Memorial Bridge – A Witness to Bangkok’s History

Opened with great pomp and ceremony in 1932 Memorial Bridge was the first road bridge built across the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Nearly ninety years later it is just one of many much larger bridges now crossing the river but no others have stood through the immense changes and historic events that Memorial Bridge has seen in those years.

A Bridge With Many Names

The official name of Memorial Bridge is Saphan Pathom Boroma Ratchanusorn (สะพานปฐมบรมราชานุสรณ์) but it is more commonly known to Thais as Saphan Phra Phuttayotfa (สะพานพระพุทธยอดฟ้า), often abbreviated to Saphan Phut, named after King Phra Phuttayotfa (Rama I) who founded both the Chakri dynasty and Bangkok in 1782. The bridge was opened in 1932 to commemorate this historic event. It appears that English speakers have found both names too challenging and prefer to call this bridge “Memorial Bridge”.

Saphan Phra Phuttayotfa or Memorial Bridge was opened in 1932

Railways versus Roads

The very first bridge built across the Chao Phraya River had been the Rama VI Bridge, opened in 1927. This was a railway and pedestrian bridge designed to allow the Southern Line railway to be extended across the river and terminate at Hua Lampong Station together with the Northern Line.

Rama VI Railway Bridge in 1927

Even before the completion of this bridge the Siam government recognised the need for a road bridge to cross the river. Over the previous half-century the network of modern roads had expanded rapidly in Bangkok transforming what had traditionally been a water-borne city of canals. Both King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, r1868 – 1910) and King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, r.1910 – 1925) had sponsored programs of “birthday bridges“, building road bridges across Bangkok’s numerous canals. Now King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) would partially sponsor a bridge across the Chao Phraya River.

A Monumental Bridge

In 1928 the Siamese government initiated an international competitive tender for this landmark bridge that was planned to commemorate both the founding of Bangkok and the 150th anniversary of the Chakri dynasty. The key requirements laid out in the tender were that the bridge should not interfere in river navigation and that it should be monumental in nature as befitting such an important commemoration.

The winning tender came from Dorman Long & Co. Ltd, a prestigious British company who were famous for their steel bridges erected across the world. Their most famous work is the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia which was opened just three weeks prior to Bangkok’s Memorial Bridge.

Artists impression Memorial Bridge 1930
An article from Dorman Long’s 1930 book of bridges

Dorman Long’s design was for a three span steel bridge 229.76 metres in length, 16.68 metres wide and 7.5 metres above the river. To allow river navigation for larger vessels the central span comprised two lifting bascule sections that when raised provided a 60 metre wide opening for shipping.

At each end of the bridge ornamental gardens were to be built, the centre piece for which on the Bangkok side would be a large statue of King Phra Phuttayotfa (Rama I). A subtle feature in these plans was that the layout of the bridge, roads and gardens form the shape of an arrow shooting across the Chao Phraya River, the arrow being the emblem of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

Plans for Memorial Bridge reveal the arrow emblem of King Rama VII

The proposed budget for the bridge was four million Baht which was raised partially from the government budget, partially from the King’s royal privy purse and partially by public donations.

Monumental Challenges

An Italian company, Società Nazionale Officine Savigliano (SNOS), also qualified joint first in the tender process and were chosen as the supervising engineers for the project. During the tender phase SNOS engineers had surveyed the proposed site of the bridge and started to understand the challenges that would need to be overcome. As with much of Bangkok, the land was marshy and incapable of readily supporting the 1,430 ton load of the bridge. The river itself is 20 metres deep at this point with a strong current, further complicating the engineering required.

Construction of the supporting piers for Memorial Bridge

The solution that the SNOS engineers settled upon was to build reinforced concrete foundation posts that went down to a depth of 30 metres below the river bed. The construction of these foundations required the expertise of another company, Fratelli Borini Construction Firm, who had expertise in the compressed air caisson system whereby a chamber filled with compressed air was used to keep water out of the construction zone.

Construction of the bridge began on 3rd December 1929 and lasted just over two years.

Memorial bridge construction
Views of Memorial Bridge during construction

Pomp, Ceremony and Tension

Rama I statue
The statue of King Rama I dominates the entrance to the bridge

The official opening was organised for Chakri Day, 6th April 1932, the 150th anniversary of the founding of Bangkok. King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) presided over the opening ceremony where the focal point was the large statue of an enthroned King Phra Phuttayotfa (Rama I). This statue had been designed by the famous Italian artist based in Siam, Corrado Feroci (Silpa Bhirasri) whilst the setting was designed by Prince Naris, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV).

The opening ceremony for Memorial Bridge on 6 April 1932

Underlying the grand ceremonies for this occasion however, there was considerable political tension. The Great Depression had arrived in Siam and the population of Bangkok was hard hit by job losses and rising prices. The popularity of the monarchy had declined precipitously during the preceding decades and there were persistent stories of a prophesy that foretold how the Chakri dynasty would last only 150 years. Leading up to the opening of Memorial Bridge there were rumours that the ceremonies would be disrupted in some fashion.

