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The people of Antioquia (called Antioqueños) a province located in the northwestern part of Colombia always sought an expeditious way to get to the Magdalena Rive, the country´s main waterway. But at the same time they would also see in the Cauca River, a waterway that divides the province in two and runs throughout the national territory from south to north, an obstacle to overcome in order to establish trade routes that would connect the region with other regions and with the world. In spite of the number of gold mines and a high number of tradesmen who had managed to get even to Europe, the Antioqueños were practically isolated from the rest of the territory due to the complexity of the area´s topography.
As of the second half of the 19th century, as they were encouraged by a series of privileges that the Sovereign State of Antioquia was willing to concede to those who would build roads leading to the incorporation of several commercial companies to that end. As a result, Law 30 dated May 1881 grants benefits to those who would build the suspension bridge over the Cauca River in the Las Piedras Pass between the towns of Jericó and Fredonia. To that end, a construction company is incorporated to receive said privileges over a period of time of 40 years. This Law served as the basis for a series of provisions that would pertain to the management, administration or supervision of roads and bridges. In Antioquia, private investors investment was a determining factor to achieve the development of the province. Of the ten bridges built up to the beginning of the 20th century with the purpose of crossing the Cauca River, one was located near Popayán and other between Cali and Palmira, both in the southern part of the country. The remaining eight were located in territories of the former Sovereign State of Antioquia, four of which in the area called today Viejo Caldas (provinces of Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda), due to the hazardous navigability conditions of the river after passing the city of Cartago (province of Valle del Cauca). The river was undoubtedly, the greatest obstacle for the communication between the people of Antioquia.
The Puente de Occidente works were projected by Engineer José María Villa, born in Sopetrán in 1850, who studied at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios and who due to his mathematic skills, received an scholarship to go and study abroad. He traveled to the United States and continued his studies there. As a result of a reduction of the scholarship term, he enrolled rapidly into the practice of his profession contributing with the design and construction process of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Upon returning to the country, he traveled along the Cauca River banks seeking for the most appropriate construction sites for bridges over the same river. One of those places was the pass between Sopetrán and Santa Fe, on which he delivered a report to the Sovereign State of Antioquia in 1884.
The firs bridge built by José María Villa over the Cauca River was at Las Piedras Pass between Jericó and Fredonia, executed between 1881 and 1885, a hanging structure with intermediate support. This first construction is followed by the bridge in Pescadero between the towns of Yarumal and Ituango and in one in La Pintada between the towns of Valparaíso and Santa Bárbara (built at the same time as Puente de Occidente), prior to completing his masterpiece.
Compañía Puente de Occidente is then incorporated in 1887 based on aforementioned Law 30 dated May 1881(of which Villa was also a shareholder). As it became difficult to raise the money projected by Villa to build the bridge (approximately 100.000 pesos), the State becomes the majority shareholder of the Company, enabling commencement of the works with a budget of 63.000 pesos.
The 291 meter high bridge works begin in December 1887 and end in 1895, nearly five years after initiation. For its construction, whose final cost was 171.000 pesos, the Company received privileges for a period of eighty years represented in the right of charging a pontazgo (bridge toll) and 10.000 hectares of wastelands. The iron and steel works were initially imported from England, while local suppliers would deliver timber, lime and bricks. Delays in the delivery of imported materials and timber shortage would affect the normal execution of the works during its execution.
One of the Puente de Occidente added values is the capacity of Engineer José María Villa to find practical solutions for unforeseen structural challenges, which would be resolved as the works were executed. There are no original drawings, and one speculates that he did not have to use them during the execution of the works because they were simply never produced.
The bridge´s structure is made up of four caraway wooden towers each measuring 11.28 meters high and covered with iron sheets supported on masonry walls in turn supported on a rocky soil. It has wire ropes and a roadway of 3.10 meters wide and lateral sidewalks each of 1.20 meters wide (which were added during the most recent renovation works at the end of the 20th century but that were planned from the original design) with a total width of 8 meters. Wire ropes emerge from the wooden towers manufactured on site with machines designed by Villa. Each one of the ropes is in turn made up by 798 imported steel wires. The drawings closest to the opening of the Bridge date from 1926 and were made by the American Company R.W. Hobard & Co. Inc. at the time all the timber from the original board was replaced as well as other specific pieces due to damage caused by the climate conditions in the area.
