Bridges - Ages - Budapest

Budapest History Museum

The History of Budapest told through the Story of the Bridges.

The Beginnings
Up to the mid-19th century, the only connection between Pest and Buda on the two sides of the Danube was a pontoon bridge first appearing in 16th century veduti. The temporary bridge used chiefly for military purposes in the Ottoman era was destroyed during the recapture of Buda in 1686. It took nearly a century for the connection between the two banks to be restored: the floating bridge meant for the occasion of the visit of Prince Albert of Saxony to Buda in 1767 eventually served the town-dwellers until the building of the first permanent bridge, the Chain-bridge, although for the winter months it had to be dissembled. The pontoon bridge had a wooden deck supported by 43 pontoons. There was room for two carts to pass each other, with fenced-off walkways on both sides. At the bridge-heads there were toll-houses and the guard’s buildings, because a toll had to be paid for crossing. The passage of ships was ensured by removable sections at both ends, for which the boatmen also had to pay some dues.
Pest-Buda Connected by the Pontoon Bridge, 1790-1847
In 1686 the Austrian troops took back Buda from the Ottomans, ending the Porte’s domination of the former capital of the Hungarian Kingdom for one and a half centuries. Both Pest and Buda suffered grave damage during the siege, the majority of the population was killed or fled. It took long for the two towns to recover; in the late 17th century only a few German settlers were living among the ruins. Influx was continuous over the 18th century: apart from the Germans, Serbians and Greeks arrived from the Balkans, too. The two settlements gradually grew into small provincial baroque towns with one-family or one-storey houses. The economy was based on transit traffic as the Pest ferry was one of the most frequented points for the crossing of the Danube between the two halves of the country. Owing to the markets, Pest-Buda became a major commercial node of Central Europe by the second half of the 18th century. From the end of the 18th century, population grew steadily. For example, the number of Pest inhabitants rose to some 20,000 at the end of the century from 3,500 at the beginning.
The Chain Bridge
The Chain-bridge, the oldest permanent link between Pest and Buda is also a symbol of the capital. Its construction was initiated by Count István Széchenyi who founded the Bridge Society in 1832. The financing of the construction was arranged by Vienna banker Baron György Sina, the founder of the Chain-bridge Share-holding Company. The bridge was planned by English William Tierney Clark. In 1836 a law was passed, but construction only began in 1839 under the supervision of Scottish engineer Adam Clark. The caisson of the Pest end was ready in 1842 and the foundation-stone was laid ceremoniously. The first chain-links were put in place in spring 1848 but the war of liberation slowed down construction. Before its opening the bridge was used by the Austrian troops to cross the river in 1849 and as the Hungarian army was nearing, they tried to blow it up several times. During the siege of Buda it suffered damage but in November 1849 it was officially opened to public traffic.
A Stone-Bridge under the Shadow of the Austrian Eagle, 1848-1849
By the 1840s Buda and Pest had become the capital of the country in political and economic terms, as well as – importantly – in a culture sense. It is no accident that the revolution that broke out on 15 March 1848 started in Pest. The mass movements led chiefly by students and young intellectuals largely contributed to the initial successes of the revolution and the efficiency of the parliamentary legislation. The first independent Hungarian government headed by Lajos Batthyány was based in Pest from April 1848, and from July the first Hungarian parliament of representatives also assembled here, and thereby all the functions of a capital city had been restored to Pest-Buda. The 1848 laws put the self-government of the towns on a more democratic basis, and although there was property qualification, the circle of people liable to vote greatly expanded. When in the autumn of 1848 the Vienna court decided to put down the revolution with arms, the citizens of Pest-Buda provided troops, uniforms and equipment for the war of defence. In January 1849, however, the Austrians managed to seize the capital and set up their military headquarters there. One of the greatest war successes of the Hungarian defensive army was the spring campaign during which they liberated first Pest and then Buda on 21 May.
The Chain Bridge
The Chain-bridge given over to public use in 1849 was one of the most outstanding engineering achievements of its age. With the constant increase of traffic parallel with the growth of Budapest, the toll was considerable income for the company that had built and maintained the bridge. The opening of the Tunnel on the Buda side in 1857 gave a boost to traffic. The three-bay suspension bridge with stone piers was first renewed in 1914-15 with the replacement of all iron parts, and the bridge was renamed Széchenyi Chain-bridge. In 1924 one of the first bus routes of Budapest was led over the Danube here. At the end of WWII the Germans blew up the bridge. The reconstructed bridge was opened in 1949, exactly a hundred years after the first inauguration. The latest reconstruction was in the late 1980s. On summer weekends and certain holidays road traffic is banned from the bridge so that merrymakers can take over.
