High and mighty: The Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge turns 100

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It might not be as celebrated as the Forth or the Tyne but it is a triumph of modernity that was inspired by Gustav Eiffel

It's the Cinderella of civil engineering. Compared with those other great British bridges – the Forth, the Tyne, Tower – Middlesbrough's Transporter Bridge is something of a forgotten gem. Perhaps it's because this misunderstood structure is hidden away from view in a forgotten corner of a northern town. Because if more people actually laid eyes on this unique steel monument – which celebrates its centenary this year – perhaps they would fall for its charms too. As it is, Middlesbrough and its historic bridge aren't necessarily the obvious choice for a picnic and a stroll.

It is, for now, set in a post-industrial town fighting to climb out of a decline which has gone on for decades. In the 1990s, the University of Leeds sent students on social sciences courses up to its northern neighbour on days out to study urban deprivation. The contrast between the two places couldn't have been more stark. In 1999, I was one of those students, and the memory that will always stick with me is seeing the Transporter Bridge – Middlesbrough folk simply call it "The Transporter" – straddling the Tees. It initially resembled two proud steelworkers, hands clasped together at the centre of the river in an act of working-class solidarity. Well, I was an unreconstructed socialist back then.

I assumed that the structure was a relic. Perhaps that was naive, but I'd never read about it until I caught sight of it on that summer's day. To find out then that, on the contrary, the Transporter was still ferrying cars (£1.20) and foot passengers (a very reasonable 60p) from Middlesbrough over to Port Clarence on a 120ft-long gondola just made the thing seem even more exciting. Last year, the local council bought a new electric motor for the birthday bridge – a present which should keep it running for at least a few decades more. It even wants to install Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style glass lifts to turn it into a tourist attraction proper. In 1985, it was given a prestigious Grade II* listing by English Heritage, which equals protection from anyone who dares to suggest knocking her down.

So the future of the Transporter is secure, but what of its peculiar life story – how could such an uncommon edifice find itself placed so ostentatiously on to the pancake-flat, windswept estuary of the Tees?

Transporter bridges, which carry a segment of roadway across a river, were judged the only suitable solution to the problem of letting tall-masted ships safely pass upriver to Stockton and the docks. But it would still have taken a leap of imagination and boldness to envisage building such a thing. What's seldom mentioned is the faith in the theories of modernism itself that the commissioners and builders of such structures would have had boiling in their veins.

Look at the list of where other transporter bridges were built: the first near Bilbao, others in Cheshire, one in South Wales, two more on the Elbe and the Kiel Canal in Northern Germany, respectively. All (almost) uncrackable socialist heartlands; all embracing modernity in their chosen architecture. These bridges were suited to wide estuaries, and wide estuaries were also home to heavy industry and ports, and the people who worked in heavy industry and docking tended to be among the most left-leaning of all.

Transporter bridges said: "We are embracing the future." Though the workers themselves may have felt differently – the thriftier Middlesbrough men who commuted across the river to Bell Brothers' steelworks every day chose to climb the steps up to the highwalk 225 feet in the sky, walk across, then descend the steps on the other side to save the halfpenny toll it cost to travel across by gondola. What's even more remarkable is that they did this twice a day, every day, rain or shine – often dragging their push-bikes behind themselves.

It took three years to complete. The first official day of business was 17 October 1911, and thousands turned out to marvel at their new landmark. Archive film and grainy photographs of the ceremony show what looks like the launching of a ship, with women in their Sunday best gathered by the waterside, and flags billowing in the breeze to salute yet another Imperial triumph.

Some 851ft long, and painted in a distinctive royal blue that seemed to make the muddy Tees look even browner, the Transporter was an instant monument. The gondola below was suspended by 30in-thick iron cables from a train whose wheels ran on four tracks, ferrying people and vehicles back and forth every 15 minutes.

The Transporter was the brainchild of Ferdinand Arnodin, whose designs were made reality by the famous Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company, which eventually became a part of rival Dorman Long in 1990. Arnodin built the first transporter bridge, the Puente Colgante, in the Basque Country in 1893 – in co-operation with another engineer, Alberto Palacio. Both Palacio and Arnodin were in thrall to Gustav Eiffel and each saw the new potential of steel to create vast and yet delicate pieces of civic civil engineering.

Teesside became almost immediately synonymous with bridge-building, and throughout the 20th century, the two rival Tees steel companies competed across the world to create the ultimate symbols of humanity joining together. Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company built both the Tamar Bridge and the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959, the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul in 1973 and the Humber Bridge in 1981. Meanwhile, Dorman Long took over the Bell Brothers' gigantic works in the shadow of the Transporter and exported Teesside technology, first to Tyneside – building the Tyne Bridge in 1928. Then they knocked up a gigantic copy – the fêted Sydney Harbour Bridge, which was opened in 1932, famously featuring the epigram "Made in Middlesbrough".

In 20th-century Britain, transporter bridges themselves had a more turbulent time. The first had been built in 1905 from Widnes to Runcorn – spanning the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. But this was demolished and replaced with a more modern road bridge in 1961. Not far away, a transporter was built at Warrington in 1915. It ceased working in 1964 but was also slapped with a Grade II* listing and, standing unused and unloved, is now high on the Buildings at Risk Register. Arnodin also built a transporter straddling the mouth of the river Usk at Newport, South Wales, in 1906. But has the tide perhaps turned for transporters? Because like Middlesbrough's, last year Newport's too was given a multimillion-pound overhaul to prolong its life. Just don't mention to anyone in South Wales that theirs is not half as pretty as Middlesbrough's slim-thighed blue maiden – undeniably the finest-looking transporter bridge ever constructed.

The story of the transporter bridge doesn't end there. One final edifice was built – over the Royal Victoria Dock in east London, in 1998. The plan was to have an enclosed glass capsule ferry punters across the dock. That never happened, which is why you have to climb scores of stairs to get up to the windy platform from where you can traverse the dock.

Middlesbrough's centenarian has seen a few things throughout her eventful life, including a starring role in the television comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – where the storyline called for the Transporter to be sold to a US millionaire, dismantled, and rebuilt over the Grand Canyon. But it's the true stories that make a monument come alive – and there's none funnier than the tale of the late Carry On star Terry Scott. One night in 1974, Scott was on his way from Middlesbrough to do a club turn across the Tees. The comic pulled up to the Transporter, paid his toll – and promptly drove his Jaguar straight off the end of the approach road. It plummeted down towards the icy water but was caught by the safety net – and he escaped, unscathed, to do his gig. The next day, Scott returned to the scene of his mishap and was photographed in the local paper, the Evening Gazette, cringing and holding a hand to his head.

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