The bridge cost £98,000 to build and has never recovered its costs. Rising from the mists of the Usk it was a startling vision of the future.
Staring from gas-lit homes, Pillgwenlly residents would have been amazed as the electricity-powered Newport Transporter Bridge towered over them. The first journey was started by Viscount Tredegar , who opened the bridge on September 12, 1906.
There were cheers and “the din of detonators” as the current was started and the gondola began moving at a stately pace from the west bank to the east.
“The motion was at first almost imperceptible and the journey was continued to the other side without the slightest vibration or swaying,” reported the Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News.
The approaches of Alexandra Road and Mill Parade were decorated with flags and bunting, as was the bridge. The eastern tower paid tribute to its French designer, Ferdinand Arnodin, by flying the republic’s tricoleur. Bridge expert Mike Lewis is Newport council ’s culture and continuing learning manager.
“Think about what that bridge means and what it meant in 1906,” he said.
“It was a big, big, structure in a town where most buildings were below four storeys.
“It was powered by electricity at a time when most people’s homes were lit by gas and heated by coal.
“This was the future incarnate on their doorstep.”
The bridge cost £98,000 to build and has never recovered its costs. It still runs at a loss.
“It must have been overwhelming for them to see this huge structure,” Mr Lewis said. “If you go to the base and stand and look up you get this sense of awe.
“It is an interesting juxtaposition of something that looks modern with this steel structure and then you have this quaint gothic gondola.
“Someone once said it’s a like ‘a temple of steampunk’.”
Numerous stories surround the structure.
In 1927 Alfred Sheppard and Thomas Evans dived from the gondola to rescue a woman who had thrown herself from it while in 1968 a plan was hatched to sell the bridge to the United States.
At 9am on August 4, 1984, a group of miners hijacked the gondola and ordered the driver to go back to the east bank.
Picketers boarded in a minibus stocked with a stove, food, and sleeping bags.
An NUM official said at the time: “We had enough food to last for two weeks if necessary.
“We positioned the platform over the deep water channel to make sure that boats could not get underneath it, to stop them bringing coke for Llanwern into the wharves.”
But the plan was foiled by police in a surprise midnight operation.
In 1918 it was a penny to cross but today it’s £1.
“Driving it is remarkably similar to driving a tram,” Mr Lewis said.
“You push a lever forward and back and it goes. The motor itself brakes. The current is drawn away as you approach the bank.”
When the bridge is open visitors are able to walk over the top.
“Some people find it a bit of a challenge and others are blown away by the views from the top and that sense of mild peril when you step out onto the open grating,” Mr Lewis said.
Far beneath your feet the murky river depths are visible and Newport appears tiny.
“We’d like to put one of those glass floors in,” Mr Lewis said.
“Some people perhaps would be terrified, like on a rollercoaster.
“But it’s a safe environment and it is fun. People enjoy that excitement.
“You would always have the option of not going on the glass floor.
“There would be the good old-style steel grating on the other side.”
David Hando is chairman of the Friends of Newport Transporter Bridge.
“It’s almost unique,” he said.
“There are only three in Britain and eight in the world.
“It’s an amazing piece of engineering and it looks very elegant.”
The structure is now Grade I listed.
“When the bridge was built it was built in part to persuade John Lysaght to build a steelworks here,” Mr Hando said.
“He wanted a steelworks away from his Wolverhampton base.
“He was persuaded to come to Newport because of the promise to build a bridge from the residential side on the east bank.
“Had it not been built they would have had to walk up two miles to the castle and then two miles down to work – passing about 28 pubs along the way.
Workers came from Wolverhampton for jobs in Newport.
“Some of them came by bike and some of them walked all the way,” said Mr Hando.
“But they were coming to a rugby area and they were Wolverhampton Wanderers fans.
“They wanted a professional football team to support so, with the help of Mr Lysaght, set up the original Newport County in 1912.”
Wolves played in old gold and black.
“That is why Newport play in black and amber,” Mr Hando said.
The original Newport County went out of business in 1989 and Newport AFC was created. The transporter bridge featured on its badge.
“During the building of the bridge there were no fatalities and that was a proud boast,” Mr Hando said.
“They did not have health and safety so if someone fell in the river there was a boat waiting to pick them up.”
Stephen K Jones is an author and member of the Institute of Civil Engineers.
“It is quite a rare structure and of historic value,” he said.
“It was built as a solution to a particular problem.
“They wanted to access the other side of the river but they could not build a conventional bridge because they needed sufficient headroom for ships going up the river.
“It’s an example of economic development because Newport wanted to secure the steelworks on the other side of the river.”
At almost 74m high and with a span of almost 197m it is the largest of the world’s remaining transporter bridges.
“In the docks area they would have been used to the hustle and bustle of the ships going in and out,” Mr Jones said.
“But to have this sort of object on the landscape, which is quite unmistakable, I’m sure they would have been amazed.
“It’s quite an experience walking over it because you’re quite high up and you’re walking over this steel mesh.”
He said he believed Newport Transporter Bridge was “the best one in Britain”.
“The one in Middlesbrough is not as graceful,” Mr Jones said.
The other, in Warrington, is not in working order.
“It’s got to be preserved and kept in working order because it is such an iconic structure and deserves to be looked after,” said Mr Jones.
“We’ve lost quite a few of our iconic structures in Wales over the years and we cannot afford to lose any more.”
Now there are plans to try and secure World Heritage Site status for the bridge and the others around the world.
At the moment the only one with that is the Bilbao bridge, which was the first to be built.
The council are also seeking a £10m lottery grant for the bridge.
Mr Lewis said getting World Heritage status would “open it up to a whole new market” of people.
“That is something that would fit in with the heritage lottery bid, if it is successful,” he said.
When the bridge opened it operated as part of the transport infrastructure.
“We’ve been running the site since 2012 and reformatted it as a heritage attraction,” he said.
“What we have not had is a lot of investment.”
At the moment there are about 20,000 visitors a year.
“We would like to get that up to about 50,000 a year,” Mr Lewis said.
“That would be a respectable number.
“Raglan Castle gets about 65,000 a year and Tredegar House gets about 100,000.”
Cash is needed to restore the gondola and set up a new visitor centre.
“We would like to return the gondola to its 1906 form. It has been repaired and lost some of its decorative detail,” Mr Lewis said.
“It was a bit more ornate and I would like to see that return.
“We have a small visitor centre at the side. You can just about swing a cat in there if you’re lucky but we want to improve on that.
“We would like to have a proper exhibition about the bridge because there is a proper story to tell.
“There are some great stories to tell about that could improve the overall experience and make it a bit more impactful.”