The Bridges of Erfurt Part IV: Erfordia Oppidum Pontium- The Books of the City of Bridges

Krämpfertorbrücke in Erfurt. Photo taken in July 2010

After completing a tour of the city’s bridges and trying out all the delicacies at the shops on the Kraemerbruecke, we now come to our first book of the month in the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, which fits perfectly to this theme.  The interest of historic bridges in Erfurt on the part of the authors went back to the 1990s, when Germany was reunited and plans were in the making to preserve the remaining historic bridges in Erfurt, the state of Thuringia and the states of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Research was conducted on the bridges to determine their historic significance. This contributed to the decision of which bridges were to be renovated and which ones to replace. While the Kraemerbruecke was given special status in the  GDR and was renovated before 1989, almost all of the city’s bridges were not renovated until after German Reunification, and when that time came, the rehabilitation process was extensive and consuming.
Dietrich Baumbach and Hans-Joerg Vockrodt published their first book on bridges in Erfurt in 2000, entitled “Historische Bogen- und Gewölbebrücke der Stadt Erfurt” (English: Historic arch bridges in the City of Erfurt). This book focuses mainly on the technical details of the historic bridges in the city and provides an in-depth coverage on how the bridges were rehabilitated, including photos during the construction phase and after it was completed.  Naturally, one would have to conclude that historic bridges consisted of all bridge types that were built prior to 1945. Yet, as one can see in the previous three parts, the arch bridges in Erfurt far outnumber other pre-1945 bridge types by a ratio of 6 to 1. While there are 17 bridges in Erfurt and countless others in the suburbs that have arch types, there are only three truss bridges, one covered bridge and one cable-stayed pedestrian bridge that exist and are worth visiting as a touring pontist. Therefore, it is logical that the arch bridges received first priority and were profiled in the first literary masterpiece. 12 of the city’s 17 arch bridges were the focus of the book and how they were built and rebuilt, using brick and stone as material for an arch bridge. For those with unique ornamental features, like the Hollernzollern, Karls, Pfoertchen and Kraempfertor Bridges, the authors provide a detailed description of how the sculptures and ornamental lampposts were built and restored to their original form.  The 2000 edition was one of the first pieces that set the precedent for efforts to restore many of the state’s (and region’s) arch bridges, for while they were plentiful- even after World War II when many of them sustained considerable damage caused by the bombing- the majority of them fell into disarray caused by neglect during the Cold War period when the GDR existed. This was in part due to the scarcity of materials and technical know-how needed to restore them. It is contradictory to the American plan to modernize the cities at the expense of historic bridges, an initiative that started in the 1960s and included the resources needed to construct newer bridges.  While recent materials on restoring historic bridges (like: A Bridge Worth Saving: A Community Guide to Historic Bridge Preservation by Michael Mort) focuses on metal truss bridges, the first book on Erfurt’s bridges focuses on restoring arch bridges, but mainly those built of brick and stone. These are becoming a rare commodity universally as they are too narrow for cars to cross and many people want newer wider bridges to get them to their destination. Yet when reading the book and looking at the many ways the arch bridges are renovated, it will serve as an incentive for local agencies, engineers and contractors as well as preservation groups and historical societies to look at renovation as a tool for restoring these rare commodities and integrating them into their landscape and culture.

A railroad bridge over the Gera River in the suburb of Kühnhausen, north of Erfurt. Photo taken in June 2010

