The Chak-Nizam Bridge

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 18 May 1887


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, pp. 115-16

The bridge over the Sutlej (see the preceding article) had been opened at the end of April inauspiciously; the ceremonies were delayed and protracted by various failures, the heat was troublesome, a sandstorm blew up, and the Lahore contingent, exhausted, did not get home until three in the morning. Accordingly, official Lahore was not eager to attend the opening of the bridge at Chak Nizam, the Victoria Bridge, especially since the region is one of the hottest in India. Such is the background of Kipling’s account, which neglects technical details and concentrates on a narrative of the preliminaries to and the aftermath of the opening ceremonies as much more to the point for his Lahore audience.
The bridge at Chak Nizam lay about a hundred miles north and west of Lahore. The lieutenant-governor presiding was Sir Alfred Lyall.


The Article

(From our own Correspondent)
May 6th

Incidents which one may now regard as closed, have somewhat discouraged the residents of Lahore from journeying abroad to open bridges in the summertime. They have said that Abana and Pharphar, dust-storms of their own country, are sufficiently amusing; and that in future, the arteries of traffic may open themselves ‘whenever they feel inclined’, uncheered by the presence and applause of Lahore. But the capital of the Punjab generalizes hastily, and does not always mean what it says.

There was a bridge — an unbaptised bridge — at Chak-Nizam which is on a stretch of the Jhelum, which is near the Salt Range of the Shahpur District, which is at the ‘back of beyond’ — completed a few weeks ago under the direction of these four gentlemen mainly — Mr James Ramsay, Engineer-in-Chief Sind Sagar State Railway; Mr F. R. Upcott, Engineer-in-charge of the Bridge; Mr Boydell, Executive Engineer; and Mr J. Spence, Sub-Engineer.

Now this bridge, though neither excessively long nor immoderately expensive, was an important, a strategical arrangement, inasmuch as it completed one line in a great circle whereby Lahore, Multan, and Dhera Ismail, will eventually be linked together, and troops will be thrown, that is the technical term, from Pindi to Dhera Ghazi Khan on the North Bank of the Indus, without having first to run down to Lahore, and thence via the old I.V. State to Multan. The last coupling-link — a bridge across the Indus at Sher Shah yet remains to be forged — possibly by Mr Mallet. This was one among the many things which the Chak-Nizam bridge accomplished; and it was necessary, therefore, that His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab should open it, as he had opened another strategical commercial bridge at Ferozepore a few weeks before. Bridge-opening in May is, to put it mildly, a risky performance, and is fairly certain to be warm.

Wherefore the engineers of the Chak-Nizam Bridge, having the fear of consequences before their eyes said: — ‘We will invite men only and peradventure they may enjoy themselves’. To this end, the engineers took measures — measures of ice, and soda-water by the hundred, and all the materials of a feast, beside the dining-saloon of the ‘Homeward Special’ which goes down the Indus Valley to catch the Hall Line steamers. Then they issued their invitations to Pindi and to Lahore; keeping the list down because they were afraid that their guests might be seduced into an oven and there die, budndming [sic] (bedamning ?) the Sind Sagar Railway and everything connected with it. Their fears were groundless; but they wished to be on the safe side. His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab promised to attend, and kept his promise, though he was forced to jam the trip into the forepart of his journey to Simla. With him came Captain Davies, Private Secretary, Captain Johnstone, A.D.C., and Mr Mackworth Young. Also, from Lahore, Colonel Conway Gordon, Director General of Railways, Messrs. Mallet, Sandiford, Williams, List, Jacob, Colonel Menzies, Mr Arundel, Mr Mercer and others. From Pindi, Colonel Nisbet, Mr Harrington, Lieutenant Thackwell, Mr Browne, Colonel Lovett, Mr R.W.
Roberts, Mr L.N. Broome, Mr Bicquet, Dr Dennys, Mr Dennys, and many others. From all about generally Mr H. O’Connor, D.S.P. Shahput, Mr Wilson, D.C., of Shahpur, Mr O’Dwyer, Assistant Commissioner of the same cheerful district, Major Bartholomew, M.J. Anderson, and other Civilians, engineers, and sight seers. But the point — and on the night of the 15th May this was a very great point — of the list was that there was no crowding; each guest sprawling on his own bunk as was right and proper.

