Mystery Bridge Nr. 149: An Inundated Bridge in Czechia with Possible Links to Melan and von Emperger

Photos taken by Lara Vajrychová

Our next mystery bridge returns us to Czechia, but this time to the far western part of the country, along the Odrava (CZ: Ohri/ D: Eger). The River Odrava starts in eastern Bavaria and snakes away along the foot of the Ore Mountains past Cheb and Carlsbad (Karoly Vary) before emptying into the River Elbe at Litomerice, south of Usti nad Labem (Aussig). The river is laden with dozens of historic bridges dating back to the early 1900s, many of which can even be seen via satillite in a geo-app, like Google Maps.

This bridge is one of them. The structure is located in the middle of Lake Jesenice, located east of the nearest city of Cheb. The structure features a through arch span made of concrete, yet the characteristics resemble the rainbow arch bridge that was invented and patented by James B. Marsh around 1909. While his patented rainbow arch bridges were built solely in the United States, his design was based on another bridge design that was patented by Austrian engineer, Josef Melan. Melan patented his arch design in 1890 and under the direction of another Austrian,  Frederick von Emperger, built the first arch bridge 1894 in Rock Rapids, Iowa. That bridge, now located at Emma Sater Park, was the first of its kind to use reinforced concrete arch in an elliptical fashion.

Melan Bridge at Emma Sater Park in Rock Rapids, Iowa. Photo taken in 2009

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The Melan System, which links steel and concrete construction, won significant market-shares in European and American bridge-building as early as the 1890s and was awarded a gold medal at the World Exposition in Paris in 1900. Melan had published his work on concrete arches in conjunction with iron arches in 1893. Many Melan arch spans followed after the construction in Rock Rapids, including a multiple span arch bridge in Steyr in 1898 and the Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana.  While he left a mark in terms of bridges and buildings especially in the New York and Boston areas, von Emperger’s stay in the US was short-lived and therefore, only this example of the Melan Arch Bridge still exists. He returned to Vienna in 1898, where he was active both as a bridge builder as well as in politics until his death in 1942, one year after Melan’s and six years after Marsh’s.

When looking at the crossing at Lake Jesenice, the structure has a rainbow arch feature, yet unlike the Marsh arch, where the arches are anchored in the wingwall above the water level, the arches here start at the abutment on deck level. Nevertheless, as the region was once part of the Habsburg Kingdom (Austrian-Hungarian Empire) until their defeat after World War I in 1918, the possibility of either Melan or von Emperger having built this bridge exists, yet the question is solely, when was the bridge built. Judging by its appearance, the bridge is well over a century old, which falls into the era when the Marsh Arch bridges were being built by the dozens in the USA. It would be a possibility that Marsh’s design was modified in order for it to stand out in comparison with the original. Yet records revealed that Marsh had abandoned  the Melan arches and had developed his signature arch in order to avoid paying Melan royalties. The bridge at Lake Jenesice was most likely built between 1898 and 1912 using the Austrian design.

As for the history of Lake Jesenice , this is an artificial lake that was created through a dam project which ran from 1957 to its completion in 1961. The bridge used to carry a road between Velká Všeboř and Cheb. It used to span the Wondreb which was a tributary of the Odrava. When the dam was completed, the Wondreb and other smaller tributaries became part of the lake and the bridge was left to inundate. The towns of Jesenice and Dřenice also disappeared because of the creation of the lake.  At high levels one can only see the arch stick out, yet during the drough in recent years in Europe, the bridge has become fully accessible by foot.  The Lake has become a recreational point for campers and tourists wishing to explore the region along the Odrava, as the area has campgrounds and other natural parks. In the past, this lake as well as neighboring city Carlsbad were health resort regions where children and their families could recover from the illnesses caused by emissions of coal and other pollutants in the nearby Black Triangle Region, where the former Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany met. Yet with new forests being grown since the Revolution of 1989 and the subsequent Reunification of Germany in 1990, the area where Czechia, Poland and Germany meet today is becoming as equally important as the area around Lake Jenesice.

Close-up of the railings and its deteriorating state

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The days of the arch bridge at Lake Jesenice may be numbered, sadly. According to bridgehunter, Lara Vajrychová, there have been talks of tearing down the arch bridge for safety reasons. Whether or not that will happen remains open. Still it would be a sad loss to see a piece of architectural work that had once belonged to one of the villages that was inundated by the dam project disappear, especially one that may have been built by the founding fathers of the Melan arch whose design was picked up by James Marsh for his design. Nevertheless, before its final demise, one needs to find out more about the bridge in terms of the date of construction and the bridge contractor to answer the questions that were made with regard to its possible connection with either Melan or von Emperger.

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