Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) (1993) Lucerne, Switzerland

The Kapellbrücke crosses the Reuss River, where it meets Lake Lucerne, connecting the Altstadt or old city of Lucerne in Switzerland to its more modern counterpart. The covered, wooden bridge, with its distinctive red tiled roof, is one of Switzerland’s major tourist attractions and has been in existence since around 1333.

Fifty minutes after midnight, on August 18th, 1993, fire services were called to the bridge by a tourist who reported that a fire on a boat under the bridge had spread to the Kapellbrücke itself. With Swiss efficiency, the fire was under control by 1.15 a.m. though a fire watch was kept for another eleven hours during which small fires, which reignited from the smouldering embers, were quickly quenched. There were no fatalities.

The Kapellbrücke is thought to be the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world and was built as part of the medieval defences of the city. The octagonal, 34 metre high water tower, built around 1300, was integrated into the bridge and served variously as a prison, a dungeon, a torture chamber, a shop and is now an archive. The northern bridgehead once led directly into St. Peter’s Chapel, which in turn gave the bridge its name, but today this section of the bridge is a lakeside promenade.

Image of Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) (1993)

Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), Lucerne

Covering the bridge with a roof and sides helped to protect it from the extremes of weather through the centuries, while its structural strength is visibly based on that of the triangle. In the early 17th century the city council paid artist Hans Wegmann and his sons to paint the triangular spaces between the rafters with scenes from the lives of St. Leger and St. Maurice, the patron saints of Lucerne and scenes from Swiss history.

The bridge has undergone restoration and reconstruction in its long history, notably after a flood swept part of it away in 1741. The fire of August 1993 destroyed the unique gabled roof and the bridge balustrades, leaving only the substructure of the 204 metre long bridge, the bridge heads and the pillars on which to reconstruct a new bridge. Many of Wegmann’s paintings were also destroyed though it was possible to restore thirty.

Forensics revealed that the fire, thought by the tourist who alerted the fire authorities to have started on the boat, actually ignited on the bridge itself, possibly due to a discarded cigarette smouldering in the timbers. Reconstruction began almost immediately, the multi million swiss franc project financed by insurance and donations but also from the revenue from a postage stamp.