Our industrial history is packed with the names of famous firms that helped to build empires, open up new worlds and spread the industrial revolution. Cleveland Bridge is one of a handful that survived – for now. Chris Lloyd, Jim Scott and Nick Gullon report

AT the opening ceremony in 1905, a tribal chief looked up in awe at the newly-built Victoria Falls Bridge. "Truly," he said, "it is the finger of God that holds it up." The bridge runs so close to the Falls that, in Cecil Rhodes' words, "the trains, as they pass, catch the spray".

The single span of the Victoria Bridge, which sits so gracefully above the River Zambesi it looks as if God arranged the sharp edges of the valley especially so the bridge could be built, began with a rope fired from a rocket from one side to the other.

That was the way Cleveland Bridge built bridges in those days.

The Northern Echo: Picture: CHRIS BOOTH

The Victoria Falls Bridge was the first major overseas contract the new Darlington firm had won, but today Cleveland Bridge is caught up in a corporate catastrophe.

This, though, is nothing new as it was born out of financial adversity. In 1877, as Britain was gripped by a severe recession, 11 employees of the Skerne Ironworks on Albert Hill realised their company was heading for choppy waters and so jumped ship. Skerne, which had built over 50 bridges in Scandinavia during the early 1870s railway boom, folded in 1879.

By then, the 11 ex-employees led by Henry Dixon had established themselves on a few acres of strawberry fields on Smithfield Road, off Neasham Road, Darlington, which they had bought from the Polam Estate. They called themselves Cleveland Bridge and their company remained in Smithfield Road until 1982 when it was transferred to the current Yarm Road site.

But the early years of Cleveland Bridge were far from plain sailing. In 1878, the first year of operation showed a paltry profit of £1 5s 9d and by 1883 the firm was in liquidation.

The Northern Echo: Picture: CHRIS BOOTH

Henry Dixon and his family bought the firm back and with Henry's son, Ernest, installed as manager, won its first overseas contracts: building bridges in Brazil and New South Wales, Australia.

The Dixons remained major shareholders until the late 1960s when they sold out to Cementation who sold out to Trafalgar House in the 1970s who sold out to Kvaerner in the 1990s who yesterday announced they are selling out once more.

The Northern Echo: ROYAL SPAN: The £500,000 King Edward VII Bridge was opened by the king on July 10, 1906

The Dixons' company won its first major contract in 1902, the King Edward VII bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle. It took four years to complete the 1,150ft crossing - and by that time the famous Victoria Falls Bridge was also finished. William Pease of Mowden Hall in Darlington was the director of the company who supervised the Zambesi contract.

The Northern Echo: Cleveland Bridge is based on Yarm Road in Darlington

While construction work was under way, William escorted Lord Frederick Roberts, the commander-in-chief of British forces during the later stages of the Boer War, across the gorge in a cage suspended from a steel rope. As they neared the middle, William threatened to throw the famous soldier out - unless he promised to come to Darlington to unveil the South African War Memorial beside St Cuthbert's Church. Naturally, Roberts agreed which is why Darlington, of all the towns in the country, boasted such a celebrity at its ceremony.

Cleveland Bridge spanned the Zambesi once more in 1935. It has also crossed the Nile three times, the Ganges and the Thames. And the Usk, the Ouse and the Tees - the Newport Bridge in Middlesbrough was built in 1934.

The Northern Echo: Picture: CHRIS BOOTH

In more recent times, it was involved in the consortiums that built the Forth Road Bridge and the Severn Bridge, and most recently of all, it was the major partner in the Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong - a £550m project which was the biggest in Cleveland's history.

Yet it hasn't all gone Cleveland Bridge's way. In 1902, it was asked to tender for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. An artist's impression of Cleveland's proposal was sent out to Australia, but the Australians returned it with their conclusion written at the bottom: "Cleveland's is a carefully constructed design but the towers are too high. There's too much masonry and it is not an artistic design." On the plan, which is now in North Road Railway Centre in Darlington, a disappointed Cleveland bridge-builder has added a couple of indignant exclamation marks after the last Australian sentence.

Yet Cleveland did have the last laugh. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was finally built in 1932 by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough. In 1982, Dorman Long, which also built the Tyne Bridge in 1928, was bought by Trafalgar House and absorbed into Cleveland Bridge.

The Northern Echo: The Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed by Cleveland Bridge in 1932.

And even in the third decade of the 21st century, the company's vast headquarters on Yarm Road has been a symbol of engineering excellence for generations. They have been a cornerstone of the British steel industry for more than 150 years with an impressive legacy and global reputation.

"We are good at building big things here," said then Cleveland Bridge boss Brian Rogan in 2013, as he stood in the shadow of one of the massive U-shaped steel sections that will shortly bear the weight of the new Forth Road Bridge.

His phrase could have been an apt motto for North-East engineering, or emblazoned above the entrance to the Darlington firm.

The Victoria Falls Bridge, which meant trains could speed over the Zambesi River, and Istanbuls Bosphorus Bridge, connecting Europe with Asia, are examples of Cleveland Bridge's talent for turning lumps of metal into life-changing infrastructure in recent years.

The Northern Echo:  The men who built the King Edward VII Bridge, in Newcastle, in 1906

The firm was buffeted by the 2009 recession when it shed almost half the 500-strong workforce, and a long-running dispute over its contract on the new Wembley Stadium was a low point

But a string of high profile orders, which included the new Forth crossing; 210 bridges for rural outposts in Sri Lanka, and seven contracts linked to the London Crossrail project, meant the company was soon sky high again.

The Northern Echo:

The region's industrial history is packed with the names of famous firms that helped to build empires; open up new worlds and spread the industrial revolution. Cleveland Bridge is one of only a handful that has survived – for now.