So we left, actually to the minute, at 9—26 p.m. from Lahore, in the middle of a riotous dust-storm, which blew half a gale throughout Sunday night, and secured the Lahore section at least a comfortable night. We possessed the ‘Homeward Special’ dining saloon — a huge car which reminded one of a P. & O. saloon — and in that car might, at all hours of the night, be found pleasant drinks to wash down the flying dust. It was here that the Lahore section first realized that the Chak-Nizam Bridge opening was going to be a success. At Lala Musa Junction, the Pindi detachment must have ‘hooked on’ to the train in the night; and at most of the stations the natives must have believed that His Honour would descend and talk, for they saluted the train reverently and vigorously all the time it stopped.

Very early in the dawn a ghost-like white colt mistook the train for its mamma, and in that belief ran, screamed shrilly, ran swiftly for two miles on the ballast, where it nearly committed suicide over sleeper-tails. At five forty-five on Monday morning — again to the minute — the special pulled up in a grey, wind-blown, sandy, desolate waste, whence all the crops and apparently most of the cattle had been removed. There was no sunrise, nothing beyond a weak watery light behind a veil of cloud and dust, and the early morning air was almost chilly.

On either side of the embankment up which the engine had toiled, lay the swept-up debris of construction works and service-lines, wheelless trollies, stationary engines, baulks of timber and piled sleepers. In front, grey mist against grey mist was the line of the Jhelum, full from bank to bank; but a most mournful and melancholy river that had somehow entangled itself among plashly green fields, and did not quite know how to get out again. The banks were low and mean, the water was nearly flush with their crests, and the river in its muddied monotony of grey, sage-green, and silver-white did not look dignified. No more did the new bridge. The water was within fourteen feet of the girders and there were no imposing guard-houses at either end. It was a straight black, sullen, business-like line ruled across a turbulent river for the convenience of man, and not for the pleasure of his eyes; and it said as much in every span. Only the professional men in the train could know what amount of labour it represented, and they seemed to take it, after the custom of their breed, as a matter of course.

Your paper has already given details of the build of this Gradgrind of a bridge (Mr Gradgrind was the headmaster in Hard Times, by Dickens, a hard raskmaster) ; and your readers know consequently that it is made up of seventeen spans of 160 feet from centre to centre of the 107-foot brick piers which bite into the bed of the stream.
The startling peculiarity of the structure is that it will be made for less than the estimates. Another feature is that the last two girder spans had to be fitted on their piers from boats by reason of the rush of water. This gave the Engineers many lively hours, as the river was not constant, and the booms rose and fell with the water, and needed attention. All this, however, seemed to be not worth talking about; and was only discovered after long and persistent questionings based on the assumption that every bridge, even an ‘ordinary thing don’t you know’, has something noteworthy about it, and that the Engineer is the last man to know what he has done. For instance, the great point about the Chak-Nizam bridge in the eyes of its builders is that you can bathe and boat near it! The rest of the ‘thing’ came in the day’s work.
The ceremony of opening the bridge was spun out of malice aforethought, for the Engineers had provided all the guests with a sumptuous chota hazri (breakfast) , and one cannot eat a still more sumptuous breakfast an hour after such a meal. One of the bungalows of the English colony was turned into a banqueting hall. There were no decorations worth speaking of on the Bridge — all were reserved for the table and took the form of — but this is gross and carnal. It was a delightful chota hazri and the mangoes were iced to the minute.

Next, His Honour began, I think, to see native gentlemen, but on this point I am not certain. There were may native gentlemen all anxious to be introduced, and as there was no formal durbar the introductions came off ‘promiscuous’ in the verandah of the bungalow. These, however, are the names of the leading men of the Shahpur District and Pind Dadun Khan Subdivisions of Jhelum and Shahpur; To wit: —
Malik Davi Dass, Vice-President of the Bhora Municipality; Mian Mohammed, member of the same important institution (Bhora has a population of 15,000, and makes break-knife handles of a pretty but brittle stone); Pundit Dewan Chand, Sultan Mahommed, of Shahpur, the Metropolis; Bakshi Ram Soobhya of Bhera, Hari Ram, and Radha Kishen, contractors of Bhera, and Hyat Khan of Kote Ahmed Khan.
Of Pind Dadun Khan, presented by Raja Jehan Dad Khan, Khan Bahadur, Chief of the Ghakkars, in charge of the Pind Dadan Khan sub-division, and down in the Civil list as an Extra Assistant Commissioner: — Sodhi Sher Singh, Sodhi Sheeran Singh, Sodhi Hari Singh, Sodhi Kartar Singh, Sadar Hare Singh, Raja Surif Ali Khan, Khokhar, Sultan Lai Khan, Sultan Ali Bahadur Khan, Raja Abdulla Khan, Raja Mahommed Baksh, Chandhari Gauhar Khan of Garibwal, Chandhari Shaba Khan, Mahommed Buish, Mirza Shakir Khan, Lala Duni Chund, Teh- sildar, Pind Dadun Khan, and Diwan Lakhmi Dass, Munsiff of the same place.
These things having been happily accomplished while the Englishman smoked, His Honour took a trolly, which was filled according to all the laws of precedence, and being followed by the rest of the guests and a great concourse of native gentlemen, trollied from the Shahpur to the Jhelum abutment. All this time mercifully the sun was banked, and the air was cool and misty. There was nothing to be seen of the Salt Range, or of the stretch of the river; for the haze veiled everything at a few hundred yards’ distance.

