People, Places & Their Bridges

A long series of articles by Harold Mackenzie, travelling agent and dealer was published in the Riverine Grazier in 1893 and 1894 and gave a well-informed view of life along the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers in the late nineteenth century. Mackenzie writes:

It is said that when government either undertakes the making of roads or bridges it carries the scheme out in its entirety and does it well or on the other hand leaves it carefully alone.

Where the expenditure of public money was not forthcoming, settlers had to build their own bridges as at Booligal in 1873, or:

continue as of yore to plough through miles of swamp on either side and employ, as one selector informed me, no less than 36 horses to pull a waggon and 4 tons of wool through the Mucklebar [Creek].1

There was always strong community support for new bridges. Just outside Cassilis in the upper Hunter River valley, an Allan Truss bridge spanning Munmurra Brook on the Mudgee road was opened in 1901 by the local state parliamentarian. His constituents had agitated for years in terms equally relevant to so many other crossing places in many other electorates:

In wet seasons, this stream is subject to sudden freshets, during which its waters rush on with impetuous force. Crossing on horseback, or with vehicle, at such times, is attended with much danger, and when it is running moderately high it becomes a thing impossible.2

In New South Wales (NSW), bridging rivers, particularly major ones such as the Murray- Darling, the northern rivers, the Hunter River and its tributaries and, closest to Sydney, the Hawkesbury-Nepean rivers, was manifestly a responsibility of the NSW Government and sometimes its neighbouring governments as well. Governments seldom embarked on such expensive ventures without insistent prodding from those most affected: the people who lived in these places.

There was, for example, popular support on both sides of the Murray River for its great series of bridge-building projects between 1895 and 1905. Three of the ten timber truss bridges survive from that decade: at Swan Hill (see Figure 5.1), Cobram (see Figure 5.2), and Barham-Koondrook (see Figure 5.4).

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.1: One of many postcards featuring the 1896 Swan Hill Bridge over the Murray River, this was the work of photographer George Rose, c1950. Source: State Library of Victoria

When the engineering plans for the bridge at Cobram-Barooga were approved in 1900, the Albury newspaper reported:

This is such happy information that the local population is inclined to throw up its collective hat, and otherwise express its jubilation.

A few folk grumbled that only the lift span would be made of iron and the rest would be timber trusses, but they noted that the Swan Hill bridge, opened in 1896, was almost identical and:

the majority of people state that they will be content with any kind of bridge, as long as it is strong enough to carry a load of wheat or wool, or to fish off of.3

This was the tense period of the Boer War, which loomed large in the media, and when tenders were finally sought six months later, the news was greeted ‘with greater joy than … the relief of Mafeking’.4

The total cost of building the Cobram Bridge had been borne by the new state of Victoria and on 3 December 1902 the new bridge was opened by its Inspector-General of Public Works, William Davidson. It was a characteristically festive occasion for the people from both sides of the river. A brass band travelled thirty kilometres from Numurkah in Victoria to lead the singing of the national anthem in honour of the newly-crowned King Edward VII, by the hundreds of people packed along the bridge. Then, through a dust-storm, the band led a long triumphal procession to the town of Barooga on the New South Wales side of the bridge.5

Such activities were the normal expression of public passion for these public works through the timber truss bridge era. They echo today in the enthusiasm for the sequential centenary celebrations for the truss bridges as they fall due along the Murray River. Those venerable bridges are by no means alone in engaging locals. On the Paterson River in the Hunter Valley for instance, Hinton Bridge’s hundredth birthday attracted a Figure 5.2: The 1902 de Burgh Truss Cobram Bridge over the Murray River in 2013. Source: Amie Nicholas very ‘Victorian’ group of well- wishers (see Figure 5.3).

The Federation of the Australian colonies achieved free trade between the formerly competitive colonies, accelerating demand and delivery of interstate crossings along the Murray River. In March 1902, nine months before the opening of the upriver Cobram Bridge, the design was approved for a bridge downriver, west of Echuca, linking Barham in New South Wales with Koondrook in Victoria.6

Figure 5.2

Figure 5.2: The 1902 de Burgh Truss Cobram Bridge over the Murray River in 2013. Source: Amie Nicholas

The opening of the Barham- Koondrook Bridge in 1904 was greeted with energy as abundant as the Cobram celebrations two years before. This was now the twelfth bridge over the Murray River and a special excursion train brought a party of state and Federal parliamentarians to the ceremony. Included were the Public Works ministers from both New South Wales and Victoria, who officiated and were joined for the first time by a Federal minister, the new Postmaster-General, Sydney Smith.7