Coronation Mound at the Abutment, 1849-1873
Although the revolution and war of independence of 1848/49 failed in its political goal, the economic and social transformation already triggered off before the revolution and furthered by the 1848 legislation could no longer be halted even by post-1849 autochracy. The post-revolutionary retaliations, the absolutist control in the 1850s did affect Pest-Buda adversely – the two towns were united administratively and financially, and the inhabitants had no say in the public affairs – yet the influence of Austria’s Gründerzeti had resonances in the capital. From the 1850s the bases of capitalism were gradually consolidated and industrialization picked up. Owing to the building out of the railway network with Pest in the focus as well as the advancement of produce trade and milling, the capital became the motor of the economy. The foundation of credit and savings banks also gave a boost to industrial and commercial development. The demographic growth entailed by industrialization required considerable infrastructural investment. The first water works were built, and the first gas factory was completed in Pest in 1856. In 1863 gas lighting also appeared in Buda. The Tunnel at the Chain-bridge was ready in 1857 and the first horse-tramway was put in operation in Pest in 1866.
Margaret Bridge
Margaret Bridge connects the Great Boulevard of Pest with Buda via the tip of Margaret Island. Twenty years after the completion of the Chain-bridge the capital needed a new bridge. There was a legal obstacle: the contract of the Chain-bridge Society stipulated that no new bridge be built within 1 mile on either side of the Chain-bridge for 90 years. In 1870 a law was passed to redeem the bridge, so the second permanent connection could be built on plans by French Ernest Goüin between 1872 and 1876. The axis of the bridge deflects at the island and the wing bridge opened in 1900 was attached to the middle pier. In 1879 a horse tramway was introduced on the bridge replaced by electric trams in 1894. In 1935 the tracks were shifted to the middle of the road-way. In late 1944 three piers on the Pest side blew up, and the Buda side was destroyed by the Germans in January 1945 together with the rest of the Budapest bridges. The rebuilt bridge was opened to the public in full width in 1948. The reconstruction of the bridge took place in 2009-2011.
The Token of Progress: a New Bridge, 1873-1896
After the Compromise with Austria, the Hungarian government launched major urbanizing projects. In 1870 the parliament enacted the intention for the development of Pest-Buda and established the Public Works Council of the Capital modelled on London. In the same year legislation spelt out the need to create an Avenue of Parisian elegance (today Andrássy út) and the great boulevard (Nagykörút). In 1872 the parliament passed a bill on the unification of Pest-Buda, and Pest, Buda and Óbuda joined to form Budapest as of 1 January 1873. The program of the Public Works Council covered the regulation of the Budapest section of the Danube, building of quays, warehouses and a railway bridge, and the regulation of several main routes. In the rapidly growing city emphasis had to be laid on the improvement of public transportation. In 1870 the funicular to Castle Hill started, in 1877 the Western railway station was opened, followed by the Eastern station in 1884. Budapest was the first city in the country to introduce tramway lines in 1887. For the performance of the diverse administrative, health care and cultural tasks of the bourgeois state lots of representative buildings were erected and frequented venues of the new urban way of living – cafés and cabarets – openes one after the other. The Budapest townscape changed spectacularly after the unification. Whole neighbourhoods grew up from scrap with multistorey rental buildings, shops and busy streets. After its 1873 unification Budapest became one of that-time Europe’s most dynamically developing cities, while in Hungary it was not only the most populous but economically the most important city, the centre of industry and culture.
Freedom Bridge
Budapest’s shortest bridge is Freedom Bridge, formerly Francis Joseph Bridge. Together with Elisabeth Bridge (earlier named after Eskü Square) opened in 1903, it was initiated by a law of 1893 that stipulated the investment of some of the bridge toll revenues into new Danube bridges. Connecting Fővám Square including the former Central Customhouse and the Market Hall with Gellért Square on the other side, the bridge was inaugurated in the presence of the name-giver Francis Joseph I on 4 October 1896. Typical ornaments are the mythical turul birds on the towers and the Hungarian coat of arms on the gates. Electric and gas lighting was also installed, and from 1898 a tramway led across it. The retreating German army blew up the bridge just like the rest of the bridges. After the siege of Budapest the Soviet army completed the remaining bridge part with a pontoon bridge, which was the first connection between Buda and Pest. The bridge was reconstructed and renamed Freedom Bridge in 1946. It was restored in 1980 and then in 2007-8. When Hungary joined the EU, the deck was covered with grass.
