From the very beginning, car owners were up against many challenges, including crossing rivers or waterbodies. While carts and horses could cross or be ferried, it was not an easy thing for motor vehicles. Moreover, till the 1930s the British government readily built bridges for train tracks but neglected road traffic. During the severe economic recession of 1929-39 that hit the country, they concentrated on building road bridges.
The British realised that if one place needed a major bridge, it was their capital city, Calcutta. It had to be linked to the west with the rest of the country. A bridge floating on pontoons (hollow metallic cylinders to support a bridge), the old Howrah Bridge was fabricated in England and constructed here. It survived the cataclysmic cyclone of 1874 and several accidents. It used to be opened up several times a day to let ships pass. Newspaper reports complained about the noise and dust (“the stench is unbearable and made even more so by the slow passage”, said one) but it still provided a way for carts – and cars (after 1900) – to travel west.
However, by the turn of the century it was clear that the narrow pontoon bridge had to be replaced. But the world war started. Repairs were taken up on the old bridge in 1917 and 1927. From 1922, plans were renewed for building the new bridge under Sir R N Mookerjee. The design team of British firm, Rendel, Palmer & Tritton under their chief draftsman, Mr S Walton won the contract. The global tender for construction was bagged by a German company but it was finally awarded to Braithwaite Burn & Jessop. Work started in 1936 – exactly 80 years ago. It was completed in 1943 using 23,000 tons of high-tensile alloy steel called Tiscrom supplied by Tata Steel.
The new bridge revolutionised driving. The 8-lane bridge (with tram tracks) was free from congestion and and most importantly, unlike the pontoon bridge, it did not require to shut down during inclement weather. It was high enough to allow ships of that time to pass below during low tide. Its foundation at the Kolkata end was set at 31.41 metres and at Howrah side, at 26.53 metres below ground level, setting new world records. All newspapers carried pictures of the new bridge. It was the 3rd longest cantilever bridge in the world then, and currently, the 6th longest and busiest in the world.
Meanwhile, work had started for a northern bridge for railway tracks across the river Hooghly. This was finally built as a road and rail bridge and known as Vivekananda Setu. It was originally called Willingdon Bridge but more popularly known as Bally Bridge. Linking Howrah (from Bally) with Dakshineswar, it was completed in December 1932. The 880 metre steel bridge established road and rail link between north/west India and Calcutta (now Sealdah) station for the first time. Construction work went on from 1926 to 1932. The builder was once again Braithwate & Company, Calcutta, and the cost, around Rs 1 crore. It allowed direct access to the Grand Trunk Road to motorists bypassing the congestion of Howrah, besides giving direct access to Dakshineswar Temple as well as the jute mills and adjoining hinterland to vehicles from the west.
Going up to Darjeeling was a major headache owing to the Teesta River. To make the route safer and better, the Coronation Bridge, also known as the Sevoke Bridge, was built in Darjeeling district across the Teesta between 1937-41. It was named so, to commemorate the coronation of King George VI. The alternative route it provided, was far less prone to accidents and landslides and greatly aided safe transportation in the Hills. The steel bridge was built by Darjeeling Division Public Works Department under John Chambers. The contractor was Gammon from Bombay. Unlike the other bridges, the two ends were fixed to the rock layers on either side of the river.
Crossing the rivers Damodar & Barakar
Much of the prosperity of Bengal was on account of the coal, mica and iron ore mines in the Chota Nagpur Plateau along the Damodar River, notorious for its floods and deep crossings. However, the pressure of business and profits led to building of bridges across rivers, first for carts and then for vehicles. Accessed only by the Grand Trunk Road, a major bridge was built of stone but was washed away in 1913 after torrential rain. There was traffic disruption for some years and vehicles crossed over using a ferry. Then, a second bridge was made of iron and used during the World War II (1939-45) before being destroyed by floods in 1946. A third bridge was built in the 1950s.
Another bridge on the Grand Trunk Road was over Barakar River, connecting Barakar/Asansol with Chirkunda in Jharkhand. A third bridge on Grand Trunk Road connected Kalipahari in Asansol to Nirsa in Dhanbad district and is now used by most motorists.
The Rupnarayan challenge
The river, Rupnarayan posed a major hurdle in the west and vehicles had to use roll-on-roll-off (RORO) ferries at several points to cross it, or travel way up to the north to bypass it before going west (Mumbai) or south (Madras). Kolaghat Bridge connected Calcutta and adjoining area to south and west India directly.
However, this bridge was built well after Independence in the late sixties, after the then chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy had put his foot down. Public Works Department (PWD) started construction in 1962 and completed it in 1967.
Even many years after Independence, motorists travelling by road to north Bengal had to depend on a ferry to get them across the Bhagirathi/Hooghly. I have done this crossing twice as a child with family elders. This is now a thing of the past with several bridges in place, like the 1km long Ishwar Gupta Setu (built in1989) at Bansberia on Kalyani Expressway.