By the late 1800s, Gustave Eiffel was a busy and well-known engineer, with projects not just in France but across Europe and as far away as Vietnam, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Turkey. His company managed the construction of an astonishing variety of train stations, grand galleries, and bridges all over the world. And while we all know something about a certain Tower in Paris, one of his most famous projects brought him to the deep heart of France five years before the Tower opened.
Gustav Eiffel in 1888 (Source: Public Domain photo by Nadar via Wikimedia Commons)
The Viaduc de Garabit was actually the idea of a bridge engineer named Léon Boyer, an interesting character in his own right who specialized in designing solutions for some of the most difficult spans in France and who ended up as head of the Panama Canal project until he died of yellow fever three months after his arrival.
Boyer’s idea was to build a bridge over the Truyère, a river running 100 miles through the Massif Central. Getting a train over the river’s deep gorges was a logistical nightmare, and Boyer rejected the traditional approach (winding the line back and forth down to the level of the Truyère before running it across a flat bridge) in favor of something breathtakingly bold: He would get Eiffel to build the world’s highest viaduct.
It’s in the execution, though, where Eiffel’s genius in metalwork is apparent. Seen from the road, it’s hard to believe this lacy strand of red metal could support the weight of a freight train – but it does! The rail line hangs 312 feet above the river’s surface (it used to be 400 feet, but the river level rose as it pooled into a lake when the dam at Grandval was built in 1959). Its 3,200 tons of forged iron and steel are supported by 719,000 cubic feet of masonry.
Although Eiffel had already done many important projects (including the interior support structure for the Statue of Liberty), it’s the Viaduc de Garabit that brought his name to much broader attention and set him up for the opportunity to build his Tower for the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, opening five years after the completion of this viaduct in 1884. When the bridge opened completely in 1888, trains could go all the way from Paris to Béziers in the southwest of France.
There are plenty of other reasons to visit this corner of France. It’s an easy drive from the Viaduc to the beautiful medieval village of St. Flour and to the ghostly ruins of the chateau at Alleuze. At Chaudes-Aigues, therapeutic waters work their way from volcanic sources to the surface still at 1130 to 1800 Fahrenheit (450 to 820 C). The lake around the Grandval dam itself is a hugely popular recreational area for boating and swimming, and the forests along the river make for memorably scenic walking, cycling, and horseback-riding.
But be sure to see the Viaduc before you leave. The collaboration between Boyer and Eiffel (“a visionary engineer and the magician of iron”) has been nominated for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but even without that designation it’s a worthwhile destination in one of the most beautiful corners of France.
Have you seen any of Eiffel’s other works? Do you have a photo or a memory you could share? Please use the space below to comment!