Sindh province of Pakistan. It is signed by the engineer who superintended the construction, Frederick Ewart Robertson (1847-1912).

Rohri abutment from the east, 1887

After articling with a British railway engineer, Robertson joined the Indian Public Works Department in 1868, working on the North Western State Railway. He went on to an extremely successful career, serving as Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway, President of the Egyptian Railway Board and on the British Council of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

On horizontal tie, Bukkur, 200′ above water, 1888

During the British colonial era, the North Western Railway had been extended to Sukkur by 1879, but relied upon a steam ferry to cross the Indus to Rohri, which was limited, slow and unwieldy.

A crossing was considered essential to link Lahore with the major port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea, and the section where the Indus is divided by the island of Bukkur was chosen as the most advantageous. 

Bridging the smaller Sukkur channel was straightforward, since its rocky bottom provided a solid foundation for masonry piers, but spanning the wider Rohri channel was a more challenging task, since its silty bottom would not allow pillars to be employed.

Progress, Oct 1888

Between 1872 and 1882 various designs were considered, before one by the British civil engineer Sir Alexander Meadows Rendel (1829–1918) was accepted. Rendel had been appointed consulting engineer to the East Indian Railway during the late 1850s.  His work in India was distinguished by other major bridging projects, including the Upper Son Bridge of Patna, the Alexandra Bridge over the Chenab, the Hardinge Bridge over the Ganges, and the Empress Bridge over the Sutlej.  Rendel’s design for Lansdowne Bridge featured two anchored cantilevers, each 310 feet long, carrying a suspended span of 200 feet in the middle. The girder contract was awarded to Westwood, Baillie & Co. of London, who assembled the 170 feet tall cantilevers in their yard, amazing spectators, before shipping the parts to India. When completed in 1889, the Lansdowne Bridge became the longest rigid girder bridge span in the world.

Sadly six workers died during construction: four from falls and two from equipment falling upon them.  In monetary terms, the total cost was roughly 2.7 million rupees.

Erecting the center span, 1889

Every stage of this arduous engineering project is thoroughly documented in the album’s 65 photographs, beginning with the bridging of the Sukkur channel in 1885, and concluding with a two-part panorama of the completed Lansdowne Bridge.

The bridge was formally opened by Lord Reay, the Governor of Bombay, who deputized for the Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, after whom the bridge was named.

Reay unlocked an ornamental padlock, designed by J. L. Kipling, Principal of the Mayo School of Art (and father of the famous writer Rudyard Kipling), releasing the iron gates which restricted access to the bridge. Reay can be seen holding the padlock while Robertson holds the key.  Robertson’s second in command M.S.N. Hecquet also appears in the photo.  It should be possible to identify other members of the construction team in the album, such as Overseer A.D. Hecquet, Sub-Overseer Faiz Mahomed and assistant engineers P. Duncan, R. Egerton and J. Adam.  Robertson was created a Companion of the Indian Empire in recognition of the monumental task of completing the bridge, and eventually went into partnership with Rendel in 1898.

Opening ceremony, 1889

The album was commissioned, probably by the North Western Railway, to commemorate the opening of the bridge.  The vast majority of photographs were the work of G.W. Woodcroft of Bangalore.  This copy was presented by Robertson to a G. Riley as indicated by a manuscript dedication, ‘in recognition of the assistance received from him.’  It has proved impossible as yet to trace Riley, who may have been a private contractor, perhaps employed by Westwood, Baillie & Co.

Ayub Bridge, 1962, World Bank

The Lansdowne Bridge still functions, although rail traffic was transferred to the great steel Ayub arch bridge, built alongside it between 1960 and 1962, so close in fact, that from a distance, the two appear as one structure.  An image from another RCS collection records the final stages of its construction and it was opened by Pakistan’s President Muhammad Ayub Khan on 6 May 1962.  The acquisition of the Lansdowne Bridge album reinforces the RCS’s existing strengths in railway history, and particularly in South Asia, exemplified by important early photographs of the North Bengal State Railway, and the Nilgiri Railway, among others. The Lansdowne Bridge album was conserved before being digitized and made freely available on Cambridge Digital Library.


Courtesy: Cambridge University Library Special Collections

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