Book/Documentary of the Month: A Tour of the Rhine

Hollernzollernbruecke and Cathedral in Cologne Photo taken in March 2010

There are many ways to write a book on bridges, let alone do a documentary for a TV program. One can focus on one bridge and its history, but that is more for locals who are closely attached to the bridge. One can focus on a region with a handful of bridges, like writing about bridges in a county or district. Again, the main focus would be the locals, but it would draw some attention from other bridge enthusiasts. As the region gets bigger, so do the number of people who are closely tied to the bridges, and the people from outside who are interested in these sturctures.

However, if you want to focus on bridges along the river, like we have here along the Rhine River, this is where one has to be walk a fine line. While documentaries like the one televised by German Public TV Station WDR can draw hundreds of thousands of viewers to the region, one has to be careful that the people do not become bored with each and every single bridge that is documented and told in the language that everyone can simply understand. This does not mean that it is impossible to talk about a tour of bridges along the rivers. The problem is when the length of the rivers are longer and there are more crossings, then one really needs to divide the project into segments dealing with region, history and in a certain degree, importance to the community.

One of the most successful projects (and one that will be mentioned later in the Chronicles) is a two-volume book written by a former Iowa teacher, Mary Costello, on the bridges of the Mississippi River. Her book featured sketches of bridges she drew while on tour and some history to each one, yet it was divided unto the bridges along the Lower Mississippi (Gulf of Mexico to Iowa) and the Upper Mississippi (Iowa to Lake Itasca, Minnesota, where the river began). But what about another long river, the Rhine River?

For 1200 kilometers (or 760 miles), the Rhine starts in the Swiss Canton of Grisons in the southeastern part of Switzerland in the Alpine region and makes its way north, forming borders with Liechtenstein and Austria before entering Lake Constance and forming the border with Germany. After Basel, the river creates a border between the Bundesrepublik and France before flowing into Germany after Karlsruhe. After passing through Mannheim, Mainz, and Frankfurt, the river creates a deep gorge which slithers its way from Bingen to Bonn and later through the industrial metropolises of Duesseldorf, Cologne and Leverkusen.  After turning west from there, it enters the Netherlands, where after passing through Rotterdam and Utrecht, it creates a delta where the river empties into the North Sea near Katwijk.  Nearly 100 bridges cross the Rhine, half of them in Germany. Each of them has a history of its own, not only in terms of its design and construction, but also its involvement in history.

When WDR (an arm of Berlin-based German public TV channel ARD with its branch office in Cologne) produced the two-part documentary on the Rhine River crossings in 2010, it was aware of the fact that it had to narrow its focus to only a few bridges, for each one had its own personal history to it, and the broadcasters there were aware that they could not afford to lose their audience with too many bridges, nor get into conflict with other German public TV stations who could benefit from this experience, like HR, which covers Hesse and Rheinland Palatinate and SWR, which covers the Saarland and Baden Wurttemberg. Therefore, WDR focused its bridge documentary on just the bridges in North Rhine-Westphalia, covering the bridges of Cologne, Duesseldorf and Duisburg.

The End Result?

A two part series where the first part focuses on the historical aspect. The story there starts in 1945 where the Nazis, in a desparate attempt to fend off the Allied Troops that were enchroaching the country, blew up any bridges along the Rhine that were not destroyed. Yet the mission was unsuccessful because of one of the last standing bridges at Remagen, the Ludendorff Railway Bridge, which the Americans captured on 7 March, 1945. Yet the bridge collapsed 10 days later but not before the troops constructed the bridge heads on both sides of the Rhine so that they could construct a pontoon bridge in its place. The original bridge heads were kept in place and is now a memorial.

Love locks on the Hollernzollern Bridge

The bridges laid in ruins together with the cities that were bombed out. Yet, one bridge, the Hollernzollern Bridge was rebuilt, using the through arch spans that were bombed off the piers and were sitting in the Rhine. Originally consisting of two three-span arch bridges, an additional one was added in the 1950s and today is the key link for trains travelling to Frankfurt and points to the east of Cologne Central Station. The Bridge serves as a symbol of love, as the railings are covered with padlocks with signs of love written all over them. Legend has it when lovers meet, the padlock was locked on the fenced railing with the keys thrown into the Rhine.

Oblique view with the statue and stone arch approach span on the far right. Photo taken from Cologne Main Station.