The event attracted some 1500 people from both sides of the river, who were perhaps surprised to hear Charles Lee, the New South Wales Minister, put the state-of- the-art new bridge firmly into the context of ‘stepping stones in shallow rivers’:

It is only necessary to lay a plank from stone to stone to evolve the principles of piers and arches, which have been brought to such a point of exact science in our own days.8

Figure 5.3

Figure 5.3: The official party at the centenary of Hinton Bridge on 8 April 2001. Source: Roads and Maritime

That locals valued this bridge aesthetically as well as for its utility is charmingly shown in its use as a photographic backdrop for a sunny party of women and children on the banks of the Murray. This photo was taken some time in the 1930s, the last decade of timber truss bridge building in New South Wales (see Figure 5.4).

Figure 5.4

Figure 5.4: A summer picnic beside the Murray River, with the 1904 Barham-Koondrook Bridge in the background. Source: ML, SLNSW

For the Barham-Koondrook Bridge’s centenary in 2004, the Mayor of Wakool Shire unveiled a plaque to acknowledge this ‘vision for prosperity’ for the major states of the new nation (see Figure 5.5).

Sometimes the opening of a major bridge brought to light not only enthusiasm for the facility, but also local rivalries, with the bridge as effective a focus for conflict as it was for accord. At Dubbo in 1866, the Bennett Truss bridge over the Macquarie River, justly described as the ‘greatest public work undertaken in this town’, was formally opened twice within an hour. The first ceremony, at 11am, featured Mrs Campbell, a pioneer grazier’s wife of Bunglegumbie, just outside Dubbo, who represented the faction called ‘the Lambs’ from the south end of town. At midday it was the turn of Mrs Serisier from the north end, wife of Dubbo’s first storekeeper, representing ‘the Trotters’ and the ladies of Dubbo. One faction named the bridge the Oxley, the other the Albert. ‘The Lambs’ put on a most impressive show:

Sixteen virgins in white, veiled with book-muslin drapery, a host of school children, the Lambs, big and little, of both sexes – the children being kept together by jujubes and Wotherspoon’s lollies – formed a solemn procession at the Court-house, and started off, being preceded by an amateur band, and with them a two- poled flag with the word “Oxley” emblazoned upon it.9

The Trotters fought back and at noon, Mrs Serisier named the bridge Albert. Her husband then gave an ‘extempore address’ for a full forty minutes, finishing only for the firing of the royal salute.10

As well as comprehensive contemporary coverage, a long and perhaps not over-blown version of this duel was solemnly reported five years later in the prestigious Australian Town and Country Journal. While a contemporary photographer embedded The Lambs’ victory in history, before long the battle of the names had resolved into the plainly uncontroversial Dubbo Bridge (see Figure 5.6).11

Figure 5.5

Figure 5.5: The centenary plaque at the Barham-Koondrook Bridge, October 2004. Source: Roads and Maritime

Figure 5.6

Figure 5.6: ‘The Oxley Bridge, Dubbo’ was the title given this early 1870s study of the Bennett Truss bridge soon after its competing official openings in 1866. Source: ML, SLNSW

The Dubbo Bridge of 1866 no longer straddles the Macquarie River as it was replaced first by a de Burgh truss in 1905 and then replaced again with the present concrete bridge in 1969. However, the story of its dual premieres lives on to echo the great impact of a local bridge and to whisper of intriguing social relationships within country towns no less present than in city society.

Lacking a new bridge rather than gaining one could also define local divisions. Yarrawonga, over fifty kilometres downstream from Cobram, had a lift bridge across the Murray River. Since 1893, this bridge connected to the New South Wales town of Mulwala. Erection of the de Burgh Truss timber bridge at Cobram in 1902 ignited fears in Yarrawonga that the new bridge and its improved approach roads would ‘divert about one-third of the trade from this town’.12 Two months before its opening, the Yarrawonga correspondent to the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express reported despondently:

It is a sad sight to see the army of enforced unemployed in this town, many of them fine able men. The cry is, “Yarrawonga is done!”13

