“The Kierbedź Bridge” in Harbin
The bridge in Harbin is the most important bridge of the Chinese Eastern Railway, and also spectacular evidence of the activity of Polish engineers in Manchuria. They were often responsible for construction, planning, management and – as it turns out – manufacturing in this part of China. With time, however, the memory began to fade and the names of the builders have become distorted.
History of the Harbin Bridge
The importance of the bridge is evidenced by the fact that in its history the gauge has been changed three times, to accommodate the standard gauge, then the Russian gauge and then the standard gauge again. Each of these modifications represented a new era in the history of Harbin and all of China.
The authors of the two commemorative plaques placed on the bridge must have got confused by the complicated and undoubtedly intercontinental history of the structure. One of the plaques reads that “the Russian expert Liandovski was responsible for the construction of the bridge”. The other reads that it was designed by “Kerbez”, while the engineer “Liduovsky” was the construction manager.
On the left: the old bridge over the Songhua River in Harbin, on the right: the new bridge for the high-speed railway, January 2020. Photo by Przemysław Domański
The piece of information that is strongly publicized is that the bridge used to be the longest of the 912 metal and 258 stone bridges constructed for the Chinese Eastern Railway. The past tense is deliberately used here, as the bridge was put out of use for the railways in 2014 and a new bridge adapted to high-speed railway was constructed next to it.
The old bridge has been restored and has become an important attraction for the five-million-strong city of Harbin. Richly illuminated, it serves as a meeting place, although parts of the newly inserted transparent road surface are a challenge for those suffering from a fear of heights; a look down into the grey-brown current of the Songhua River will make many people dizzy.
Sungari – the big plans
The Sungari, known to the Chinese as the Songhua (Pine Blossom) River, is the largest tributary of the Black Dragon River, the Amur. The Amur itself marks the line on which the Russians intended to draw their border with China. They achieved this goal in 1858, but then they decided to move on. China was weakened and seemed to be an easy opponent, and it was the English, the French and the increasingly active Japanese who decided to stop the Russian Empire.
The old bridge over the Sungari / Songhua River, transparent plating visible, January 2020. Photo by Monika Domańska
When further expansion seemed impossible, the Russian politician and future Prime Minister Sergei Witte devised a plan involving the economic conquest of the lands in the Sungari region, i.e. China's Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. At the core of this idea was the construction of a railway. Russia bribed some Chinese officials, who obtained the Empress Regent Cixi’s signature on the concession.
It was 1898. Thanks to an earlier expedition led by a Pole, Stefan Offenberg, the plans for the Chinese Eastern Railway had already been prepared and the construction of an extraterritorial railway linking the Siberian city of Chita with Vladivostok could begin.
The longest bridge in Harbin
One of the most important, if not the most important symbol of the Chinese Eastern Railway was the Harbin Bridge, also known as the first bridge over the Sungari or the first superstructure among bridges. It became a harbinger of the spectacular bridges being built in China today. It was opened in October 1901, and had taken sixteen or, according to Russian sources, twenty-five months to build.
The Chinese Eastern Railway and the Chinese Eastern Railway Ship under the Harbin Bridge, most likely before the opening of the railway, ca. 1901. Public domain
It was 950 metres long (later it became slightly longer as a result of repairs) and 7.2 metres wide. It consists of 19 steel spans supported on 18 piers, 9 of which are placed in the river and another 9 on the floodplain. The piers are made of granite and their quality and durability are still praised by Chinese engineers, who joke that anyone working on them must expect to suffer from rheumatism.
The dampness around can be penetrating and unhealthy. It is significant that during the construction of these piers a particular kind of reinforced concrete caissons was used for the first time in the world. This is where we come across a Polish trace. The first one to describe this technology and later use in practice was the engineer Aleksander Łętowski. Could it be that he was this "Liandovski" or "Liduovsky"? This version was confirmed by the Harbin-born historian and journalist Edward Kajdański. However, he remembered from childhood that the members of the Polish diaspora in Manchuria would call this bridge "the Kierbedź bridge
Polish engineers in China
A bridge originally known as “the Kierbedź Bridge” existed in Warsaw from the 1860s to 1944 and was the first steel bridge on the Vistula River. The author of its design and supervisor of its construction was the eminent engineer Stanisław Kierbedź, but he died in 1899 and had spent his last years in Warsaw as a very sick man, so it is impossible that he designed a bridge in Manchuria around 1900.
However, the famous engineer had a nephew, also named Stanisław and also an engineer. "Young Kierbedź", as Witte called him in his letters, was appointed vice-president of the Chinese Eastern Railway Society in the 1890s, but de facto it was he, and not his political patron, who managed the entire construction. Probably he did not have time to design the bridges himself, as he had to take decisions executed by a thousand engineers building bridges, cutting tunnels or laying rails.
Plaque 1 on the old bridge, frame from a documentary, 2014; public domain
However, it was his responsibility to place orders for materials and it is known that the spans for the largest bridge on the Chinese Eastern Railway were made in the Congress Kingdom. They were transported by ship as far as to the mouth of the Amur and then up the Black Dragon River to the banks of the Sungari, as a Harbin engineer says in an interview for the local television. "They looked like bread" – and he makes a flick of his wrist to describe the distinctive shape of the spans – and served until the 1970s, when they were replaced by less sophisticated trapezoids called Werner trusses. Nevertheless, some elements of this bridge, for example supports or parts of the plating, may still come from the Polish ironworks of Zawiercie or Dąbrowa Górnicza.
The greatest memory is weaker than the weakest ink (Chinese proverb)
The superstructure may have gained the name of "the Kierbedź bridge" thanks to young Stanisław Kierbedź, who managed its construction. This is all the more likely because the managing staff was dominated by Poles, so they probably knew the Warsaw prototype. It is also known that "young Kierbedź", like his uncle, was a patriot and did everything to support Polish industry. So if the spans for the Harbin bridge came from the Congress Kingdom, it is likely that elements of other bridges were also made there. They later sailed halfway around the world and up the Amur and the Sungari to the construction site. One can guess that they were announced as shipments from Mr Kierbedź. This was not easy to pronounce by the natives and in time "Kerbez" appeared, as evidenced by the current plaques on the bridge.
Plaque no. 2 on the bridge, January 2020. Photo by Przemysław Domański
Over a century later the late Stanisław Doba prepared an expedition to Harbin, during which he intended to present the city authorities with a plaque containing the correct data. The COVID-19 pandemic and then the traveller's sudden death thwarted these plans. However, let us not lose hope that changes will be introduced, and not only will the names of the architect and builder of the bridge, Aleksander Łętowski, and the manager of the entire construction, Stanisław Kierbedź, be properly represented, but also the adjective "Polish" will appear next to them!
Written by: Marta Panas-Goworska i Andrzej Goworski