Stanisław Kierbedź (1810–1899) – less famous than his bridge
Warsaw was not lucky when it came to bridges. The first crossing, built at the times of King Sigismund II Augustus, linked the banks of the Vistula for thirty years before languidly drifting away with spring ice floe. All that was left was the Bridge Street, which, however, has not led to any bridge for four centuries. In the 16th century people were proud of that bridge, just as they were ashamed that they no longer had one in mid-19th century. The Kierbedź Bridge, named after its constructor, changed this.
The shame was even more painful given that one of the most experienced experts in bridge engineering was a Pole, Stanisław Kierbedź. In Tsarist Russia he came close to being considered a magician. He made a miracle of taming the fickle Neva River in Saint Petersburg. He built there a bridge which challenged specialists’ opinion that the Neva River, with its spring overflows and the water receding from the Baltic Sea, made it impossible. When work on the river crossing was finished, something weird happened. The most envious engineers who had been doubting the sense of the bridge building project from day one rented apartments overlooking the Polish construction. They didn’t intend to admire the complex structure. They were waiting for a sensation. They wanted to eyewitness the anticipated disaster, the moment when the whole construction came tumbling down the water.
They never saw it happen.
When the decision was taken to build the first iron bridge in Warsaw, it was obvious whom to commission for the project. Engineer Stanisław Kierbedź handled the Neva, so he would surely tame the Vistula. It was early 1860s. The work on an iron road from Saint Petersburg was winding down. The Warsaw municipality decided that the new bridge connecting the city’s left bank part with the Prague district would be an extension of this railway line, kept closed for horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians. If railway tracks had been laid there, Saint Petersburg would have had a railway link with Vienna and Paris.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed. The prospect of filling all city centre with smoke by letting steaming locomotives pass by the Royal Castle, the Sigismund Column and the Polish National Opera was frightening. The idea was dropped and work on a road bridge started right away. Nine-meter high trusses made of riveted, steel flat bars and weighing 4,600 tons were imported from France. The Varsovians were looking forward to the end of the works. By an unfortunate coincidence, the bridge was officially opened soon after the fall of the January Uprising. Three months earlier, Romuald Traugutt was executed on the slopes of the Citadel. Little wonder that the opening ceremony was the Russian army’s propaganda show of force, and was boycotted by Poles. Nevertheless, the grilled silhouette of the bridge blended in the city’s landscape. The Varsovians got quickly used to the one-off view of the “iron corridor,” with horse trams hurtling along.
Varsovians could feast their eyes on the graceful though huge bridge until 13 September 1944, when it collapsed blown up by the Nazis. Its pillars were solid enough to resist the destructive force of the explosives and were used for the post-war Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge, which still stands on them. Stanisław Kierbedź could feel like an accomplished engineer. Despite his service and decorations which he received from Tsarist Russia and despite living in Saint Petersburg, he never forgot that he was Polish. After late retirement he returned to Warsaw. He died in his flat at 151 Marszałkowska Street, never seeing another bridge provide a road crossing of the city’s river.
The bridge was officially called after Tsar Alexander II. Varsovians shunned the name from the very beginning, calling it the “Kierbedź Bridge.” Likewise, the almost fifty years younger Poniatowski Bridge, officially named the Tsar Nicholas Bridge, was dubbed “the third bridge.”
On 1 February 1944, two assassins of Franz Kutscher jumped from the bridge when surrounded by Germans. This scene was shown in the film “Assassination,” but it could not be filmed on the spot for the new bridge did not have the unique trusses. The film crew went to Torun. The Torun bridge proved a perfect stand-in, featuring also in the scene of a tank approaching the Kierbedź Bridge from the Prague district side in the legendary series “Four Tank-Men and a Dog.”
Kierbedź used an innovative caisson technology, which allowed construction workers to reach the riverbed and build brick pillars in a dry environment.
Apart from the Polish language, Stanisław Kierbedź was fluent in five other languages. He was a Pole and a Catholic, but he earned the highest honours in the Russian Empire, where Catholics were not held particularly dear.
Eight years on, the long-awaited railway bridge was built close to the Citadel, north from the Kierbedź Bridge.