Visionary Spans: History of the Grafton Bridge
This exhibition delves into the history of the existing Grafton Bridge, focusing on its construction and the huge impact it had on many peopleâ€™s lives.
As an integral part of the Grafton to South Brisbane National Railway Link, the construction of the Clarence River Bridge in the early part of the 20th century had an enormous impact on both a local and national level. With the opening of the bridge, the Sydney to Brisbane railway/road corridor was finally completed, trade was opened up and travel time was considerably shortened. Opening up the national highway and the rail corridor was instrumental in the development of the regions both to the north and south of Grafton.
Arguably, the Clarence River Bridge is the third greatest railway bridge in New South Wales, after the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Hawkesbury River Bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Clarence River Bridge have much in common. They were both completed in 1932, both were engineering marvels of their time and both linked road and rail from north to south. Prior to devoting himself to the Harbour Bridge, J.J.C. Bradfield supervised the design drawings of the Grafton Bridge.
Two tenders were received for the Clarence River Bridge, one from John Grant and Sons for £499,250, and the other from the company building the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Dorman Long and Company for £484,190. Both tenders were rejected, as the New South Wales Government estimated that the cost would be closer to £400,000. This figure would prove to be quite accurate, resulting in the saving of around £80,000.
After initial load testing, the first passenger train crossed the bridge on Saturday 7 May 1932. It was a special passenger train chartered by the ‘Back to Grafton Week’ Celebrations Committee and consisted of 15 carriages, carried 1700 people and was driven across the bridge by the Minister for Transport, Mr. James McGirr. It weighed over 500 tonnes and, at the time, was the largest train that had ever been run in NSW.
The opening of the bridge was a huge event that included a week of celebrations encompassing the July Racing Carnival and several other sporting competitions including golf, tennis, football and croquet. The Bridge was unofficially opened to pedestrian traffic on 18 July 1932 and, a day later, was officially opened by Australia’s first Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs. The Grafton Mayor, Bert Eggins, and the South Grafton Mayor, Carl Schwinghammer, were also in attendance.
The nickname “the bendy bridge”, results from the upper road carriage needing to detour from above the railway line to the streets below. One bend is necessary on either end but local legend has it that the second bend on the northern approach was incorporated to ensure that the bridge traffic passed an establishment (hotel) owned by a local councillor. Records show that there was much debate over the route chosen but this particular rumour can neither be confirmed nor denied.
Originally designed to cater for two railway lines, the second line was never installed. Eventually, in 1969, water mains were installed in place of the second line. This ensured that the bascule would never open again. The bridge is still largely intact and in use except that important parts of the opening mechanism have been removed and mislaid. Due to the increase in road and rail freight and the consequent decline in river transport it was deemed unnecessary for the bascule to open to cater for tall river traffic.
The opening of the Clarence River Bridge was celebrated with a week-long festival called “Back to Grafton” week. Grafton residents were invited to present names of former Grafton residents and invitations were sent out. Certificates were issued to former residents and upon presentation would receive a discounted railway fare to attend “Back to Grafton” week and the opening of the bridge. A procession (organised by Mrs. Alda Orr Morris) attracted 81 entries representing many of the town’s businesses and organisations. The floats assembled in South Grafton, crossed the bridge, and followed Fitzroy Street and Prince Street to finish at the showgrounds.
In Grafton, the Jacaranda Queen is well-known, but what is not so well-known is the fact that, prior to the inaugural Jacaranda Festival, Grafton crowned another queen, the Queen of the Bridge, back in 1932 as part of the opening week celebrations. Miss Dorothy “Toodge” Turner was crowned Queen of the Bridge by the “Archbishop of Bridgeland”, played theatrically by Mr. George Urquhart.
Image Credit: Grafton Bridge during constuction - (photographer unknown)