A Metropolis Celebrating its Greatness
By the 1890s Budapest unified nearly a quarter of a century earlier arrived at en epochal change. The capital was undergoing spectacular growth and modernizaton. The millenary festivities celebrating the foundation of the country a thousand years earlier were the apogee of the process of the Compromise and also heralded the change of the capital into a modern metropolis. Inhabited by over 600,000 people, Budapest witnessed major investments that determine the cityscape to this day: the Parliament was nearly completed, the Matthias church in Buda Castle had been renewed, the Fishermen’s bastion began to be built, several cultural institutions (museum, theatre) got new homes. Infrastucture was also massively modernized. The first underground of the Old Continent and the Central Market Hall largely boosting food supplies in the capital were completed and the great boulevard embracing downtown was built up by the Millennium. Though specialists of the Academy of Sciences thought at that time that the foundation of the country was sometime between 888 and 900 AD, the government first set the celebrations to 1895 and when constructions were still underway, to 1896. The festivities of the Millennium – the celebration of Hungary’s one thousand years’ past – began on 2 May 1896 and lasted until 31 October. Francis Joseph I and Queen Elisabeth opened the Millenary Exhibition in the City Park on 2 May 1896. The exhibition presented Hungary’s past and present in 240 pavilions. The art treasures represetating the country’s history were put on display in Vajdahunyadvár illustrating the architectural styles of various periods. The present of the Hungarian side of the Monarchy, the economic performance achieved since the Compromise was shown in pravilions of 118,000 m2 in total area. 21,000 manufacturers, artisans, tradesmen, caterers and state and welfare organizations introduced themselves in these spaces. The exhibition was seen by a total of 5.8 million visitors including several foreign guests.
Petőfi Bridge
A bridge linking southern Buda with the great boulevard in Pest was already deliberated in the early 1900s, but the construction of Petőfi – then called Boráros square – bridge was eventually put on the agenda in 1930. The government decided on building it and naming it after the regent, Miklós Horthy, to celebrate the ten-year jubilee of the regent’s post. Work began in 1933 and the opening was in September 1937. The Buda abutment was adorned with the memorial of the imperial and royal Navy together with a copy of the lighthouse of Pula (destroyed in WWII). The retreating German troops blew up the bridge in January 1945. The Soviet army built a temporary military bridge on the wreckage. The wrecks were removed and the reconstruction of the bridge started in 1946. The bridge named after Petőfi was opened to the public in 1952. It was the first Budapest bridge to have a bicycle lane, which, however, was later eliminated during a renewal.
Bridges in the Danube, 1918-1944
World War I had a highly contradictory influence on the capital. While war industry did improve the economy, mass migration into the city and the deterioration of the living conditions in the hinterland put a heavy burden on the population. The growing tensions caused by deepening social inequalities led first to the „Aster” revolution of 1918 and climaxed in the communist dictatorship of 1919. The development of the capital of a country dismembered by the Trianon Peace Treaty ending the lost war was halted. For a country reduced to one-third of its former territory Budapest was overlarge. Yet in the era symbolized by Miklós Horthy the political and economic role of Budapest further increased. Most of the refugees from areas annexed to neighbouring countries tried to settle in Budapest. Thousands lived in wagons at the railway stations and slum areas cropped up all over the capital. Parallel with that several so-far uninhabited areas were built up, first of all beyond the great boulevard and in southern Buda. In the 1930s the Tabán district, a village in town, was demolished and modern middle-class villas and small blocks of flats began to appear on the hillsides in Buda. In the 1920s and ’30s Budapest was the venue of several international events. Outstanding among them was the International Eucharistic Congress in 1938, the greatest gathering of the Catholic church. In addition to masses in Heroes square, there were events at major landmarks of the capital. The end of the 1930s was however increasingly determined by the discrimination of the Jewry and the preparations for the war. Hungary entered World War II on the German side in 1941. The Allies first bombed the capital in 1942, but bombing became serious in 1944. On 19 March 1944 the Jews began to be collected in ghettos in Budapest already occupied by the German army. The Germans and their extreme rightist collaborators had no time to fully complete the deportation of the Jews because of the advance of the Soviet army. After an house-to-house fighting for over fifty days, the Soviets finally took the capital on 13 February 1945. Some 25,000 civilians fell victim to the siege. In the fightings 27% of the capital’s housing stock was destroyed or seriously damaged.