Little do most people realize that there is a history to every single piece of architecture that exists. It is like bread and butter. One does not know about a house, skyscraper or a bridge until looking at how it was built, how it became an integral fabric of the region’s history and culture and how it is identifiable to the landscape. In the second book “Brücken und Stege im alten Erfurt,” (Bridges in Old Town Erfurt) published in December of last year, Baumbach and Vockrodt shifted their focus on the historical aspect of Erfurt’s historic bridges, focusing not only on the existing bridges that one can see in the city, but also on those that either used to exist along the Wild Gera River before it was rechanneled and filled in to become today’s Yuri-Gagarin Ring or those that spanned the streams but were subsequentially replaced by today’s modern structures. Baumbach and Vockrodt went out of their way to profile almost each and every one of the bridges that existed in Erfurt, providing the reader with photos and paintings for each bridge profiled. Each one has a history of its own, whether it was part of one of the mills that existed next to it, or it was part of the ever-expanding streetcar network that was developed in the 1800s or even one of those whose historical value resulted in successful attempts to relocate them to be reused for recreational purposes. Here are some interesting facts about Erfurt’s bridges that may be of curiosity to the reader:
1. There were two covered bridges over the Wild Gera River before it was rechanneled in 1900: the Hospitalsteg and the Vogelsteg. Both were relocated as they originally served as pedestrian crossings: the former to the Little Venice Park north of the city center, the latter to Luisenpark south of the city center. The latter still exists today.
2. 36 notable bridges used to exist at one time when the Wild Gera was being rechanneled. 10 were along the Wild Gera and had to be removed when the Flutgraben was in service. The construction dates were between 1300 and 1500 for each one.
3. Only one notable arch bridge was replaced during the GDR times- the Lehmann Bridge. Built in the 1300s, it was one of the oldest arch bridges in Erfurt, next to the Kraemerbruecke and Ross Bridge. Despite government’s material rationing policies during the Cold War, the bridge’s substantial deterioration warranted an exception to the rule in 1977, with the bridge being replaced with today’s steel beam structure.
4. The Schutzturmschleuse Bridge was once a series of dams built to control the flow of water entering Erfurt. While Erfurt was located on the Ford of the Gera River, its location in the flat river valley made it prone to flooding. Most of these dams still exist, while the Schutzturmschleuse is now a partially-filled in bridge.
5. The Schlosserbruecke used to be another house bridge before it was altered: first as a pedestrian bridge and later (after it sustained heavy damage in World War II) as a multi-functional bridge, which still serves streetcar, automobile, cycler and pedestrian traffic today.
At the end, there is a directory, summarizing each of the bridges mentioned in the book, either through individual profiling or just a brief mention of the structure, containing the location of the bridges, bridge type and a brief history. This actually serves as a combination of quick reference and a starting point of the story before diving deeply into the topic of the city’s bridges. While a lot of information was found that could be found in the book, there are some bridges whose existence was found only in sketches and sources that are scarce and almost impossible to find. In some cases, some estimates were needed as the information was difficult to find; especially with regard to the bridges of the Wild Gera river, as they disappeared by 1900 thanks to the Flutgraben.

Both books provide a historical background on the development of bridges in Erfurt and identify the most important bridges in the city and how they contributed to its development as a whole. This includes the Kraemerbruecke, Karlsbruecke and those in the southern part of the city.  With as many bridges as the city has, it is no wonder that the nickname “Venice of the North” was given to the city of Erfurt as the city is just as big as its Italian counterpart, but has almost as many bridges. Yet profiling the 200 plus bridges in one book is a difficult challenge in itself, for on the count of modernization in the last three decades, up to half of the bridges in a city deserve some sort of recognition and two thirds of that number are usually documented in detail because of the history. An example is with the bridges in Pittsburgh and Hamburg, whose numbers far triple that of the bridges of Erfurt and Venice combined. Literature has been written on these bridges but using only a fraction of the number and focusing on the key historical structures one should see.

In the case of the bridges of Erfurt, two books were needed to cover the structures, first by focusing on the existing structures and their technical details and then discussing about the bridges in general, whose history ties in with the development of the city itself. The authors did a splendid job of covering the aspects but keeping the information simple and straight forward. This is important when writing a book about bridges that one should not only keep the historical and technical aspects together, but also keep it simple and easy to understand for the reader who may have little knowledge of the subject. Sometimes it is the easiest to add photos and other images  to simplify the explanations even further. Both of these books have a wide array of both in there- averaging two photos/images per page with the first few pages providing background information only.  Sometimes it works best to have a few pages of background information before profiling the bridges in photos/images. If one wants to write about bridges in a city or region and is unsure how to approach it, perhaps the two books on Erfurt’s bridges- the technical part and the historical part, may be a good reference point to provide some ideas for one’s own work.  In my experience, it always helps to have a frame of reference as a guidance for writing about this topic. It is unknown how many times I have referred to the two books for information or for reading pleasure, but since purchasing the first book in 2010 and the second in February of 2012, it has been more than enough times because of its interesting photos and the information that is thought provoking and useful.

The only caveat is the fact that the books are only in German. While it is easy for someone with substantial knowledge of the language, for non-German speakers, while the photos are interesting to look at, and one can understand some of the numbers and other detailed aspects, it would be interesting to have a version in  English or other languages as many people would take advantage of the two books and use them for reference purposes, especially for those needing help with ideas on preserving stone arch bridges.

A logical explanation to why the book is in German as well as some interesting facts about Erfurt, its bridges as well as those in Germany and some ways of maintaining them are found in the fifth and final part of the series on Erfurt’s bridges, when a sit-down interview with the two authors was conducted. You will be amazed at what they have to say about the topic of bridges, preservation and history.

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One Response to The Bridges of Erfurt Part IV: Erfordia Oppidum Pontium- The Books of the City of Bridges

  1. Pingback: Book of the Month for July 2012: Bridges: The Spans of North America by David Plowden | The Bridgehunter's Chronicles

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