Bridges in l'Ile-Saint-Denis

L'ile-Saint-Denis is the only fluvial island town in France. This picturesque location was subject to a number of problems throughout its history and particularly for communication with neighboring towns.

Saint-Denis bridge: a suspension bridge built by the Seguin brothers 

Until the nineteenth century, only boats and barges connected the island to the mainland. Despite the development of "country houses" in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, no bridge was built over the Seine. The oldest project dates back to 1829 but the project did not go through the planning stage. In 1836, on a proposal by Thiers and after long discussions, the defense committee declared favorable to a vast continuous enclosure around Paris, Vauban-like, coupled with a fortified belt, Montalembert-like.

In this perspective, a circular route connecting the River Marne to the River Seine became urgent and passage towards Ile-Saint-Denis turned out to be of the utmost necessity. A transit belt, the main connecting road No. 6 emerged. It was to become the national 186 and then the A86 motorway. After several investigations for public utility concerning construction of a bridge that would link the island to the right bank, a royal decree of May, 9th, 1842 was declared public interest for the construction of such a work. On January, 4th, 1893, construction permission of a bridge linking both sides of the island was given to the Seguin brothers, with a 60-year concession.. Marc Seguin (1786-1875) ; founder of the company "Marc Seguin and brothers", with four of his brothers, was an engineer and nephew of Joseph de Montgolfier and whose grandsons  were to be the inventors of the rotating engine "Gnome". The seguin brothers became famous by specializing in the construction of suspension bridges.

For Ile-Saint-Denis, the Seguin brothers thought of a crossing with a suspension bridge on each arm of the Seine, one toward Saint-Denis and the other to Villeneuve-La-Garenne, "whose relative aperture would measure 98 meters and 118 meters,  not including the bridge piers." On 30th August 1843 foundation work began and in September - the Bocage backfill (former arm of the Seine that crossed the island) was partly in place. Things went very quickly, and a year later, August 20th , 1844, Saint-Denis bridge was inaugurated.

From suspension bridges to cast Iron Bridges

Bridges radically changed the lives of the population living in Ile-Saint-Denis and the passage from one bank to another became a natural thing to do. But the bridges made by the Seguin brothers were soon be insufficient.

Firstly, it was much later that it was proved that the contractor had not always respected the execution plans. The abutments (masonry used to support the arc or arch), were less deeply rooted than had been planned and had to be rebuilt in 1903. Also, bridges did not meet traffic requirements.

From the years 1880-1890, the average number of pedestrians per day on each bridge was 4,700, especially  the one in Saint-Denis, which led to the train station, opened since 1846.

On some occasions, such as the Island’s feast day on 29th June, 20,000 pedestrians could cross the Seine in one day. Moreover, 200 haulage trucks (today’s trucks), 20 horse-drawn charriages, animals, pigs, horses, goat and sheep herds crossed daily.

In 1874, poor condition of the cables and disrepair of the suspension bridge in Saint-Denis, which was damaged during the 1870 war against the Prussians, worried residents. In 1880, the County Council administration in Seine Saint Denis thought about its reconstruction. The town also demanded its construction and every year the town administration applied for its construction. Finally, in 1901, the County Council administration of the Seine voted funds for the construction of a new bridge. The engineer, Caldagues drew up a detailed project to build an iron bridge and the tender was given to a masonry contractor named Huguet.

Firstly, suspension bridges had to remain open to traffic during the construction period, the abutments were to be interrupted only to build the iron arches. It was on this occasion that the flaws of the previous construction were discovered. It was therefore necessary to destroy the abutments, interrupting traffic, and build foot bridges. These footbridges, reserved solely for pedestrians, were the cause of complaints from local resident owners of horse-drawn carriages. Cast iron arcs were calculated to withstand tram matrices of the heaviest type at that time. The arches were designed by Jules Formigé (1879-1960), architect and archaeologist who worked on ancient monuments in southern France, and restorer of Saint-Denis abbey.

