Stairway to Antwerp: City’s iconic wooden escalators among last in the world

Stairway to Antwerp: City’s iconic wooden escalators among last in the world
Picture shows the wooden escalators in Antwerp's St. Anna's pedestrian tunnel. Credit: Belga/Viviane Vaz

The wooden escalators on both sides of the St Anna's tunnel in Antwerp have been providing an easy connection between the left and right banks of the city for cyclists and pedestrians for nearly 90 years, and are among the last working ones in the world.

As early as 1874, the people of Antwerp agreed that a connection for pedestrians and cyclists between the left and right banks of the Scheldt river was needed.

A number of plans were made to build a bridge across the river but they were seen as problematic as a possible hindrance to shipping traffic. It wasn't until 1931 when the decision to build a tunnel was officially made.

Now the tunnel is considered a symbol of Antwerp, largely thanks to its wooden escalators which were among the first in the world at the tunnel's opening in 1933. Today, they are one of the last wooden escalators left in the world, with steps made out of solid wood and weighing about 40 kg each.

Belgian-made

The concept and design for the tunnel were presented by US inventor Jesse Reno at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, where it won first prize. But the escalators in Antwerp are not American, according to Kris Henau, former coordinator of tunnel maintenance at the Flemish Agency for Roads and Traffic.

"They are Belgian-made, by the Jaspar company from Liège," he told Gazet van Antwerp, adding that the materials used are top quality, strong and durable.

"Between 3.5 and 4 million people pass through this tunnel every year, equivalent to about one-third of the Belgian population," Henau said. "85% take the escalators, 15% take the elevator. I don't think that any other public elevators, even the ones in the Antwerp Central Station, are used that intensively."

The escalators, which go 31.5 m underground, were built to transport about 16,000 people per hour and go at a speed of 1.8 kilometres per hour.

Original decorations

Before the tunnel with wooden escalators and lift was built, pedestrians could only get to the other side of the river by ferry – called the St Anneke’s Boat – which departed from Steenplein, right next to where the tunnel is now.

To this day, most parts of the entrance buildings and the 572-metre-long tunnel are still original, from the warning signs to the fences and ceramic tiles. It also has a metal lift with art deco decorations which provides space for a maximum of 80 people.

Old and new warning signs in the access buildings on both sides of the tunnel ask pedestrians to keep pets on a lead when they take the escalators and cross the tunnel. It is forbidden “to turn on engines (of motorised vehicles), to smoke, shout, sing or make noise, to spit, and to transport dangerous goods.”

Picture shows the view from the left bank of Antwerp, after crossing St. Anna's tunnel. Credit: Belga/Viviane Vaz

About a month after it was finished, on 10 September 1933, Belgian King Albert I and the entire Royal Family, foreign authorities and the then-mayor of Antwerp Camiel Huysmans, took a celebratory walk through St Anna’s Tunnel and its wooden escalators, accompanied by 20,000 schoolboys and girls.

Today, Antwerp locals and tourists, on foot or with a bike, can take the wooden escalators to access the green left bank of Antwerp; those living on the left bank can take the tunnel to the city centre (except on Thursdays, which is maintenance day from 07:00 to about 19:00).

There is even a website and smartphone app to display the accessibility for bikes and pedestrian connections: fietsverbindingenschelde.wegenenverkeer.be.


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