Árpád Bridge
Árpád Bridge connecting Óbuda with northern Pest is one of the busiest bridges of Budapest. Already in Roman times there was a bridge here linking Aquincum with the Roman fort on the other side. Decision to build the bridge was taken in 1900, but the competition for planning was called much later, in 1929. Construction began in 1939, but World War II interrupted work on the nearly 1 km long bridge. It was the only bridge over the Danube that the Germans did not blow up. Contruction was resumed in 1948. The completed bridge – now christened Stalin Bridge – was opened in 1950. It was named Árpád Bridge again from 1958 after the chieftain who led the Magyars to settle in the Carpathian Basin. The bridge was modernized in the 1980s. Today Budapest’s longest tram route leads over the bridge and some 150,000 motor vehicles pass it daily.
Bridges with Socialist Emulation, 1945-1956
The siege of Budapest in 1945 led to the almost complete devastation of the city. The bridges were destroyed, the streets were covered with debris and corpses. Fighting was still going on in Buda when the first tramway started in Pest and soon the first trains put up at the Western Station. On March 21 Buda was conected to Pest with two pontoon bridges, and in January 1946 the temporary Kossuth Bridge at the southern end of the parliament was opened to traffice. The Budapest National Commission took on the task of revitalizing the capital. However, the Commission failed to become the democratic forum of pluralist city politics, for the Hungarian Communist Party supported by the Soviet army tried to suppress the independence of the capital. The one-party system that evolved in 1948 together with the network of Soviet-type councils introduced in 1950 cut off all ties with the tradition of democratic development. Centralized governance allowed no room for the assertion of any local interest. Though one-fifth of the country’s population lived in the capital where  60% of industrial production was concentrated and 80% of the representatives of scholarship resided, Budapest was only treated as the twentieth county. The parliament passed a law in 1949 to create Greater Budapest divided into 22 districts, by attaching to it the surburbs and surrounding villages. When on 15 June 1950 the Budapest City Council replaced the previous self-government, the capital’s already formal autonomy was eliminated conclusively. Budapest lost its economic independence, its incomes went into the central treasury to which it had to apply for the necessary resources in the plan-directed economy. The period of post-war reconstruction and the era of the communist leader Mátyás Rákosi left their imprint on the appearance of the city and social composition of the population as well.
Kossuth Bridge
By the end of World War II, no bridge over the Danube was left intact, so the river had to be crossed by boats and floating bridges. The Soviet army built three military bridges: Manci (Maggie) bridge traversing Margaret Island, one at Gellért Square and a temporary railway bridge near the southern railroad bridge. The location of the first „semi-permanent” bridge was designated where the wreckages of the former bridges did not hinder construction. Kossuth Bridge opened to the public in 1946 connected Batthyány square in Buda and Kossuth Square in Pest. The bridge completed in a mere seven months became the symbol of the renascence of the destroyed city. The engineers picked the iron needed for the steel structure from the debris. The bridge was planned for a time span of ten years, so in 1957 it was put out of use and demolished in 1960. Memorial stones mark the site of the one-time bridge on both banks. In place of Kossuth Bridge a pontoon bridge was built for a few days on 15 March 2003.
Soviet Tanks on the Streets, 1956
Political suppression in the 1950s led to an armed revolt first in Budapest. The revolution started with the demonstration of university students on 23 October 1956, leading to shooting around the radio already that evening. The very same night the crowds knocked down and cut up the monumental Stalin statue, in protest against Soviet domination. The next day Soviet troops marched into Budapest and the street fights began. The armed clash led to the fall of the government, the retreat of the Soviet troops and the start of the democratic transformation of the country. On 27 October a reform-conscious communist leader, Imre Nagy formed a new government. The political leaders tried to go on with the reforms and started negotiations with the Soviet Union about separation from the Warsaw Pact and the neutrality of the country. The armed encounters did not cease. The staunch resistance of the revolutionaries halted the Soviet attacks and on 28 October the government announced a truce and complied with the major demands of the insurgents – so the situation was consolidated for a few days. The initial readiness of the Soviets to negotiate soon evaporated and since the western powers engaged in the Suez crisis confirmed that they would not lend aid to the Hungarian government, a new offensive was launched against Budapest at dawn on 4 November. Hardly over a decade after the end of World War II, the capital was again under siege. The bitter resistance of the insurgents  proved in vain, the Soviets won by numbers. After the fall of the revoltuion which made a great international stir some 250,000 people left the country. From 1957 masses of participants in the revolution were imprisoned and many including the prime minister Imre Nagy were executed.