The New South Wales town of Howlong, on the Murray River halfway between Corowa and Albury, had developed quickly in the 1860s and 1870s as a wheat- growing area. The punt operated by locals over the difficult crossing of the Murray River was taken over by the New South Wales government in the 1870s. After years of lobbying for a bridge to ‘add another link to the chain of intercolonial commerce’, in 1876 the rival colonial governments sealed the agreement to share the cost of a bridge across their border with their ministers and local members attending ‘an intercolonial banquet’ at Howlong. It was not until February 1885 that the first piles were driven for the long Bennett Truss bridge with three 75 feet (22.9 m) spans. The event was marked by celebrations ‘of an enthusiastic character’, opening with the daughter of the oldest inhabitant breaking a bottle against the pile and naming the future bridge, Howlong Bridge.14 Two years later at the opening ceremony on 21 October 1887, the Victorian Minister of Public Works renamed it, Victoria Bridge. After that crowded ceremony, a procession of over a hundred vehicles drove north into the New South Wales town for the obligatory banquet in its brand new School of Arts.15

This bridge was low, however, impeding river traffic. In any case, local farmers either side of Howlong preferred to use the old timber bridges down river at Corowa or up river at Albury, both about 17 road miles (28 km) from Howlong. In 1898, when new bridges at both Corowa and Albury drew even more traffic, local agitation at Howlong saw the creation of a bridge committee, abetted by the Howlong Progress Association. The local members of Parliament, now state and Federal, were helpful, but the New South Wales government did not approve the replacement bridge until 1907, when the Premier, travelling between Corowa and Albury, was nobbled by a vocal Howlong deputation.16 The new Dare Truss bridge was opened by the New South Wales Minister for Works Charles Lee in October 1908 in the presence of an impressive clutch of politicians from both Victoria and New South Wales. The ceremonies had been organised by yet another hard-working local committee. There was a lunch, followed by a visit to the ‘Viticultural Farm’ at Rutherglen, an afternoon tea dispensed by the ‘ladies of Howlong’ and a ‘smoke social’ for the visitors in the evening.17

Politicians still pay attention to voters’ expressed attachment to a significant bridge. The Premier of New South Wales, for example, was at hand to unveil the centenary plaque at Hinton Bridge on the Paterson River in 2001 (see Figure 5.7).

Figure 5.7

Figure 5.7: Morris Iemma (L), then Premier of New South Wales, unveiled this plaque at Hinton Bridge on the Paterson River in the Hunter Valley, 2001. Source: Roads and Maritime

Figure 5.8

Figure 5.8: Tooleybuc punt in its last days before the new bridge was completed in December 1924. Source: J Whelan photo, Melbourne Museum

However, politicians could also be slow to respond to the most vigorously expressed local needs. The residents of Tooleybuc, some 24 miles (40 km) downstream from Swan Hill, had agitated for a bridge for more than a decade, only interrupted by World War I. In 1918, they presented a petition, supported by the shire councils and residents of Swan Hill, Balranald and Wakool. Still reliant on their punt to cross the Murray River (see Figure 5.8), the locals also won the support of the NSW Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association and the Victorian Farmers’ Union. After many delays and even more local meetings, Tooleybuc successfully lobbied both State governments for the more logical route for its produce, across the river to the Melbourne markets.18

With the Tooleybuc bridgeworks underway at last in 1922, the elation of the district’s wheat growers meant a confident autumn 1923 sowing of some 8,030 acres (3,250 hectares); with an end in sight as bags of wheat were loaded on one side of the Murray and then unloaded on the other. However, the very slow progress on the bridge by midwinter meant ‘the prospect of marketing about 30,000 bags has become a nightmare’, with the punt’s capacity just 2 tonnes, a mere 24 bags.19

Despite their limits, punts were essential parts of the rural scene throughout the 19th century and as Tooleybuc shows, into the 20th century too. Forty years before the Murray River town gained its bridge, the significance of decommissioning a punt was deftly recognised at Clarence Town on the Williams River in the Hunter Valley. For the opening of the Bennett Truss timber bridge at Clarence Town in June 1880, the first person invited to cross the new bridge was Mr Clegg, the last punt master.20

Where locals had fought a long campaign for a bridge, driving the first pile was no lesser cause for celebration than the actual opening of the completed bridge. Just as was the case at Howlong, ‘one of the oldest inhabitants’, Mrs S Broomhead, had the honour of launching the pile- driving ceremony at Tooleybuc in September 1922. When the bridge was opened in February 1925, the ribbon was cut by Mrs Old, wife of the local Victorian member, perhaps only because the Broomheads were in England, but this was very much a politicians’ occasion.21

Figure 5.9

Figure 5.9: The procession of cars ready to make their historic crossing at the opening of Tooleybuc Bridge in 1925. Source: James Batson photo, Melbourne Museum

