*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Stretching across one of the most famous waterways in the world, the Sydney Harbour Bridge cuts a familiar figure against the backdrop of Australia’s biggest city. The largest steel through-arch bridge on the planet for 80 years, it was dedicated and opened to the public on March 19, 1932. In the decades since it has become the focal point of Sydney’s landmark-strewn harbor and a favorite stop for tourists.
When the British arrived at Port Jackson — modern Sydney — in 1788, the colonists immediately set out to create a settlement on the stunning natural harbor. Within a quarter-century, the idea of linking Millers Point in the south to Milsons Point on North Shore first surfaced. Francis Greenway, a prisoner charged with forging financial documents, made the suggestion in 1815 while working as the colonial architect to fulfill part of his sentence, but it would be more than a century before any movement toward bridge construction occurred.
Though a first round of design submissions were received in 1900, only the close of World War I would provide the impetus for construction of a much-needed bridge. Named “Chief Engineer of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Metropolitan Railway Construction” in 1912, J.J.C. Bradfield spent more than a decade navigating the politics of the New South Wales (NSW) Legislative Assembly before finally receiving approval in 1922.
Ever since Greenway’s proposal, a number of architectural concepts were suggested, but Bradfield settled on a single-arch bridge after seeing Hell Gate Bridge being built between Queens and the Bronx in New York City. The similar terrain between the two regions convinced him the simplest layout would be the best. Working with the NSW Department of Public Works, Bradfield sketched a preliminary design to meld together foot, automobile and railroad traffic in a singular crossing.
While Bradfield turned to the task of securing supplies for construction from all over the world, he tapped Sir Ralph Freeman to head up the final design phase. On July 28, 1923, officials gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony at Milsons Point. Standing where hundreds of homes and businesses previously dotted the north shore of Sydney Harbour, the men turned over a few inches of dirt to start the long building phase.
The project would take more than eight years to complete. With buildings on both sides of the water controversially bulldozed — residents and owners were paid very little, if at all, for the property — the bridge inched forward from the north and south until late October 1928. While crews solidified the elevated spans, other teams worked to build the two halves of the arch into a continuous, strong whole.
By mid-August 1930, all that remained was to hang the deck from the thick steel archway, string miles of utility lines, then pour concrete and lay track for the vehicles that would soon cross over Sydney Harbour by the thousands each day. From July 1931 until mid-January 1932, the project accelerated, culminating with the first test of the railway lines. In the weeks that followed, engineers pushed the limits of the bridge’s capacity, lining up 96 locomotives to simulate the weight of heavy traffic. During a grueling three-week trial, each experiment resulted in high marks.
Sydney Harbour Bridge now only needed to be opened. With thousands gathered at the southern end on March 19, 1932, a number of local officials delivered speeches to mark the occasion. Once the pomp and circumstance was completed, Jack Lang, the Premier of New South Wales, stood up to cut the red ribbon blocking the wide entryway to the bridge. Just then, a man named Francis de Groot rode in on horseback and slashed through the ribbon, pipping the Premier.
Embarrassed by the protester from the New Guard, a party opposed to Lang’s policies, attendees quickly tied the ribbon back together so the Premier could complete the official proceedings. With the ribbon snipped, members of the Royal Australian Army fired off a 21-gun salute just as a group of Air Force pilots swung low over the bridge to commemorate the occasion. The 3,800-foot Sydney Harbour Bridge was now ready to serve its purpose.
With an arch stretching 440 feet above sea level and 160 feet of clearance below the road deck, the bridge instantly became something like a giant welcome gate to those arriving by sea. The hefty ironworks give the span a sturdy appearance — there’s more than 58,000 pounds of steel and some 6 million hand-driven rivets — and made the Sydney Harbor Bridge the most recognizable landmark in Sydney until the opening of the seashell-like Opera House in 1973.
For many visitors, the combination of the massive Harbour Bridge alongside the distinctive white exterior of the Opera House is a must see. And, with the opening of BridgeClimb in 1998 — giving tourists the option of a winding tour through the internal structure to the top of the arch — the views of the city are unparalleled, making the bridge a “must see” any time of year.
Known affectionately as “The Coathanger,” the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the launching pad for the city’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration, a world-renowned pyrotechnic show with fireworks exploding high over the boat-filled waters below.
Also On This Day:
1279 – The Chinese Song Dynasty ends after a Mongol victory at the Battle of Yamen
1848 – Frontier lawman Wyatt Earp is born
1895 – The Lumiere brothers record film footage for the first time
1941 – The Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black unit in the United States Army Air Corp, are activated as the 99th Pursuit Squadron
1945 – Adolf Hitler issues the “Nero Decree” to destroy industrial locations, military installations, communications facilities and more throughout Germany