Old Iron Bridge
In the late 18th century, Jamaica’s House of Assembly passed an act commissioning the construction of a much-needed bridge between Kingston and Spanish Town in St. Catherine. Originally meant to be built from stone, for reasons unknown, the structure was cast from iron. Designed by Englishman Thomas Wilson, the bridge is supported by four arched ribs fitted with cast iron frames and reinforced by stone abutments on either side. The parts were manufactured in England by the Walker ironworks company,and then shipped to Jamaica for assembly . The Old Iron Bridge in Spanish Town is one of only two Walker bridges that still exist today.
In 1801, construction was completed on the bridge—an 87-ton structure which spans the 82-foot (25-meter) gap created by the Rio Cobre. Due to population growth, deforestation, and other environmental factors, the characteristics of the Rio Cobre have changed dramatically since the time of construction. As a result, the foundations and abutments of the bridge have been damaged, compromising the stability of the entire structure.
How We Helped
In 1998, WMF placed the Old Iron Bridge on the Watch because of its historical significance and critical condition. WMF provided a grant for the purpose of emergency stabilization and long-term conservation of the site. A committee was formed under the auspices of the Jamaican National Heritage Trust (JNHT) to designate an alternate route for pedestrian traffic and conceive a plan for repairs. They proposed to reconstruct the collapsed brick arch and stonework of the north abutment, sandblast and paint the structure, and replace missing handrails.
Unfortunately, progress at the bridge was stalled due to conflict in the region. The constant activity of feuding political gangs closed down businesses and generally impeded life in nearby Spanish Town. For a period of time, the JNHT project coordinators could not find a contractor willing to work in such a dangerous area. When Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004, the bridge was damaged even further, and work has not advanced much in recent years.
Why It Matters
Currently, the Old Iron Bridge is still being used despite a large hole and warnings from the authorities, adding urgency to a worthwhile conservation project. The ongoing efforts of local organizations despite violence in the area are a testament to both the tenacity of the community and the importance of the endeavor. The historic significance of the bridge should not be underestimated: the cast iron structure remains the first of its kind in the Americas. It continues to bear witness to the melding of European and West Indian aesthetics and to the development of civil engineering across the globe.