25 de Abril Bridge in Lisbon: A Homage to Democracy

Europe’s westernmost city, Lisbon is the only European capital that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Not surprisingly, this eminently marine city knows a thing or two about bridges, especially since the final kilometres of the Tagus River, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, wind through the town. Just before and just in front of Lisbon, the Tagus widens greatly, before plunging into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the years, two huge bridges have been built to link the river’s far-off banks. The most recent, the Vasco da Gama Bridge, was inaugurated in 1998. Twelve kilometres in length, it was the longest bridge on the continent until 2018, when it was surpassed by the Crimean Bridge. The older bridge is the famous 25 de Abril Bridge (the 25th of April Bridge), which is “just” 2.27 kilometres long. However, when it first opened, it too was acclaimed as the longest suspension bridge in Europe.

Initial Designs for the 25 de Abril Bridge

Today, it is almost impossible to imagine the Lusitanian capital without the 25 de Abril bridge. This pharaonic work may not have been built until the 1960s, but the idea had been doing the rounds for almost a century. Portuguese engineer Miguel Pais was the first to seriously consider connecting Lisbon with the southern side of the Tagus, in a design that dates back to 1876.

His idea may have been far beyond the possibilities of the day, yet in some ways, his proposal was not entirely pie in the sky. At that time, the Portuguese government, presided over by Fontes Pereira de Melo, was investing enormous resources and energy in the country’s structural modernization: despite losing Brazil, Portugal was still a major colonial power, ruling Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola and other colonies. The government may not have gone ahead with Pais’ idea, but the goal of uniting the two banks of the Tagus was on the table. A number of other designs were put forward in the 1880s, often championed by foreign engineers; none of them won government approval. Suggestions were made for other ways of crossing the river: not a bridge but a tunnel, such as the tunnel under the Thames in London that was completed in 1843, one under the Mersey in Liverpool in 1886, and another under the Severn in Wales that was also completed that same year. More and more proposals arrived, particularly in the 1910s, but at this time in history, Portugal had plenty to deal with: the First World War, followed by hunger, general discontent, and finally the unrest that led the country to the Salazar regime. Major public works were off the agenda.

Construction of the 25 April Bridge in Lisbon

The Portugal in which building work began on the 25 April Bridge in Lisbon was a very different country. Yes, it was going through a major economic crisis, but it was also emerging from years of unrest and terrorism. A 1926 coup turned Portugal into a dictatorship. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar first became the Minister of Finance, and then Head of Government. For the regime, construction of the bridge became a futuristic, flagship project. The government actively considered a homegrown design by Antonio Belo. Presented in 1929, the government was favourably disposed, and appointed a special Commission in 1933, but the stars did not align for this huge building project. In the end, the government did not actually approve construction of the 25 de Abril Bridge until 1958. Most likely, Salazar finally said yes because he wanted to bring prestige to Portugal, and to focus public attention on construction of this huge bridge rather than the country’s dramatic war in Mozambique.

The cost of constructing the 25 de Abril Bridge was enormous (2.2 billion escudos, equating to some 800 million euros today). This was far beyond the spending powers of the state. Although it was never publicly admitted, the 25 April Bridge in Lisbon was built almost entirely as a result of foreign loans, for the most part from the United States. There is nothing surprising about this link between Lisbon and Washington: despite being a dictatorship, Portugal was nevertheless a founding member of NATO and EFTA. Other countries apart from the US also provided loans. The construction company that won the competition to build the bridge was, perhaps not surprisingly, the same company that had helped to build the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, whose design explicitly inspired the April 25 Bridge.

Work began on 5 November 1962. It was completed less than four years later, six months ahead of the original deadline. In all, a total of some 2,800 workers from eleven different companies were employed.

The 25 de Abril Bridge in numbers

The bridge is a huge steel behemoth 70 metres tall and 2.3 kilometres long. For years, the 25 de Abril Bridge was the fifth-longest bridge in the world, and the longest outside the United States. Construction of this bridge also required building 15 kilometres of highway, a viaduct almost one kilometre long, ramps and so on. It should be noted that it is both a road and rail bridge: the lower section is dedicated to trains. That’s not all: thanks to the urban and economic growth that the bridge generated, not to mention the tourism it attracted, the bridge paid for itself very quickly, making it possible to repay the U.S. loans ahead of schedule.

The bridge was initially inaugurated as the Salazar Bridge on 6 August 1966. It underwent a name change in 1974, after the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in a swift and bloodless coup. To commemorate the date of that revolution, the bridge was renamed the “25 del Abril” Bridge.