The Chain Bridge in Budapest is one of the oldest bridges spanning over the river Danube. But what is its history? Why, and who was it built by? The idea for building a proper stone bridge over the Danube came from Count Szechenyi, who is simply referred to as the ‘Greatest Hungarian’ by Hungarians (he was a real inspirational and financial source for many of the decisive changes in Hungary in the 19th century).
That’s why the official name of the Chain Bridge is Szechenyi Lanchid, but shortened to ‘Lanchid’ (say ‘laants-heed‘) in the local vernacular. The Chain Bridge was built between 1840 and 1849, as the first permanent bridge in Hungary. Designed by an English man and supervised by a Scot, the Chain Bridge is still considered to be a Hungarian national symbol.
Although building a bridge today is considered to be a routine task, in the middle of the 19th century it was a huge effort, for various reasons. Just looking at the bridge you would not think how many years of thinking, negotiating, arguing, law making, money raising, etc. went into this simple yet beautiful structure. And today, the Banks of the Danube in Budapest is part of the UNESCO World Heritage, including the Chain Bridge (inscribed in 1987).
History of the Chain Bridge, Budapest
The iconic symbol of Budapest, seen on many a postcards, the Chain Bridge (Lanchid) was built in 1849. It was the first permanent bridge between the then separate two towns, Buda and Pest. Having a bridge between the two riverside towns made it easier to unite them as we know them today: Budapest. To be more precise, not only Buda and Pest jumped into a marriage in 1873, but also Old Buda, north of Buda, the former Roman town of Aquincum (now Obuda).
No Bridge, Pontoon …
Before the Chain Bridge was built, the typical bridge over the river Danube connecting Buda and Pest was a so called ship bridge held by flat bottomed keels. These were made of wood and had to rebuilt from time to time. In 1767, according to the historical records, the ship bridge was on 42 pontoons, and crossing the bridge was taxed. Each year, when the icy weather came, the pontoon bridge had to be taken apart. For 3-4 winter months, getting from Pest to Buda or the other way around, was only possible with ships. By the 19th century it was not an acceptable solution for the more modernised towns of Buda and Pest.
The metal structure of the Chain Bridge spans approx 380 meters (1,247 feet), and its width is 14.5 meters (48 feet). If your are a tourist from the UK, you may find the bridge familiar.
New Suspension Bridge, Imported from England
The Chain Bridge is a larger version of the suspension bridge in Marlow, UK, the Marlow Bridge, which was also designed by William Tierney Clark, one of the earliest designers of suspension bridges. But how come that one of the national symbols of Hungary was designed and engineered by English men? The truth is, Hungarian engineers in the mid 19th century had no experience in building bigger bridges, like a bridge spanning the wide river Danube. Many of them were also skeptical that such a wide bridge could be built without collapsing into the river. Floods on the river Danube were not infrequent, and the usual bridge structures – with many holes in them, as seen in the antiquity and the Middle Ages – were indeed not strong enough to withhold the powers of river floods. After all, the memories of the Big Flood of 1838 in Buda and Pest were very recent.
Hungarian Bridge Committee and Laws
Count Szechenyi initiated the establishment of the Hungarian Bridge Committee in the 1830s, and the Committee was set up in 1832 with a political, a financial and a technical department. Count Istvan Szechenyi went on several Bridge study tours in England, and saw the modern suspension bridges. Telford, one of the top bridge engineers in the mid 19th century in England, suggested using a suspension bridge to connect Buda and Pest in a flood-proof way, to reduce the number of pillars in the river, and to make the bridge more resistant against ice building up at the bridge pillars, against floods, etc.
In 1836 the Hungarian Parliament made a new law for Building a Permanent Bridge to connect Buda and Pest (law XXVI.). Count Szechenyi reached out to many Hungarian noble men and the citizens of Buda and Pest to support the construction of the bridge to the best of their knowledge, expertise, or financial resources. In 1837, he asked Gyorgy Sina to take care of the financial aspects of the new bridge. Sina accepted the challenge.
Banker Houses Finance the Chain Bridge
Baron Gyorgy Sina, aka Georgios Sinas, a nobleman, true merchant and a banker in Vienna, gave much of the money needed for the construction of the bridge. He was the founder of the Chain Bridge incorporated company (Lanchid Inc), and he successfully organized the financing of constructing the bridge by taking in the Viennese Salomon Rothschield and the Wodianer Bank House in Pest. He himself was providing much of the money himself. The coat of arms of the Sina Family is on the foot of the bridge. Needless to say, Georgios Sinas had vested interests, as the owner of the lands, and other financial investments in the vicinity of the bridge.
Which Design is Safe?
There were several bridge designs made for the new Danube bridge in Hungary, but the Committee could not decide on which should be the final one. In the end, Baron Sina commissioned two English bridge engineers to come to Pest, study the local riverside conditions and make suggestions for which design should be chosen. How complicated it was to build a reliable bridge is not only tangible with the lots of organizational work, but also in the expenses. Building the Lanchid bridge cost eventually 13x more in the 1840s than erecting the National Museum in the same years…
The winning design of the Chain Bridge was finally accepted by the Lanchid Committee in 1838, and the contract for building the Chain Bridge was signed in 1840 by Archduke Joseph, the Palatine of Hungary, Baron Sina, the head of the Chain Bridge Inc. According to the contract, crossing the bridge would be taxed to finance the construction and maintenance costs.
The construction works started in 1840, supervised by a Scottish engineer, Adam Clark (hence the name of the square between the Tunnel and the Chain Bridge). Yet, it took almost 10 years to build the first permanent bridge of Budapest: the opening ceremony of the Chain Bridge in Budapest was on Nov 20, 1849.