Arrived at the Jhelum side, His honour halted till a rivet in a fire-pot had been properly cooked, while the rest of the audience looked on; the more ignorant wondering what in the world His Honour would do with the red-hot iron. Then stepped out Mr James Spence, Sub-Engineer, and Andrew his son, chosen for this proud office by right of past zeal, and artistically sent that rivet home in a side-girder, put a head on with a ‘snap’ — this is the technical expression, a snap is like a corkscrew and a soda- water bottle-opener — and stood back.

Mr Upcott, Engineer in charge of the Bridge Works, handing a small testing hammer in wooden case to Mr Lyall: — ‘Will Your Honour see that the rivet is firm and fast?’
Mr Lyall, tapping [the] rivet dubiously, as if he were afraid of destroying the handiwork of J. Spence and Son: — ‘Yes; it seems all right. That’s all the ceremony then? Well, gentlemen, I remember six and twenty years ago, travelling from Jhelum to Multan in a country-boat along this river. I found it then in its natural condition — nothing but waste land along the banks — and I only saw a few buffaloes and their herdsmen, and an occasional boat sailing up or drifting down. I fancy the river must have looked like that when Baber crossed it four hundred years ago, on the invasion which led to the foundation of the Mogul Empire — indeed it could not have greatly differed from the time when Alexander led his army here two thousand years ago. To-day the British Government, in the fullness of time, have set their mark upon the river, and have ornamented it with two beautiful bridges, one of which we are assembled here today to inaugurate. In the name of the Queen-Empress, I declare this bridge, the Victoria Bridge, open henceforth for public traffic. God keep it and protect it, and may it stand for ages for the use and profit of the people of the land, and a monument of the British Empire in India.’

Whereat, under the leadership of MrJ. Ramsay, we all cheered heartily, and added an extra cheer for Mr Lyall’s sake. He needed encouragement, for at that moment a photographer appeared, and held the front ranks of the assembly in uneasy camaraderie for a few minutes. Next, a train bore us all back to Shahpur and, after an interval, breakfast of a sumptuous kind.

This was a breakfast to be remembered through the hot weather — a well arranged, perfectly iced, deftly served entertainment, to sixty or more people. The menu ought to be reprinted for ‘information and reference’; but the one copy in this writer’s possession was stolen. At the conclusion of the banquet — meal is a vulgar word — came Havanas and the health of the Queen drunk in the Royal wine. It is on such occasions that, soothed by champagne, and made patriotic by pate de fois gras, both iced, that the humblest soul feels, he too, is assisting in the development of India, and the Progress of the Ages..

Then Mr J. Ramsay, Engineer in Chief rose and spoke: —

‘Your Honour and gentlemen, I am very pleased to see you all here, and we are much honoured in having you, Sir, to perform the ceremony of opening this Bridge; and I sincerely trust that none will have any serious cause to regret having accepted our invitation to be present. On a printed card, of which I hope every one received a copy, I have given a brief description of the main features of the Bridge but there was not space to mention the difficulties and delays encountered in the well-sinking from the clay bands met with at sixty feet and more below low-water-level, requiring peculiar treatment to get the wells through them; nor of the delays afterwards, in having to wait for the girder-work not arrived from England; nor of the anxiety during the erection of the sixteenth and seventeenth spans which had to be erected on staging fitted up in country-boats moored in deep water, and in a strong current running at the rate of some eight or ten miles an hour. Looking at the completed structure, as seen this morning, with the full river flowing steadily through every span between the two abutments, the difficulties encountered and overcome during its construction, do not show up; many of them will remain only in the memories of the officers and others, who were actually engaged on the works.

On the afternoon of the 17th December we had an unique, or almost unique accident, at the second span. The erection-staging caught fire after both the main girders had been almost rivetted up, and, owing to the high wind blowing at the time, all efforts to subdue the flames were overpowered, and in about twenty minutes after the fire was first seen, both girders buckled under the intense heat and fell into the water upstream. The wreckage of one was cleared away, but the other remains where it fell — in the bottom of the river.

