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  • Ilinca Stroe

Anghel Saligny: The Unspectacular Decency of an Engineering Star

Those of you who ever drove along the A2 motorway to the Romanian Black Sea coast will certainly remember how, as you near Cernavodă, the fine, slender shape of a steel bridge is coming to view, slightly reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower’s metal lacework – a sight not unlikely to make you hold your breath... That through truss railway bridge built between 1890 and 1895 to link the historic regions of Muntenia and Dobrogea and the city of Feteşti to Cernavodă still very much wows viewers today.

It rises 30 metres above the surface of the Danube, it spans 4,087.95 metres (13,411.9 feet), of which 1,662 over the river, and at the time when it was built it was Europe’s longest bridge and the third longest in the world. [1] Its Cernavodă foot is flanked by the impressive statues of two “dorobanţi” (infantry soldiers) which stand as mementos of Romania’s Independence War. Designed by the French sculptor Léon Pilet and partly paid for by the French Embassy to honour King Charles I, the dorobanţi were cast in bronze in three pieces in Lyon, then transported to and assembled on the bank of the Danube.

Bridge inauguration day: 26 September 1895. The King and a gread deal of high-level officials left Bucharest by train at 9am to attend the festivities. There’s fanfare band music and the ships stationed below on the Danube are hooting loudly. A solemn religious service is held and the last rivet, made of silver, is nailed into the structure. Everyone’s ready to witness the great test of resilience: the bridge is going to be crossed for the first time by a convoy of 15 locomotives, all whistling gloriously at 60kph, followed by a train for guests riding at 80kph.

But where’s the mastermind of this spectacular feat of engineering? Nowhere in sight. The 34-year-old designer of the bridge is keeping a low profile in... a boat anchored under the bridge, together with his team of builders. Vouching for the resilience of the structure with their own life: in case the thing collapses when crossed by the heavy trains, it’ll collapse onto them, as punishment for building it poorly.

“I knew it would hold!” exclaimed the young engineer ecstatically when all of the trains had crossed safely and the bridge stood proudly up. [2] His life course had taken him to that moment of glory step by step. The son of a French émigré who, enticed by statesman Mihail Kogălniceanu, had settled in Moldavia, Anghel Saligny (1854-1925) went to his father’s primary school in Focşani and after secondary school he continued his studies in Postdam, Germany, then at the University of Berlin and the prestigious Technical Higher School of Charlottenburg.

Back in Romania, Saligny’s work at the Ploieşti-Predeal railroad and the Constanţa port brought him the reputation of a highly reliable and competent professional. He was also well known for being a very innovative engineer: he used some construction materials for the first time in Europe in certain types of structures (e.g. reinforced concrete and prefabricated concrete slabs for the silos in the docks of Brăila and Galaţi, and beams with consoles for the Cernavodă bridge suprastructure.) After the construction of the latter, Saligny’s career kept going uphill: he was Director of the Romanian Railway Company, Head of the General Directorate for Ammunition in the War Ministry during WWI, and President of the Romanian Academy. [3]

Was he proud of himself? A fellow engineer’s memoirs picture old Saligny going to Cernavodă regularly and examining the bridge carefully. “For hours on end he would walk on the bridge he had built or would go under it and keep on inspecting it as if he was looking for something only he was aware of. [...] One day I mustered the courage to ask him why he was spending hours with his eyes set on the bridge as if insatiably contemplating his own masterpiece. He didn’t mind the question. He smiled at my naïveté and answered: ‘I admire my work less than you imagine. If you see me staring at it for hours it’s because I’m searching for weaknesses, for errors... And there’s one I can’t forgive myself for. I should’ve built two lanes on it: one for carts and pedestrians, so that there was that bond too between Dobrogea and Muntenia.’” [4]

Perhaps the true stuff of leadership is modesty: knowing not that you’re unique and irreplaceable but, on the contrary, that your excellent work still leaves room for improvement and that making things even better after you’re gone is the distinct role of the future generation. Knowing how to hand things over and leave contentedly. That, at least, is what Saligny’s retirement speech suggests: “I firmly believe that, unless one has the opportunity to assert oneself, unless one has good people to work with, as I did, one cannot stand out. I owe it to chance, to the circumstances and to my eminent collaborators that I enjoy the prestige I do now. [...] My retirement will go unnoticed, as there are still around remarkable leaders, each one of whom can successfully replace me.” [5]

International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and onsite Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s history, culture, language. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact

Notes & Sources

[4] Ibidem.

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