Dömitz Railroad Bridge

All photos taken in August 2020

And now the answer to the question about the spans of the Dömitz and its history:

The Dömitz Railroad Bridge is one of the most unique bridges that has a place in architectural history. It also served as a tragedy in German history for its unique value became a burden due to the bombs that literally cut the bridge down in size by almost half the span. It was meant to connect two German states by crossing the mighty River Elbe and carry railway traffic between Berlin and the Baltic Sea coast via Buchholz, Ludwigslust Lüneburg and Wittenberge. Today, the rail service no longer exists but the bridge remains today, serving as a reminder of the what-ifs that forever exist, especially as bombs and borders ended the bridge’s function but has since become a monument that represents architectural beauty but also two wars that ended its functional life.

Construction of the railroad bridge began on September 8th, 1870 oversawn by Friedrich Neuhaus (1797- 1876), as part of the project to expand the rail line to Ludwigslust and points going northwest. Ernst Häseler was the person who designed the multiple-span bridge.  The project lasted 2.5 years and was opened to traffic on 29 August, 1873. Four months later on 18 December, 1873, the first passenger train crossed the newly built structure over the Elbe. The bridge was built using two tracks, yet only one track was used for passenger train service until 1877.  

The bridge was one of the first steel structures built in Germany, having been built at the same time as the Eads Bridge in St. Louis in the USA, a three-span steel bridge spanning the Mississippi River and was considered the first steel bridge ever built in the US. That bridge was built in 1874 after five years of construction.  

Eads Bridge in St. Louis. Photo taken in 2011

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The steel provider for the railroad bridge in Dömitz was based in Duisburg in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Hackort Steel, which was founded by Johann Caspar Harkort, was in its prime with bridge construction, having built several major bridges, including the Hammer Bridge near Dortmund, the bridges over the River Elbe in Hamburg, the Deutz Swing Bridge in Cologne and the Glienicke Bridge between Potsdam and Berlin. The last example was also an East-West German bridge crossing during the Cold War. Häseler himself had previously built another Elbe River crossing at Niederwartha (near Dresden) in 1864 before taking to task with the bridge in Dömitz.

The total length of the Dömitz Railroad Bridge upon completion in 1873 was 1050 meters, equivalent to 3445 feet.  When the bridge opened in August 1873, it was the longest bridge in Germany.

The total number of spans for the bridge was 25.  Arranged from west to east (Lower Saxony to Mecklenburg-Pommerania (MV)) the bridge consisted of the following:

16 Parker pony trusses (each span 33.9 meters)

4 Schwedler through trusses (each span 67.8 meters)

1 deck plate girder that functioned as a swing span allowing ships to pass (36.4 meters total), and

4 Parker pony trusses (each span 33.9 meters)

A closer look at the gusset plate at the lower chord.

For the truss spans, the connections are mostly riveted but some of the spans also had welded connections. The Schwedler Truss Bridge was first used here since Johann Wilhelm Schwedler had invented the design in 1851. It was given an award and a patent during the Paris World Exhibition in 1867.

An overview of the Schwedler through truss spans. Photo by: Güwy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

For each portal end of the bridge, there was a series of bridge tender houses, built with a massive series of merlons, embrasures, casemates and towers with arched shaped windows and rooms for the tenders. All of which was made with red brick.  Although such a bridge house was typical for German railroad bridges, wars combined with progression of modern architecture and infrastructure rendered them useless and only a handful of them remain without a bridge span going through it. The Dömitz Railroad Bridge is the last existing bridge that has a bridge tender house and a span going through the portal even though the railroad no longer is in service and it applies to only the Lower Saxony side.

