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Stone after stone. The most famous and the biggest structures are results of collective effort. If there is method in madness, we can most probably find it in the history of the creation of a stone bridge in the village of Znamirowice in Nowy Sącz county. In that place tens of years ago most probably the biggest hydraulic structure ever built by a single man was erected.

Pyramids used to be built collectively. Slavery to a great extent and for a long time was a flywheel of hydraulic
structures. The architecture of the Roman Empire is admired by builders of all ages. Roman roads were also for
many centuries the main arteries of the European transport. Ancient engineering left behind some models for modern constructors. Before, that is 3,000 years ago, the Phoenicians discovered a material which hardens even under water. They used to mix mortar with volcanic rock. In the 3rd century BC the ancient knowledge and skills reached the area of the Roman Empire. Then the Roman concrete was born, which revolutionised the following civilisations. Cement mixed with crushed rock and sand is a basis for products of civilisation even today.  

When mentioning great engineers, we will not find out about the effort of the builders, and, most probably, millions of them will always remain anonymous. This time it will be different. It will be so because of a biography which has just hit the bookshops. Jacek Turek, in his book “Jan Stach. Twórca największego kamiennego mostu” (Jan Stach. The creator of the largest stone bridge), recollects a story of an unusually persistent resident of Znamirowice (Małopolskie Province). According to the calculations of that young writer (also a resident of Znamirowice, by the way), the bridge is 13 metres high, 20 metres long, 7.5 metres wide. The tunnel which is made by the bridge has a barrel vault and is 3 metres high. Under the tunnel there is a stream flowing to the Rożnowskie Lake.

A document, and now a biography

moststacha2In 1971 Jerzy Jaraczewski made a short documentary about Jan Stach and the bridge he built entitled “Wznoszę Pomnik” (I am raising a monument). The perseverant builder was then supposed to be visited by foreign film crews, but in the course of time the extraordinary bridge got forgotten. The creator of the bridge died on 25 December 2011 and Jacek Turek got down to collecting materials to Stach’s biography. The book was being written at nights from June to July 2012.

- This is not only the story of the creation of the bridge, but also of the life of an extraordinary citizen of Znamirowice – says Jacek Turek, who involved his parents and neighbours in working on the book.
- The book was published on the death anniversary of that famous citizen of Znamirowice. The book tells the story of human determination and love which gives wings – in case of Stach it is about the love of his wife who supported him all the time. The story about a brave resident of our village was written by me straight from the heart because I knew him personally, I admired and respected him. As regards the bridge, I spent a lot of time browsing the Internet and many various publications, but I haven’t found any information about another such a big bridge which was built only with the use of stones and only by one man.    

The publication of the story of that extraordinary builder made the bridge a famous attraction. The structure survived, without any changes, till today and since the publication it has been attracting tourists to the Rożnowskie Lake region. Also a blue tourist route leads to the place near the bridge. Surprisingly, the bridge has not been recorded (since 1970s) till today in the land  register and cannot be found in any maps. Why?

Stone after stone and one man

moststacha1The bridge was built over a deep ravine in 1970s. The stone structure was built within almost four years by Jan Stach (b. 1918), a farmer without an engineering degree. The biography of this incredibly modest stone bridge constructor is interesting because it moves us to the times when stone tools were not complicated, they were even primitive, and cement was the most wanted building material.

Late 1960s was the time of a huge fall in cement export. It was not exported because domestic needs were too big. The whole production was going to the domestic market, and even then it was not enough. Therefore, we guess, local authorities refused to help Jan build the crossing. The bridge was, in the farmer’s mind, the only alternative to obstinacy of the neighbour who did not let him use the road going through his lot. Without a bridge Stach’s family had to ask the owner of a boat for help every time they wanted to provide tomatoes and other products to the market in Nowy Sącz.  

“There was a huge precipice from the southern side of the farm. Its steep cliffs are about 25 metres high. The farmer asked the local authorities for help. He hoped that they would send some engineers. When they came and saw the steep cliffs, they clutched their heads in surprise and said that it was not possible to build any bridge there. The last chance was gone.” – we can read in the book by Jacek Turek.
We must remember that these are late 1960s. That was the time of cement rationing. A dejected farmer, instead of fighting for his own rights in the court, asked his neighbours for help. Jan wanted to build a bridge! The residents were sceptical about Jan’s decision.
- Some voices were really brutal, for example that “he will sooner die than build this bridge” – recalls Jan’s biographer.
- The farmer was left, literally saying, with no way out. On one hand an unfriendly neighbour, on the other a huge precipice. The bound and determined Jan aged 50 took a difficult decision. After long discussions with his wife he decided to build a bridge on his own. He had to, however, reach an agreement with another neighbour who owned the other part of a steep cliff and the field which made a narrow path.

Taking this decision meant one thing. For the next 4 years, every day (including holidays) after working on the farm, Mr. Stach would be spending much time on his stone work. Even winter times were not wasted. The heaps of processed stones were getting bigger and bigger. He could not complain about having too little stone. Relatively small mountain stream which flows at the bottom of a deep ravine is full of hard Carpathian Flysch Belt rocks.  
At night he was working in the light of a torch. This time was recalled by Stach’s biographer in the following way: “The residents are getting ready for a crazy New Year’s Eve party and for greeting the approaching year 1969. For Jan it is an ordinary working day. As most of his neighbours, he greeted the New Year outside. But when his neighbours where holding champagnes in their hands, he was holding a hammer. The winter did not want to end, but Jan did not give up. In winter he wanted to get as much material as possible.”