‘New girders were at once ordered out from England, and these were erected on the 29th of last month, and the last rivet was driven in your presence this morning.
‘I think, Sir, that very great credit is due to Mr Upcott and his staff of Engineers and petty officers, for the workmanlike manner and speed with which they have completed the Bridge.

‘Their untiring energy and zeal about these works and exposure in all seasons at all hours are worthy of far higher praise than I can give and I sincerely hope will secure fitting rewards.

‘To Mr Hiley, Port Store Keeper Karachi, our thanks are due for the orderly and prompt manner in which the girder work was all forwarded to us here. The officers who have been on the construction of the bridge are Mr Upcott who commenced and has finished it; Messrs. Brydell and Cole, Executive Engineers, and Mr J. Spence, Sub-Engineer. Messrs. Wynne and Messrs. Tait were also for short periods, in charge of the works.’


Mr Lyall in reply said briefly: —

‘Before I came here Mr Ramsay assured me that there was to be no speech making, so I did not come prepared to make a speech. I did hope to receive a telegram from the Government of India congratulating us and the Engineers, on the completion of the Bridge, and giving credit to all the officers who took part in the work. It seems, however, as if some accident must have happened, and that the telegram must have gone astray. It may, however, come in due time to be put in the newspaper but I regret that I shall not have the pleasure of reading it to you here.

‘Mr Ramsay in his speech has mentioned all the officers connected with the bridge, but he did not mention his own exertions. Nevertheless I hope that the Government of India will give due credit to Mr Ramsay.
‘A remarkable feature of the present time is the wonderful speed and certainty with which works like this are now made. The Victoria bridge half a mile long and costing 25 lakhs has been built as you know, in less than two years and for less than the estimates (Loud cheers).

‘A good many of the Lahore people showed the white feather when they were invited to come down here, but I am sure those who are present will carry away pleasant remembrances of their visit, and will feel grateful to the officers who have entertained them so pleasantly to-day. Gentlemen my toast is: — ‘The Bridge and the Officers who made it’.

Mr Upcott replied to this toast: —

‘Your Honour and Gentlemen. In thanking you for your attendance here to-day I can only say that it is easier to fix a girder than to make a speech; and I don’t wish to detain you with one. I must, however, take this opportunity of thanking publicly every one of my subordinates, down to the lowest coolie, for the way in which they have worked — for you’ll understand that without help from everyone this sort of thing can’t be made. I trust you have all enjoyed yourselves (cheers) and I hope you will have as comfortable a journey back as you had down.’

Then the proceedings terminated — with a fresh rush of native gentlemen I think, but am not certain, for, in an office round the corner, an excellent Telegraph Babu almost hysterical with wrath against an incompetent signaller up the line, was using language not to be found in any code, and to him my attentions were addressed. The Government of India Telegram arrived as Mr Lyall foretold, only in time to be put in the papers. This is what the Viceroy said, on the 16th instant, to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab: —

‘It is with the utmost satisfaction that I find myself called upon for the second time within one month to congratulate you on the accomplishment of railway transit over one of the great rivers of the Punjab. The Jhelum Bridge at Chak Nizam establishes continuous communication by the aid of the Sind Sagar State Railway between the northern posts of the province, the trans Indus Military Stations, Dhera Ismail and Dhera Ghazi Khan and Multan. The Bridge has been ably located and most rapidly constructed, and I desire that you will convey my satisfaction at the successful completion of their labours to the staff of all grades who have been directly engaged upon so important a work and specially to Messrs. O’Callaghan, Upcott and Ramsay who have successively held the post of Engineer in Chief of the Line and Director of operations.’

At ten punctually we left — a long train — with many maunds of ice and one of our genial hosts accompanied us to Lahore. Then the heat settled on us like a mantle. There was no sun, but the grey sky held us like a hot dish-cover, and flying dust storms hunted the train and begrimed us from head to foot. Like Mr Ramsay’s girders, we buckled with the intense heat for seven weary hours, but our host (may he attain Simla for his kindness!) was with us, and the journey was lightened by a perfect tiffin — all cold and iced — in the dining-saloon carriage. There was an unsuccessful cabal among the Pindi section to steal that car, but the conspirators were cut off at Lala Musa with four maunds of ice, and an Imperial cellar to get home at nine at night. We were only fried till five forty five; but we felt a Calcuttacute envy at seeing His honour go on to Simla from Lahore.

It was a great success in every way; for no man expects even the Engineers who built the Victoria Bridge, to muffle a May sun.