Although the bridge was not conceived initially to allow vehicle traffic, the bridge underwent reinforcement works to increase its bearing capacity due to the opening of the roadway to the sea in 1955. The wooden boards were again replaced and aluminum elements were incorporated as part of the reinforcement works, but the structural faults the bridge showed several months after the intervention made necessary a new reduction of the maximum eight allowed to five tons, as initially specified.
The most recent intervention of the Bridge was carried out in 1996 and it is currently in use. It was declared a National Site of Cultural Interest in accordance to Law 25 dated November 25, 1978.
The Puente de Occidente is a structure built at the end of the 19th century. It is one of the most important civil engineering works of its time in America and it is construction is considered as the initiation of this discipline in Colombia. Its design takes as reference the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, whose construction works had participation from José María Villa, adapting said design into local conditions. Upon its opening, it was considered the third largest bridge in the world facilitating the commercial traffic between the central and western part of Antioquia to the northwestern part of the country, as it served as the crossing point between Medellín (the capital), Frontino (gold exploitation center of the province) and the Urabá Gulf (exit to the sea). In this place characterized by its rugged topography, with limited technical resources and multiple challenges, Engineer Villa designed technical and creative solutions to overcome the difficulties at the time. Prior to the construction of the Bridge, the sole option to establish a connection with other towns in the area, would be following the river course towards the south; it became necessary to establish a rapid way of communication with the eastern side of the river in order to expand the region´s commercial borders and of the country in general.
Criterion (i): Engineer José María Villa designed what is considered the country´s first civil engineering works and one of the most advance works at Latin American level at the time. He introduced variations to the design he used as its initial inspiration, using materials inherent to the region such as caraway wood in combination with imported steel and iron and achieving an optimal structural construction of special beauty combined with an appropriate rationalization of the elements of its makeup.
Criterion (iv): In 1895, the opening year, it was considered the third largest bridge in the world and the largest in South America of nearly 300 meters long. Today, it is the third largest suspension bridge in Latin America and the eight worldwide. Its construction marked the start of a new era of land communications and the construction of infrastructure works in this part of the continent. It also contributed to connecting a region of great economic importance, which had been isolated until then.
The Puente de Occidente is currently protected by the Colombian legislation as it was declared a National Site of Cultural Interest in 1978. The bridge is currently in use and it is a highly visited tourist attraction. Due to its importance for the commercial and economic development of this area, it is one of the strongest identity references and the symbol of strength and integration for the people of the region.
Puente de Occidente stands out due to the combination of imported materials such as the wire ropes brought from England and local timber and masonry in a piece of work that opens up the region to new development and strength era as a symbol of overcoming the obstacles imposed by nature through human ingenuity. Similarly, Engineer Jose María Villa´s creativity is remarkable. He managed, without work plans, to overcome the difficulties inherent to the execution of such works. Puente de Occidente is one of the largest bridges compared with others inscribed on the World Heritage List.
Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge in Visegrad (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The bridge is inscribed on the World Heritage List under criteria ii and iv. The Ottoman Bridge was built over the Drina River at the end of the 16th century, in masonry and made up by two arches between 11 and 15 meters wide. It measures nearly 180 meters and it is the work of one of the greatest architects of his time, Mimar Koca Sinan. It is at the same time a symbol of cultural exchange between the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean region, between Christianity and Islam.
Area of the Old Bridge between the historical center of Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
This area is inscribed on the World Heritage List under criterion number vi. Built by Sinan, a recognized Ottoman of the 16th century. It was destroyed in 1990 during the war conflict in the area and rebuilt thanks to the auspices of UNESCO. It is a symbol of international cooperation and coexistence of different ethnic groups.
Bridge of Vizcaya (Spain)
The bridge is inscribed on the World Heritage List under criteria number ii and iii. Located 45 meters above the Nervión River near Bilbao, it operates as a ferry bridge (a type of which there is only a few left in the world). It was the first bridge to enable the crossing of vessels through the river at the same time that a small basket hanging from the structure enables the crossing of vehicles from one bank to the other. It was designed by architect Alberto de Palacio and built in 1893. It is 160 meters long, introducing the use of “armed torsion lightweight steel cables”, reason why it is deemed one of the greatest metallic architecture works of the Industrial Revolution.
Ironbridge Gorge (United Kingdom)
The bridge is part of a set of symbols of the Industrial revolution located in the town of Ironbridge. This bridge (the first in the world to be built in metal) was built in 1779 by Abraham Darby and becoming of great influence on subsequent engineering and architectural works.