Building the bridge did not go without accidents. In July 1848, Count Szechenyi himself, along with other bridge workers, were washed into the river Danube when one of the chains, weighing 794 tons, fell back on the work bench, smashing the wooden structure and bringing down the nearby workers. One worker died, the rest was washed into the river. Mr Clark was used to such accidents in England (especially with implementing the chains). However, Count Szechenyi, who saw the symbolical prosperity and fate of the Hungarian nation in the bridge (well, he was a great thinker, and a very sensitive man at the same time), saw it as a bad omen, and could never really recover from this ill fated accident.
1849: Exploded Before Opened?
In 1848 and 1849 most of the country was engulfed in the biggest revolt against the Hapsburg empire: Hungary wanted out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and especially had enough of being under Austrian rule. So the revolution and the big battles did not help in finishing the construction of the bridge too much. As part of the national fever sweeping through Hungarians, many locals went on a demonstration to make the English workers go home, and take over the work themselves. Sounds familiar, right? A typical protective gesture, without too much consideration about skills, and expertise. Luckily Count Szechenyi managed to talk the demonstrators out. Then Kossuth came to borrow some of the engineers to build cannons for the revolution and the upcoming battles. In January 1849, the Chain Bridge was not ready yet when 70 thousand Austrian soldiers went marching through the unfinished structure…
In April, General Hentzi was preparing against the Hungarian troops, and it was feared that the Chain Bridge would be exploded. Hentzi had gunpowder placed in the bridge indeed, and shot at the Pest side from the Buda Castle, hitting the new bridge too. But strangely enough, it was not Hentzi that took the credit for partly exploding the bridge. One day, on a lovely May morning, when the Buda Castle was already lost in the battle, the Austrian Colonel Alnoch von Edelstadt was walking on the bridge, smoking his favourite cigar. And then he dropped it. Right into the gunpowder box. Yes, he died. But most of the bridge was not damaged, just a chunk of it (80 feet / 24m). The Hungarian general, General Gorgey commanded to re-build the Chain Bridge. Adam Clark resumed the work in late May, 1849, and he started the work by forbidding the traffic on the bridge (by that time, many locals got used to crossing the almost finished bridge).
When the Hungarian Revolution turned into a failure later in the summer of 1849, a Hungarian general ordered Clark to explode the bridge. Clark, however, managed to convince the general, that the bridge can be made unusable for a few days without killing it: he put the bridge on ships and moved them 2 miles.
Ironically, the Chain Bridge of Budapest, the biggest national effort of the Reformists of the 1830s and 1840s in Hungary, was opened by the most despised and hated Austrian General, General Haynau, in November 1849. Haynau, called the “Hyena of Brescia” and the “Hangman of Arad” for his brutality, was the man who hanged the leaders of the lost Hungarian revolution. Can you imagine what it may have felt like to see him open the pride of Buda and Pest, the bridge of the hardest ever national effort in Hungary? Can you wonder that the Hungarian painter, Miklos Barabas chose to paint the optimistic placement of the cornerstone at the foundation of the Chain Bridge rather than the opening ceremony?
To boot, Count Szechenyi, the man behind the bridge, the soul of the nation, could never step on the completed Chain Bridge. He suffered a nervous breakdown and fell into serious depression. In 1860, he took his own life.
It is worth crossing the bridge on foot, a really nice walk by day or by night. Alternatively, you can take a ride on buses number 16 or 105 (both will take you up to the Buda Castle Hill too).
The Chain Bridge was ceremonially opened in 1849, but something was missing. The guards. Nobody was taking care of the bridge, so in 1852 along came the lions. Again, you would think, the design came from the Brits. The stone lion statues seem like (smaller) reproductions of the famous Trafalgar Square lions. But the lions of the Chain Bridge, made by Janos Marschalko sculptor, were made a few years earlier.
Let’s turn the time wheel. It is WW2, the Siege of Budapest, and the bridge is blown up by the Nazis, no bridge to cross in 1945. As you can see in the photo, not only was the Chain Bridge blasted but also the Buda Castle in the background. After some years of shock, and poverty created by the World War, the historical Lanchid was finally restored in 1949, and reopened on its 100th anniversary.
During the Communist era, the original Kossuth coats of arms were replaced with Communist style coats of arms, but in 1996 the historical Kossuth versions were restored.
In recent years, Lanchid was turned into a summer festival venue (Summer on the Chain Bridge / Nyar a Lanchidon Festival), at least for a while, and is also the popular venue of stunning events, like the special manouever airplane stunts of Peter Besenyei Hungarian stunt pilot, who managed to fly through under the bridge by turning the plane upside down as part of the spectacles in the Budapest Red Bull Air Race.
As a fantastic location, you can see it in some more well known film shots (I Spy), and video clips of pop stars, like Kathy Perry’s song entitled Firework.
The Chain Bridge is most beautiful on August 20, when, as part of the biggest Hungarian national celebrations, there are fireworks over the river Danube, in the centre of Budapest, between the Margaret Bridge and the Petofi Bridge.
The Chain Bridge of Budapest may be the oldest of the Danube bridges in Hungary, but Budapest has several beautiful bridges. See the Liberty Bridge.
See more about Budapest Aug 20 Fireworks.
Long live the Chain Bridge!
The History of the Budapest Danube Bridges by Gabor Pall, 1956 (online in Hungarian here) – Lanchid Booklets
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge and Adam Clark by Imre Gall and Szilvia Andrea Hollo (mostly relying on the above work by Gabor Pall)