Side view of the bridge tender’s house on the Lower Saxony (western) side. This was restored in 2018

Despite high expections by the bridge’s owner, the Berlin-Hamburg Railway Company (BHE), that a high number of trains would cross the Elbe at Dömitz, only five trains a day used the bridge daily. The increasing number of cars plus a demand for a vehicular bridge from Dömitz to Lower Saxony warranted a roadway bridge that was built one kilometer from the railroad bridge in 1936. That bridge was 990 meters long and features spans that are similar to the present-day bridge that was built in 1992: a series of beam spans plus a through arch main span over the Elbe.

The Dömitz Highway Bridge, built in 1992 and mimicking the 1936 span

The railroad bridge and the railroad line between Lüneburg and Ludwigslust continued to be in service for 72 years. Yet it met a demise that was induced through warfare, division and lastly, barriers that, like the Berlin Wall, Germans on both sides had to live with for almost a half century.  Had the bridge been intact, the rail line would have remained in service and the bridge in operation, even though rehabilitation would have been necessary at some point in time.

The easternmost of the remaining 16 pony truss spans

On 20 April, 1945, five US fighter jets attacked the town of Dömitz and dropped bombs onto both the railroad bridge as well as the highway bridge in an attempt to stop the fleeing Nazi soldiers. While the main span of the highway bridge was destroyed, bombs took out one of the through truss spans and part of the swing span, causing the latter to tilt onto its side.  This was just the beginning of the railroad bridge’s demise. The Potsdam Conference of 1946 resulted in Germany being divided into East and West, with portions of the border running along the River Elbe and through the bridge. The eastern half became a Communist state under control of the Soviet Union, while the western half became a state of democracy under control of the US, Great Britain and France. Eventually, the two Germanys were established in 1949, yet the fate of the bridge had long since been sealed. 

Remains of the MV/ Dömitz approach of the bridge.

In 1947-48, the through truss span bombed by the fighter jets was removed together with the rubble in the Elbe. 30 years later, the western half of the railroad bridge, now owned by the German Federal Railways (Bundesbahn), experienced the removal of the remaining three through truss spans, fearing theese spans could collapse on their own. End result is what we see today: the remaining 16 pony truss spans on the Lower Saxony side, ending at the shores of the Elbe. 

On the eastern side of the Elbe, the East German government ordered the removal of the swing span and the remaining four pony truss spans and their piers. In addition, the bridge towers were torn down completely. This was done in 1987 and as part of the plan to secure and strengthen the border with its western neighbor to keep residents from fleeing to the Lower Saxony.  For five years until the opening of the new highway bridge in 1992, crossing the Elbe into Lower Saxony was considered impossible due to fencing and miles of watchtowers with armed guards on 24-hour watch. Even when Germany was reunited on 3 October, 1990, the nearest Elbe River crossings were at Lauenburg near Hamburg and Wittenberge- each location were at least 50 kilometers away!

For 20 years, the remains of the Dömitz Railroad Bridge was owned by the newly formed German Railways (Deutsche Bahn). But on 10 April, 2010, a Dutch businessman, Toni Bienemann, bought the bridge property from the Bahn for 305,000 Euros. Since then, the bridge has been under his ownership, and Bienemann himself plans to revitalize the structure by not only making it a monument and tourist attraction. Already in 2018, the bridge towers were restored to their original glory after years of decay and neglect.  The bridge is listed as a technical monument, protected by German Heritage Laws (Denkmalschutz), yet it is one structure that one needs to visit to understand its history.

Visiting the bridge for the first time, I was reminded by Satolli Glassmeyer’s famous saying for History in your Own Backyard: “Travel Slowly, Stop Often.” The reason behind it was that many of us tend to rush through places or even pass it enroute to a larger destiny. We traveled to the Baltic Sea traveling along the busiest Motorways in Germany: The A 7, putting up with dozens of miles of traffic jams and overcrowded rest areas. Even at our final destination, the beaches were overcrowded at times and overnight Corona parties prompted the enforcement of bans of parties, grills and “herd camping” on the beaches. Going back to our home in Saxony, we decided to take the roads less traveled and it made a world of difference.