At these bridge ceremonies for both colony and state, a lady representing a pioneer family, or the wife of a local dignitary, was a recurrent figure. In March 1895, a public holiday was declared for the grand opening of the Tharwa Bridge over the Murrumbidgee River south of Queanbeyan, where legendary Public Works Minister EW O’Sullivan handed gold-plated ribbon cutting scissors to Mrs Elizabeth McKeahnie, ‘indisputably the oldest resident for miles about’. However, there were some among the hundreds gathered for the carnival that day, who could have disputed this, for among the Ngambri/Ngunnawal people present was their renowned elder, Nelly Hamilton. In the hundreds of festive openings of bridges throughout New South Wales other ‘oldest inhabitants’ were similarly overlooked, despite the significance of sites like Tharwa, a traditional crossing place for the original people of the high country.22

It was simpler to settle for a dignitary, as at Kempsey on the Macleay River, where the Lady Mayoress Mrs Marrack, drove the first pile of the new bridge in 1897.23

At Tooleybuc, planning the celebrations was well ahead of the slow rate of construction, thanks to the vigorous local Celebration Committee. The single lane Allan Truss lift-span bridge, the last of this type built, opened on 20 February 1925 with New South Wales Minister for Public Works and for Railways RT Ball leading the ceremony, in the presence of Figure 5.9: The procession of cars ready to make their historic crossing at the opening of Tooleybuc Bridge in 1925. Source: James Batson photo, Melbourne Museum the Victorian Minister for Public Works and the usual assembly of parliamentarians and politicians, state and local.

The ribbon-cutting was the signal for the long procession of cars, waiting on each side of the Murray River, to drive across the new bridge (see Figure 5.9). Once the cars were over, the lifting section of the bridge was raised with New South Wales’ Chief Engineer for Local and National Works aboard, who took his responsibilities seriously:

[Percy Allan] could be seen on the top of the lift, inspecting the gear, grease cups, etc., an object of interest in a commanding position.24

Figure 5.10

Figure 5.10: This postcard of the Wallaby Rocks Bridge over the Turon River is postmarked 1907. Source: Roads and Maritime

The entire crowd of two hundred, among them the veteran bridge engineer Percy Allan, then adjourned to the Tooleybuc Hall to spend a long afternoon over the ‘sumptuous repast’ that was the climax of the Celebration Committee’s labours, with the President of the Victorian shire of Swan Hill in the chair. All nine local men who had served on the Celebration Committee were honourably mentioned in the Riverina Recorder, along with the politicians who proposed the usual series of toasts, to the King, the two State governments, the two departments of public works, and the New South Wales shire of Wakool. The visitors then adjourned to Balranald in Victoria, where the Mayor entertained them to dinner, while the ordinary folk went back to their properties, sated with success and celebration.25

Three quarters of a century on, for government agencies in both New South Wales and Victoria, the problems of maintaining ageing timber bridges under the onslaught of increasingly heavier vehicles dominated planning. In 2011, when the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority launched its draft Timber Truss Road Bridge Strategy for public comment, the deluge of responses made this its largest public consultation program to date. Over 100 responses expressed a concerted and widespread concern about the future of these distinctive bridges which still graced local landscapes and had been central to local utility for at least eighty, and in some cases, 130 years. These respondents generally recognised the costly maintenance problems, but also sought solutions that would reflect an understanding of the local context of many of the bridges; historically and aesthetically.

Local esteem was evident in proud postcards of these bridges. The gold-mining village of Sofala on the road to Hill End was issuing postcards of its 1897 Allan Truss bridge over the fabled Turon River within a decade of its opening (see Figure 5.10).

Figure 5.11

Figure 5.11: The 1893 McDonald Truss Crankies Plain Bridge over the Coolumbooka River, in 2011. Sources: Roads and Maritime

Figure 5.12

Figure 5.12: The 1906 Dare Truss Cooreei Bridge over the Williams River at the north entry to Dungog, 2005. Source: Roads and Maritime

Aesthetics are important in every locale. A submission in 2011 about the de Burgh Truss bridge built in 1903 at Tabulam on the Clarence River, drew attention to the benefits of slowing down over a narrow bridge with vistas through the open trusses right along the river valley. The respondent pointed out that the aesthetic impact on the whole cultural landscape of this part of the upper Clarence River could not be replicated by a modern concrete replacement.

