On Seeing “Eiffel’s Bridge” in Arequipa


In my next life (unless I come back as a toad!) I will be an engineer: either structural or mechanical, I’m not sure which. This I believe because I am drawn to making things, to fixing things, to replacing things that lack with things that provide. I like to do this and I appreciate and seek out what others have done with similar intent.

Here in South America I am often awash in both architectural and folk history. Walking through colonial neighborhoods or even whole, preserved villages is a thrill that never grows old. And while wandering in el campo (the countryside) I often see machinery or tools that are job specific.

Many of these devices are both ancient in use and yet still current in function. Whether in farmer’s field, miner’s shaft, or mother’s kitchen, these devices, implements, tools have beauty in their utility. Even if silently, I always thank their makers.

So when the guidebooks and the Peruvian Tourist Office and people on the street told me that Arequipa has a bridge designed by Eiffel, well, you can guess my mission. I had to see this creation. More importantly, I had to touch it.

The bridge spans the Rio Chili just south of Arequipa Cercado, the central and historic district of the city. Built around 1870, known locally as El Puente Bolívar, the bridge was designed to carry twin tracks of trains.

It was completed barely a year before the first trains arrived from the coast. Arequipa would now be linked to the outside world. For most of its 3 centuries this Second City of Perú had existed as a separate oasis. Isolated and fertile, boasting a sunny and dry climate.  Arequipa nevertheless was not a perfect paradise.

Two years before the completion of the bridge the city was totally destroyed by the earthquake of 1868. Through the centuries since its founding in 1540, the city suffered horrendous damage from nearly a dozen major tremblors. Yet they were, none of them, as fully disastrous as the 1868 quake.

La Casa de Sillar, my home for the month of May

La Casa de Sillar, my home for the month of May

But a new city arose from the rubble and this bridge symbolized that rebirth. I was looking forward to my visit. My route from my hostal, La Casa de Sillar, took me through the main plaza. From there the path led me through a beautiful neighborhood of century-old homes.

These homes are all constructed from volcanic tuff, known locally as sillar. Sillar is a hard, white stone and it gives the city its nickname: The White City. It was a pleasant 1/2 hour walk to the base of the bridge and past these well-preserved beauties.

I started my excursion surrounded by single storey colonial and post-colonial buildings. The stroll ended in an upscale neighborhood of townhouses and condominiums with neat green spaces here and there. Eventually I met the bridge, suspended a full 5 storeys above me, along the left bank of the Rio Chili.

It’s a far more delicate and less imposing structure than, say the Brooklyn Bridge. And it lacks the drama of the Mackinac Bridge of my youth. But even so, it is living and working history and I wasn’t disappointed. Arriving near the end of morning rush, I saw above me that the bridge had filled with stalled traffic. It is a single, one-way artery connecting the 2 sides of the river.

Gustave Eiffel Park

Gustave Eiffel Park

From where I stood, at the river-side end of a small park, the city’s one million residents seemed far away. This park was dedicated in 1988 and named after Gustave Eiffel. It is a peaceful and quiet place: not quite public yet not completely private. Placed in a gated community, but the gate was open for foot traffic. So I went in. I was surrounded by manicured greenery. There were flowers blooming everywhere with grounds tended to by municipal workers.

Arequipa is in the desert. The ambient humidity hovers below 20% and the climate is strongly reminiscent of New Mexico. Like New Mexico, the city draws off water from the river. The water is diverted into a system of canals or acequias. This park, watered by one of these acequias, flourishes. And so too, do the farmlands of the floodplain on the opposite bank. They are likewise acequia fed. I had the park to myself and wandered freely.

Acequia, Gustave Eiffel Park

Acequia, Gustave Eiffel Park

I eventually met a man who lived nearby and I asked him about the water. He explained that, again like in New Mexico, these waters are controlled by a mayordomo. This water-boss decides when and how much water is diverted to individual plots. The man I met was friendly enough and surprised to learn of the similarities our countries share for irrigation. But he had work to do so we said our goodbyes and I turned my attention back to the bridge.

Thanks to Google, the University of Iowa’s School of Engineering website and Wikipedia I learned something of the bridge’s construction. It uses a Fink Truss design to hold itself up. This system was popular with early B&O railroad bridges in the US.

El Puente Bolivar in Arequipa, Perú

El Puente Bolivar in Arequipa, Perú

The Fink Truss employs a series of interleaved triangles. Inherently strong, these triangles support the load of the roadway from underneath. The result is a lacework of steel which, though attractive, has few remaining examples still in service. There are only 2 Fink Truss bridges left standing in the US.

Fink Truss from 19th Century Patent

In the middle of the 19th Century steel was a new building material. The engineers back then were learning as they were building. The Fink Truss is an early example of such inventive construction. However this truss design was quickly superseded by above-grade supports.

Now it was time for another discovery: Eiffel did not build this bridge. He did not design it. He had nothing to do with Arequipa, nor with “Case de Fierro” in Iquitos. Nor, as I learned, did he have much to do with anything in South America.

Yet none of this matters, really. The bridge stands, people use it daily, and I was happy to find it. I left the park and climbed the neighborhood stairs up to the roadway. Two pedestrian walkways share the surface with the single lane for vehicles.

I crossed the bridge to the other side where the cars gain access. As I neared the far side I could see many of the cars pause, often for more than a minute before continuing on. This seemed strange until I got to the entrance.

Shrine at Bridge Entrance

Shrine at Bridge Entrance

There I found a glass-encased shrine with a richly clothed Jesus and Cross. Many of the drivers in this deeply religious country would stop, cross themselves and then cross the bridge. As they asked for blessings for a safe journey I too gave thanks: for the chance to witness this bridge.

In 3 days I leave Arequipa. A week after that I leave the country. But if I ever return to Perú this city is tops on my list of places to revisit. The people are welcoming, the climate is wonderful, and Puente Bolívar will still be there.

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