The royal procession crosses Memorial Bridge on 6 April 1932

As it was everything went to plan on April 6th. One writer in the Bangkok Times hailed this display of “public loyalty to both the dynasty and the reigning monarch” and praised “the suitability of benevolent autocracy for the government of Siam”.

Revellers enjoying the festivities of the opening ceremony

Less than three months later King Rama VII was deposed by a group of civilians and military officers who called themselves The People’s Party. The opening of Memorial Bridge was the last major public engagement of King Rama VII in his role of Absolute Monarch.

Opening Up Thonburi

The push to build a road bridge across the Chao Phraya river was a natural progression from the rapid development of the road network in Bangkok during the previous decades. But perhaps the biggest immediate impact was on the much less developed Thonburi side of the river.

Up until 1932 there were virtually no modern roads suitable for motorized transport on Thonburi. Therefore at the same time as building Memorial Bridge the government financed the construction of Prajadhipok Road and Wongwian Yai roundabout as well as nine other roads in Thonburi. However, the famous statue of King Taksin on horseback at Wongwian Yai, another work of Corrado Feroci, was not erected until 1953.

This wartime photo of the bombing of Wat Lieb power station also clearly shows the new road layout up to Wongwian Yai on Thonburi

The opening of the bridge also allowed bus routes to be expanded over to Thonburi for the first time. The first cross-river service running between Bang Lamphu and Wongwian Yai started in 1933, operated by the Thon Nakhon Company which was owned by the Lamsam family. Today the Lamsams are more well known for their ownership of Kasikorn Bank.

Surviving War

During World War II Thailand was allied with Japan and as the tide of war swung inexorably in favour of the Allies and the overwhelming military strength of the United States, Bangkok was subject to ever increasing bombing raids. As the only road link across the river Memorial Bridge was a key target. The bridge was also less than 500 metres away from the Wat Liab power station, one of only two electricity generating stations in Bangkok and hence a highly strategic target.

A map from the allied Air Objectives Folder Thailand, 1st February 1943,
marking Memorial Bridge and Wat Lieb Power Station for bombing raids

On 5th June 1944 some 77 or more B29 Superfortress bombers were sent to destroy both the bridge and the power station, a test for the Americans of their bombing skills before attacks began on Japan. In the event neither target was hit, the bombs being over two kilometres off-target and destroying a Japanese hospital as well as the headquarters of the Japanese secret police. Ironically, because by chance no civilian buildings were hit, the Thai authorities were impressed by the apparent accuracy of the American bombing.

A view of the bomb damaged Memorial Bridge

Nevertheless, Memorial Bridge was eventually hit and partially destroyed by Allied bombs (As was Wat Liab power station in a raid on April 14th, 1945).

The Bridge in Modern Times

After the end of the war it was four years before Memorial Bridge was restored to operation. The re-opening of the bridge took place with great festivity on 14th November 1949. As the Bangkok Post reported the next day “Thousands gathered at the approaches to the bridge to witness the fanfare. Prince Rangsit of Chainat pressed a button causing the centre parts of the bridge to swing into a closed position, as planes flew overhead dropping flowers……..the party continued into the night”.

pedestrians on memorial bridge 1953
Pedestrians crossing Memorial Bridge with the smoke stacks of Wat Liab Power Station behind them (1958)

In 1981 to address ever worsening traffic congestion in the city the lifting sections of Memorial Bridge were sealed shut. This required all larger vessels to move down river before the permanent closing of the bridge.

A Thai naval vessel moves down river before the permanent closure of Memorial Bridge in April 1981

The bridge’s permanent closure to river traffic has however caused concerns for the future. In 2014 it was reported that Bangkok authorities were looking at ways to raise the entire bridge because during the rainy season high tides the clearance between the bridge and water was sometimes just 4.7 metres, blocking empty barges from returning upriver. Raising the height of the bridge would clearly be a huge engineering task and it is not clear to Siamrat whether these plans have progressed since five years ago.

Of course Bangkok traffic today is beyond what could have been imagined in 1932. Memorial Bridge now stands right next to the more modern concrete Phra Pok Klao Bridge that was opened in 1984 to relieve congestion across the older bridge. Today there are eleven other road bridges across the Chao Phraya river in the greater Bangkok area and a similar number in immediately adjacent provinces, showing today’s total dominance of road traffic over both river and rail.

Where to Go

References

  1. The penetration of Italian professionals in the context of the Siamese modernization. Francesca B. Filippi and Vilma Fasoli, abe Journal, 5/2014
  2. Trams, Buses and Rails, The History of Urban Transport in Bangkok, 1886 – 2010. Ichiro Kakizaki, Silkworm Books, 2014
  3. The End of Absolute Monarchy in Siam. Benjamin A.Batson, Oxford university Press, 1984
  4. A Slice of Thai History: The air war over Thailand, 1941-1945 , http://www.pattayamail.com/513/columns.shtml#hd6
  5. http://tamagozzilla.blogspot.com/2015/02/mo-memoir-sunday-15-february-2558.html
  6. https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/437083/three-bridges-need-raising

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