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Archives In Brief 37 - A brief history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

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A brief history about the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is intended to be used in conjunction with Archives in Brief No. 38.

Historical background

The possibility of linking the northern and southern shores of Sydney Harbour was discussed as early as 1815, when the former convict turned Government Architect Francis Greenway reputedly suggested to Governor Macquarie that the North Shore should be linked to Sydney by a bridge. In letters to The Australian in 1825, Greenway wrote, that such a bridge would 'give an idea of strength and magnificence that would reflect credit and glory on the colony and the Mother Country' [1].

Ferry arriving at Circular Quay, SydneyNumerous proposals were discussed in the nineteenth century, including a suggestion in 1840 by the naval architect Mr Robert Brindley, that a floating bridge be constructed.

The Sydney engineer Peter Henderson is credited with one of the earliest known drawings of a bridge to connect Sydney with North Sydney, dating from around 1857. Other suggestions included a truss bridge in 1879 and in 1880 a high-level bridge costing £850,000.

A senior engineer who worked for the Department of Public Works, J. J. C. Bradfield is regarded as the 'father' of the Bridge as it was his vision, enthusiasm, engineering, expertise and detailed supervision of all aspects of its construction that 'brought Sydney's long held dream into reality' [2].

Bradfield favoured building a cantilever overpass, without piers, between Dawes Point and McMahons Point. In 1916 the Legislative Assembly passed the Bill for the construction of a cantilever bridge.

It did not proceed however, as the Legislative Council rejected the legislation on the grounds that money would be better used for the war effort. [3].

This setback did not deter Bradfield who developed the full specifications and scheme to finance the construction of a cantilever bridge. In 1921 he went overseas to investigate tenders for the project. Bradfield's overseas research however, convinced him that tenders should be called for both cantilever and arch designs. The necessary Act was finally passed in 1922 — the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act No. 28 — for the construction of a high-level cantilever or arch bridge across Sydney Harbour by connecting Dawes Point with Milson's Point. The Act also provided for the construction of the bridge and its approaches and also included the construction of electric railway lines.

In 1923 tenders were called for a cantilever or arch bridge. Twenty tenders were received from six countries. On 24 March 1924 the contract was given to the English firm Dorman Long & Co of Middlesbrough England with a design for an arch bridge at a tender price of £4,217,721.00 (and 11 shillings and 10 pence) [4].

The arch design was not only cheaper than the cantilever and suspension proposals but had the advantage of greater rigidity, and was therefore better fitted for the heavy loads the bridge was required to carry.

Sydney Harbour Bridge - arch was joined August 1930

Construction began on 28 July, 1923. The contractors set up two workshops at Milson's Point on the North Shore where the steel was fabricated into girders. The granite for the pylons was quarried near Moruya, where about 250 workers and their families lived in a temporary settlement. The two arches met at the centre of the span in August 1930 and Premier Jack Lang opened the Harbour Bridge on the 19 March, 1932. Francis Edward de Groot, a member of the New Guard disrupted the opening ceremony when, disguised as a military horseman, he slashed the ceremonial ribbon before the Premier was able to officially open the bridge. The opening celebrations were surprisingly lavish considering that New South Wales, like the rest of Australia, was in the depths of the Great Depression. It has been estimated that between 300,000 and 1,000,000 people participated in the festivities. The celebrations included decorated floats, marching groups and bands, a gun-salute, a procession of passenger ships under the Bridge and a Venetian Carnival.

After the pageant members of the public were allowed to walk across the deck — an opportunity that was not offered to the public again until the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Bridge in 1982 [5].

[1] The Australian, 28 April 1825, p 1, Column 4.

[2] http://www.bridgeclimb.com/history_frs.htm

[3] The Australian Encyclopaedia, The Grolier Society of Australia, Vol. 9, Sydney, 1983, p. 251.

[4] Ibid.

[5] op cit

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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