But the first part also featured a tour of the bridges, inspected by the city engineer on a regular basis to determine how stable the structure is and what repairs are recommended. Marc Neumann, the city engineer serving Cologne provided a tour of the inside portion of the Zoo Bridge in Cologne, one of the most heavily traveled vehicular bridges in Cologne that was built in 1962 and is a box girder bridge, the first built in Germany at that time. Other highway bridges in Cologne have dealt with problems with increased traffic and the city has desperately tried to keep up the pace by constant maintenance of the bridge, as shown with the Severin Bridge, a cable-stayed suspension bridge that was the first post-war modern bridge built over the Rhine in Cologne. The 1959 structure was the focus of structural issues with its stayed cables, which needed to be replaced with the rest of the bridge being painted lime green afterwards. The purpose: to protect the bridge from the salt and other debris that have a potential to make the bridge rust and corrode.

The second part of the series focused on other bridges in the state. Apart from the ones at Remagen, there were many cable-stayed and steel arch bridges that were mentioned in the documentary. While the Theodore Heuss Bridge, built in 1957, was the first cable-stayed suspension bridge built in Germany, there are two bridges are worth mentioning: The Bridge of Solidarity in Duisburg and the Oberkasseler Bridge in Duesseldorf. The Oberkasseler Bridge was built in 1973 replacing an ornamental arch bridge built in 1909 that was structurally deficient. The bridge was built alongside the old structure on the south end and after the old bridge was razed, the entire cable-stayed bridge featuring a set of towers planted in the middle of the roadway, was moved 47.5 meters to the original location of the 1909 bridge, a feat unimaginable for a bridge of that size and length, at 617 meters.  The Bridge of Solidarity in Duisburg was built in 1950 replacing a similar bridge built in 1936. Yet the name stamms from a group of protesters who blocked traffic to the bridge to protest the closing of a steel plant nearby. From 10 December, 1987 until 20 January, 1988 the workers walked the picket line on the bridge and the nearby company they had worked, resulting in the state government discussing about the crisis in the steel industry and the bridge being renamed at the request of the protesters. A unique action that one can rarely see today unless one is in southern Europe protesting the European Union’s bailout package with the conditions, as seen in Spain, Greece and Cypern.

The Rhine Bridges in North Rhine-Westphalia are unique in a way that one has to go beyond the appearance of each structure to look at its history, how they were built and rebuilt, and how they are integrated into the lives of the people today. While focusing on safety and history were the key elements of the document series, the report also looked at how the people and their bridges go together, whether it is a person living inside a bridge or if there are musicians performing inside or underneath the bridge- both were found at Zoo Bridge in Cologne. The Rhine bridges in North Rhine-Westphalia, once a pile a rubble because of the war, are now a part of the lives of the residents who use it regularly to get from point A to point B. And even if we are in the post-modern era where sleek modern designs dominate the land and cityscapes, the memories of the bridges, how they looked like in the past and how they look like now will remain in their memories for generations to come.

With this in mind, I would like to close with a couple questions for the forum, and for those interested in producing a thorough and history and culturally enriched documentary similar to what was produced by WDR on the Rhine Bridges of North Rhine-Westphalia. The documentary covered many key points that were important for people to know about bridges, infrastructure, safety, culture and history, giving them some interest and perhaps an incentive to pursue something that is similar to what was shown on TV. But the questions posed here are something different from what was profiled here. Keeping the documentary in mind:

1. How would you do a documentary on bridges along the river? Would you chop the river up into segments or keep it the same? Which aspects would you include?

2. When looking at the documentaries enclosed below (in German), what is your opinion of the documentary? What words of advice would you give to people wanting to do what WDR did with the Rhine? This applies not only to the Rhine itself but other rivers.

3. Which other rivers would you imagine doing a documentary on apart from the Rhine and Mississippi Rivers?

Links:

http://www.wdr.de/tv/wdrdok_af/sendungsbeitraege/2013/0222/Brueckengeschichten_vom_Rhein.jsp

http://www.wdr.de/tv/wdrdok_af/sendungsbeitraege/2013/0301/brueckengeschichten_vom_rhein-helden.jsp

Rhein River Crossings to see (in NRW):

Ludendorff Bridge

Severin Bridge

Hollernzollern Bridge

Zoo Bridge

Theodor-Heuss Bridge

Bridge of Solidarity

Oberkasseler Bridge

Griethausen Railway Bridge

These are the bridges mentioned in the TV documentary. There are dozens of others that were not mentioned but should be visited. Please click on the Rhine River Crossings for more details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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