The New Elisabeth Bridge
A bridge connecting the Tabán neighbourhood in Buda and downtown Pest was decided upon by the government in 1893. It was built in 1898-1903 and named after the assassinated Queen Elisabeth. At that time, the bridge was a technical sensation with its single 290 m long span. Its construction thoroughly changed the look of the surroundings. The demolished old town centre gave way to imposing up-to-date buildings meeting all the requirements of the age. The bridge, decorated in secessionist style, was blown up by the German army in January 1945. It was the last bridge to be reconstructed. After protracted debates, a decision was taken to build a modern-looking new bridge using the old pier. The work lasted from 1961 to 1964; the Pest head of the destroyed bridge was a memento of the devastations of the war until the bridge’s opening. Originally a tramline also ran across the bridge, but the plates began to crack, so after the completion of the second metro line tram traffic was stopped. After the political turn of 1989 and on the occasion of the country’s integration in the EU the bridge received special decorations.
The Bridge of Socialism, 1956-1989
After the suppression of the 1956 revolution János Kádár was picked by the Soviet Union to lead Hungary. The new leadership did not aim at totalitarian dictatorship, the people were no longer forced to take an oath on the socialist regime, but no one was allowed to question its legitimacy. The annual holidays, mass pageants were meant to maintain the appearance that the people were rallied behind the state and party leaders. Parallel with that the surveillance of the population by the secret politice was more and more extensive. The soft dictatorship often earned Hungary the label of the „merriest barrack” of the eastern bloc at that time. The basis on which the Kádár regime functioned was the everyday satisfaction of the population, and accordingly, the main goal of the economy was to raise the living standards. To this end major infrastructural investments took place and the supply of durable goods kept expanding. That period saw the mass emergence of prefabricated housing estates that still determine the cityscape, the subways as part of the modernization of traffic, the East-West underground line opened in 1970 and the North-South line completed in 1976. Tourism was also on the rise in the capital with a growing pool of hotels and restaurants awaiting guests from the countryside and abroad. The developments and the maintenance of the living standard had serious economic consequences. The country was forced to take western loans and became increasingly indebted; also, dependence on western imports grew, and all this pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
Rákóczi Bridge
In 1996 Budapest and Vienna were considering plans for a joint World Fair. A vacant southern Buda area was designated for the Expo site. This area would have been connected to Pest by the planned bridge. The construction of the bridge named after this neighbourhood Lágymányosi Bridge began in 1992 and was completed in 1995. It is the first Budapest bridge named after its geographic location, although historical figures were also considered as name-givers several times. The specialty of the modern steel-structure bridge is the reflex lighting through enormous mirrors. Eventually, the idea of the Budapest Expo was discarded, in the planned Expo area a centre of informatics and university precincts emerged. Across from it on the other side of the river the new National Theatre opened in 2002 and the Palace of Arts built in 2005 can be found.
Crossing over into a New Era, 1989-
By the 1980s the grip of the dictatorship had slackened. An opposition movement emerged with mass demonstrations in the Budapest streets. Protests against the Bős-Nagymaros power plant or commemorations of the 1956 revolution were critiques of the socialist establishment and expressed the desire for a democratic system. In the late 1980s the first parties began to appear and they rallied in the Opposition Roundtable in 1989. With hundreds of thousands of participants, on 16 June 1989 the solemn re-burial of Imre Nagy and the other martyrs of 1956 was staged in Heroes Squarre. On 23 October 1989 Mátyás Szűrös, temporary president of the republic announced the Republic of Hungary from a terrace of the Parliament. In the autum of 1990 the first free parliamentary elections were held, followed by the local government elections. The tasks awaiting the new cityfathers included the elimination of Soviet barracks and memorials to the heroes of the labour movement, the renovation of neglected buildings and infrastructure, the reconstruction of demolished or lost memories. On 30 June 1991 the occupying Soviet troops left the country. This is commemorated by the Budapest Funfair held on the last weekend of June every year. The turnover did not only mean the transformation of the legal frames, but also entailed profound changes in the economy and the society.
Credits: Story

Curators: Zsuzsanna Demeter, Roland Perényi
Reproductions: Ágnes Bakos, Judit Szalatnyay, Bence Tihanyi
Translation: Judit Pokoly

Kiscell Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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