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The first work to be done for The Royal Albert Bridge was to properly survey the river bed. On 26 April 1848 a 6 feet (1.8 m) iron cylinder 85 feet (25.9 m) tall was launched into the Tamar. From the bottom of this the bed of the river could be examined to identify its nature and the location of solid foundations. The Cornwall Railway at this time was finding it difficult to raise funds and so most operations were suspended that summer, but a small fund was allowed for Brunel to continue the survey. The cylinder was positioned at 35 different places and a total of 175 borings made.
In 1853 the tenders for the bridge were considered by the Cornwall Railway Board, and it was decided to let the work to Charles Mare, a shipbuilder from Blackwall who had built the ironwork for the Britannia Bridge. The fee he sought for building the Saltash Bridge was £162,000, but on 21 September 1855 he filed for bankruptcy. Brunel proposed that the company should take over the works on the bridge without engaging another contractor, to which the company agreed.
Mare's first task had been to establish an erecting yard on the Devon shore with a jetty and workshops. He then proceeded to construct a 37 feet (11.3 m) iron cylinder 90 feet (27.4 m) tall which was to form the work base for the construction of the central pier. This was launched in May 1854 and moored in the centre of the river between four pontoons. The bottom had been shaped to follow the rock surveyed in 1848; once it was settled on the river bed the water was pumped out, the mud within it excavated, and a solid masonry pier built up clear of the water. This was completed in November 1856.
The landward piers on the Cornish side of the river were completed in 1854 and the girders for these spans were hoisted up to their correct positions. Next to be built was the main truss for the Cornwall side of the river. The lower ties of the trusses formed of chains made from 20 feet (6.1 m) links. Many were obtained from the suspended works for Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge and others rolled new for Saltash. The Cornwall span was floated into position on 1 September 1857 and jacked up to full height in 3 feet (910 mm) stages as the piers were built up beneath it, the central pier using cast iron octagonal columns; the landward one using ordinary masonry.
The second span soon after it was floated onto the piers and had been jacked up the first 12 feet (3.7 m) towards its final posiitonWith the yard now cleared of the first truss, work could start on the main Devon span. This was similarly floated into position on 10 July 1858 and then raised in a similar manner; it was in its final position by 28 December 1858. After this had been removed, part of the yard had to be cleared to allow the construction of the final landward pier and then the Devon approach spans could be raised up to their final position. The work was sufficiently advanced that directors were able to make an inspection by train on 11 April 1859.
The Cornwall span had been tested before it was launched. The two ends were supported on substantial timber piers and the remaining scaffolding removed. Static loads of 1.25 and then 2.25 tons per foot were placed on the deck, the deflections measured and any permanent change measured once the road was removed. Now that it was completed, the bridge had its statutory inspection and tests by Colonel Yolland on behalf of the Board of Trade on 20 April 1859. He ran a heavy train over the bridge and measured deflections in the main trusses of 1.14 inches (29 mm) in the Devon truss, and 1.20 inches (30 mm) in the Cornwall one. Overall he described it as 'highly satisfactory'.
Prince Albert had agreed to the bridge being named after him as early as 1853. He was also invited to perform the opening ceremony and so on 2 May 1859 he travelled down from Windsor on a special train. Several thousand spectators attended that day but Brunel was not there due to illness, and guests from Cornwall failed to arrive in time for the ceremony as their train broke down at Liskeard. Public services commenced on 4 May 1859.