Jan Stach’s stone craft

moststacha3We are trying to find eye witnesses of building the bridge. Thousands of manually processed stones show the determination of the resident of Znamirowice. Not only we are surprised by the quality of his work. What can a qualified stonemason say about this structure? It turned out that Marek Ziółkowski remembers Jan when he was building the bridge. Mr. Ziółkowski is today a well-known stonemason in the region and also a founder of a commemorative plaque which commemorates Stach’s effort.  

- For me the Bridge of Stach is a story of an incredibly modest farmer, though unusually gifted, not only in stone terms. When I was building a well, it was him who did a well-diviner’s job – says an eye witness of building the bridge.

- If it comes to the bridge, one thing must be said. He was a farmer without education, but he exhibited great stone skills, despite the fact that he had not dealt with stone before building the bridge! You need awesome skills or a gift to fit stones (which he was ripping off from the rock with a hammer) so perfectly. That man knew how to get desired rough cubes. He fit every stone with great precision and confidence. We must remember that then it was difficult to get cement so he did everything to use it as little as possible. We cannot see it with our bare eyes, but the core of the bridge is almost without mortar! Brilliant! He constructed this structure in such a way that we have never had any problems with water, and we have big floods here.

According to an expert, this is a professional structure which resembles proven solutions, used by dam constructors. Stone walls on both sides of the bridge are connected at the arch line providing the structure with appropriate rigidity and strength. The upper part of the wall is anchored in the cliff, and at the bottom it is wedged in the rock. The result? The whole stretches and wedges itself because of the weight and pressure of water. The bridge conforms to the canons of engineering. For example, in order to reduce the water flow rate under the bridge, stream bed gradient in front of the tunnel is reduced, and after the bridge a bigger fall occurs. This solution also removes excess water in the tunnel. Hard Carpathian Flysch Belt rocks, which the stream bed is made of, serve as additional resistance for flowing water, especially after heavy rains.  

The farmer’s work should be admired even more because he did not use any modern tools. A crusher?  
- He was building the bridge with the use of sandstone called “Siwiec”. Some residents remember this structure under the name of the Bridge of the Mighty Man, because even today, without fear, I can go over the bridge by a 20-tonne truck – says Marek Ziółkowski, impressed with an engineering art of the self-taught man.
- I am a workaholic myself, but the feat of Jan is beyond comparison. Hours spent in a bent position. First, rolling stones on a wooden gutter down the river bed, then going up with a building material onto a steep cliff – all of that on the shoulders of one, not young, man. When he had no building material left, he carried it in a wheelbarrow! It is easy to count how many cubic metres of stone was used there.  

A stalwart Mighty Man

moststacha4In the mentioned documentary by Jerzy Jaraczewski we can see a stalwart 50-year old man who, in silence, is doing his stone work. A hammer is an extension of his muscular arms. Other tools? He is nailing a square-shaped case. It will be used to transport stones.  The case has a handle on the front so that it is possible to fasten cows to it. At the bottom of the ravine he is preparing huge stones which are transported by means of cows to their destination. Next to the rock he marks a place where he is going to mix the mortar ingredients. He uses buckets to carry the water from the stream.

Bricklaying was going smoothly and day after day he was getting closer to completing the arch over the culvert. The farmer had never done any arch bricklaying before. At this stage he was taking advice from local craftsmen. They showed him how many degrees the structure should be angled towards the wall of already joint stones. Here, again, physical work was done by one man. Jan pushed well the limits of human endurance. When he finishes the bridge, he will have to bring two things together, that is working on the farm and hard paving of the road. He is nailing a compactor and wedging the stones laid on the bridge.

In the book "Jan Stach. Twórca największego kamiennego mostu" we can find a description of his problems with cement. Two tons, 4 bags – sometimes transport costs were higher than the value of bags. Mr. Stach was facing problems with buying cement, but also with difficult weather conditions and unkind neighbours. Many people were mocking at him.
- Jan repeated many times that he did not build the bridge only for himself, but also for all other residents – recalls Marek Ziółkowski.
It is true. Jan Stach Bridge is doing a great favour for all owners of houses which have been built here for the last years. The materials to build those houses were transported over this bridge, and now many tourists who visit this region by car are using it.

The Bridge of Jan Stach

We can learn something from the story of a modest builder, just like from reading his biography. There is one problem, however. What do I mean? Local authorities want to apply for a grant to maintain and renovate the bridge in the future. The problem is, however, that the bridge does not exist in registers. Since people started to talk about the bridge, the authorities of Łososina commune have been wondering how to define its legal status. It is even about the legal status of the access route because the parcel boundary still goes through the stream... . Someone could say that building the bridge was a land use violation.

- If we adhered to the letter of the law, it is really like that. Here, however, we need to take into account a human factor, which is very important here and, therefore, common sense prevails in the commune. For a dozen years, since I was appointed a head, I have been trying to put myself in the shoes of that family... . We are not Austrian officers. They would surely order to dismantle the bridge – says Stanisław Golonka, a head of Łososina Dolna commune.

- Last year we gave the material for the renovation of the bridge. Some stones went flat and we had to replace them and fill the joints, etc. This job was done by Jacek Turek, a great supporter of the bridge. Then we installed a commemorative plaque. Interestingly, it was installed on a rock which was left by Stach to complete his bridge. We just moved the rock 100 metres. No land owners objected, so I hope that we can do more.  
For sure the Bridge can be a great showcase of the commune. One more thing: were they right to name the bridge with the first name of its builder? Perhaps it would be better if there was an inscription “the Bridge of Jan Stach” on the commemorative plaque. The bridge of the only initiator, sponsor and contractor – the embodiment of persistence and building skills.

Rafał Dobrowolski
Photo: Jacek Turek


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