This bridge was one of our two stops on our “backroad” trip home and we spent a good solid hour photographing it, walking the bridge’s distance and talking politics, society and the like along the way. If one wants to learn about architecture- or even convince the other why bridges and architecture is his/her passion, this bridge is the place to go. If one wants to learn about modern German history without visiting the Berlin Wall, this bridge is the place to go. Given its proximity and the landscape of the River Elbe, with its tall grass and forests, if you are a nature lover or an avid cyclist, this bridge is the place to go.

The Dömitz Bridge fits the typical drive-by-the-place-without-stopping location where if one even has a picnic at the spot, the stop is worth it. Sometimes one just has to take some time at a historic place like this to appreciate what we’ve accomplished as engineers and architects and awe at how such works of art are destroyed in an instant for political gain. We’ve seen memorials and monuments at places along the former East-West border, as well as pieces of the Berlin Wall still standing, but visiting a place like the Dömitz Railroad Bridge, takes you back into time when we had more bridges than borders and we were able to travel freely by train. It also takes you back to the time when we had division because of a government’s feeble and eventually failed attempts at holding its residents hostage- and for 28 years from 1961 until 1989.

But there’s another reason why we should stop often at places like the Dömitz Railroad Bridge, and one we will indeed stop at in the future as we take the backroads back to the Baltic and North Sea region: With the bridge towers restored, plans are in the making to rehabilitate the bridge in its entirety, which would be a first in its nearly 150-year history. It includes redoing the bridge piers whose vegetation has taken over in some spots. Then there’s the in-kind restoration of the trusses and lastly, converting the bridge into a pier that will take tourists to the River Elbe. This project will take at least a decade to complete and it will be in the millions of Euros. Still, Mr. Bienemann wishes to proceed as he wants to keep the bridge in tact and make it a tourist attraction, because of his interest in history and preserving what is left of it. 🙂

And it’s another reason to stay off the motorway and have a look once it’s finished. One just needs an hour from Hamburg or Schwerin or an hour from the Motorway A7. While the bridge is receiving a sizable number of tourists during our visit, many others would rather visit the Europa Theme Park near Soltau along the motorway. This is because of the signage on the Motorway. Yet another signage to the town of Dömitz and its prized bridge will give tourists another incentive to veer away from traffic jams and overcrowded rest areas. But even without that, travels should focus on the little things that make history of a region or country great. It’s fun to get a dip in the water, but it’s a lot more fun to stop at some places like this wonderful bridge and have a look around. Therefore, take the backroads and take a break from time to time. We can experience more that way.

To look at more photos of the Dömitz Railroad Bridge, click here. It will take you to the photo album which contains details of the bridge taken by the author and his family.

Sources:

To read more on the bridge, here are some links to the sources, many of them are in German, however, some are laden with pictures of the bridge, including its removal in the 1970s and 80s:

Domitz Railroad Bridge Removal:

https://www.beim-alten-bgs.de/Zu_den_Kameradenseiten/92_Hans-Jurgen_Gienke/92_Sprengung_Brucke/92_sprengung_brucke.html

Peja Producten:

http://www.pejaproducten.com/2018/01/10/die-domitzer-eisenbahnbrucke

Monument Online:

https://www.monumente-online.de/de/ausgaben/2019/3/Eisenbahnbruecke_Doemitz.php

Geschichtsspuren.de (Traces of German History):

https://www.geschichtsspuren.de/artikel/verkehrsgeschichte/52-doemitz-eisenbahnbruecke.html

Web Archive- The City of Dömitz and the Bridge:

https://web.archive.org/web/20161231063811/http://www.doemitz.de/tourismus-service/tourismus-information/eisenbahnbruecke/

The History of Harkort Steel in Duisburg:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harkort_(Unternehmerfamilie)#Phase_III:_1860_bis_1930_–_Zenit_und_Untergang

The Schwedler Truss and its Inventor:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwedlertr%C3%A4ger