On 18th June 1905, the Assistant head to the Cabinet minister inaugurated the bridge, which was made up of seven steel arches resting on two piers and two stone abutments. In fact, decoration of the bridge was not yet completely finished as the sculptures were begun just three weeks earlier by the sculptor Florian Kulikowski (who had previously worked with Camille Formigé, Jules' father, for the decoration of Bir-Hakeim bridge). The first two bridges on Ile Saint Denis were the last suspension bridges in the territory of Seine-Saint-Denis, and Saint-Denis bridge, the last toll bridge in the department. Concession granted to the Seguin brothers until 1905, they were thus entitled to collect tolls until that date. But rights were bought by Saint Denis, Gennevilliers and Ile-Saint-Denis and on 13th October 1886, the concession stopped and passage became free.

Accidents and damage

The local population was very satisfied, because, thanks to the bridges, two tramway lines linked Saint Denis to Villeneuve-la-Garenne. The rise of traffic was not without its problems. The first accident occured in 1941 when a German Barge hit the central arch of the bridge on the smaller arm of the Seine. One of the seven arches was damaged but easily repaired. It was in 1983, on 13th April, that a first major accident occured: while the Seine was flooded and navigation prohibited, a pusher barge forced its way down and having wrongly calculated its passage under the central arch, sectioned four of the seven arcs successively. Immediately, the structure reacted and small stakes (bridge parts) were cut, metal intersections began to burn or become deformed. The boat suffered no serious damage but the bridge was closed to traffic. Repair work was long and difficult and was only reopened, for partial circulation, three months later.

Finally, in 1987, a "crazy" barge broke its mooring pontoon where it was moored on the right bank of the river. With its impressive length, the barge was loaded with household garbage. It approached Ile Saint Denis bridge from the left and slightly hit off against the bridge pier. The boat was stopped a few hundred meters further on by a towboat alerted by the navigation services. More shaken than injured and no apparent damage found, the iron bridge had resisted!

Tramway T1 to cross the two bridges

Sometimes threatened for destruction, Saint Denis bridge with its Camille Formigé design, was preserved thanks to the forces of local associations. Today, the two bridges on Ile Saint Denis are once again transformed. Indeed a large project concerning a public transport ring road known as "Grand tram" around Paris was part of the new “Etat-Région” contract-plan 2000-2006. The route developed in the continuity of the existing line on the RN186 in Seine-Saint-Denis. Ile-Saint Denis town authorities gave the guarantee that the passage of the tram would not effect the architectural heritage of the two bridges and set up a reflection workspace with Plaine Commune. It was obvious that extension of the T1 line from Saint-Denis to Asnières necessitated construction work to consolidate the bridges. Works were to continue until summer 2010.

Saint-Ouen bridge, former Vernier Bridge

The first bridge to connect the island to Saint Ouen was built in 1856. It was known as Vernier bridge. More plain and simple than Saint-Denis bridge, it nevertheless shared some similarities.  First of all, materials used were the same: cast iron for the arches and stone for the piers. The span of these two cast iron arches with an opening of 55 meters, was particularly elegant. Vernier bridge gave access on one side to the "château de Saint-Ouen", and on the other, to "moulin de Cage" moored on the edge of the former Châtellier island which is now known as "l’île de Saint-Ouen". Located opposite Genevilliers, the "moulin de Cage" was built on stilts to withstand flooding. We can find reference of this on a plot map made from 1730. Disused at the beginining of the nineteenth century, it was transformed into a guinguette (a Riverside tavern). Construction of Vernier bridge, and the two suspension bridges, brought an increase in activity for guinguettes along the river banks. Some of them were located on l’Ile-Saint-Denis on the banks of the river Seine. The young Jean-Baptiste Clément spent part of his childhood at Moulin de Cage: his grandmother ran a guinguette here.

After being partially destroyed during the war of 1870, Saint-Ouen bridge was rebuilt, as we know it today, in 1873. The toll was abolished  in 1882. The "moulin de Cage", however, did not withstand the conflict with the Prussians. Severly damaged, it totally disappeared after the war.

Gennevilliers railway bridge

Located to the north of Ile-Saint-Denis, the bridge was built for the passage of the railway line linking Saint-Ouen-les-Docks to Ermont-Eaubonne, opened in 1905 and inaugurated in 1908. It crossed the arm of the Seine River at l’Ile-Saint-Denis to Gennevilliers. Built in limestone and quarried stone, it was composed of three semicircular arches supported by two bridge piers in the river. It is used today for the passage of the RER line C1 (SNCF) which goes to Pontoise. A similar bridge crosses the Seine from l’Ile-Saint-Denis to Epinay.

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