It was not accidental that the local Tabulam newsletter, circulated free once a month, is called The Bridge, nor that the regular advertisement for the Tabulam Hotel in this publication should feature an impressive view along the carriageway of the Tabulam Bridge, the longest in the State. Similarly, far to the south, the local paper at Barham on the Murray River is called The Barham Bridge and the bridge is ‘iconic’ both to Koondrook and Barham people, the sentiment easily crossing state borders. The 2011 consultation records reveal both local attachment and a broader perspective. The importance of a continuing series of truss bridges right along the Murray River was very strongly expressed:

Should Barham and Tooleybuc be retained, in addition to Swan Hill and Cobram, the four bridges that cover a distance along the river of around 350 kilometres by road would remain as heritage landmarks.

The reasons for the construction of a bridge are still seen as vital and valid. One submission, voicing a common sentiment in praise of historical continuity, commented that:

Bombala has been a timber and wool town from its foundation, the Coolumbooka Bridge [see Figure 5.11] is still in use to this day as the only means of herding sheep and cattle from farm to farm across the river.

At Dungog, on the Williams River (see Figure 5.12), a tributary of the Hunter River, one submission contended that:

Cooreei Bridge, to travellers from the north, sets the mood for the streetscape of Dungog town and matches the town’s architectural history. Cooreei Bridge is a critical part of the richness of character of the town of Dungog.

Figure 5.13

Figure 5.13: Postcard featuring the two 1893 McDonald Truss bridges at Galston Gorge, Hornsby. Source: Roads and Maritime

The wide range of community interest shown in 2011 is as evident before and since – not least through social media where intrigued visitors, as well as proud locals, post photographs of these historic bridges. In the Hornsby Shire in the northern suburbs of Sydney, the local government council named their 2002 heritage festival ‘Bridging the Divide’ and its publicity postcard featured an intriguing 1930s photograph of the two truss bridges at Galston Gorge, just as the Council had done in the Official Souvenir for its ‘Back to Hornsby’ week in 1938 (see Figure 5.13).26

Community commitment to a bridge is a continuum, from conception to the christening celebrations. Many bridges have been enjoyed into their healthy middle age, and a few survive to glow in affectionate care into their old age.

Attachment might even continue after death by demolition, as Cowra’s example showed. When their new timber truss bridge was opened in 1870, it was proclaimed ‘The Pride of Cowra’, while the Town and Country Journal admired its aesthetics as well as its engineering.

On the score of appearance, this bridge is by no means deficient; painted almost white as the trusses are, they have an extremely light and picturesque effect, and when the sun is declining, and innumerable shades and cross shadows are thrown off by the interlacing timbers, the bridge has a really beautiful appearance, and it may be truly said that Little Cowra possesses one of those gems of engineering triumph and skill which many a large city might be justly proud of.27

In 1893 the bridge was replaced by John McDonald, using both McDonald truss spans and a composite timber/iron truss, a further symbol of regional progress (see Figure 1.15 and Chapter 3). When it was replaced in 1986 by Cowra’s present concrete bridge, a complete and meaningful span of the earlier bridge was lovingly re-assembled in the municipal park beside the Lachlan River it had spanned.28

This dignified mark of respect to a once-dominant element of more than 150 years of New South Wales history, the timber truss bridge, lasted less than a decade before its condition meant that the local Council had to remove it.

By design and in their service, these timber truss bridges were at once elegant and useful, as are those surviving today. Their continued engagement with people and place perhaps now serves just as essential a purpose.


  1. C Merrylees (2008), Mackenzie’s Riverina: Tour of the Hay District Pastoral Holdings of the 1890s, Hay, Hay Historical Society, 2nd ed, pp.5, 182
  2. Australian Town and Country Journal, 3 August 1901, p.40
  3. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 16 February 1900, p.23
  4. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 29 June 1900, p.28
  5. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 12 December 1902, p.23
  6. Wagga Wagga Express, 4 March 1902, p.2
  7. Australian Town and Country Journal, 12 October 1904, p.16
  8. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 14 October 1904, p.25
  9. Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 31 May 1866, p.3; Australian Town and Country Journal, 10 June 1871, p.17
  10. The Empire, 25 May 1866, p.4; 16 June 1866, p.3
  11. Australian Town and Country Journal, 10 June 1871, p.17
  12. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 16 May 1902, p.16
  13. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 17 October 1902, p.16
  14. GL Buxton (1967), The Riverina, 1861-1891: an Australian Regional Study, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, pp.196, 211; Evening News 3 October 1876; Argus, 26 February 1885, p.6
  15. Argus, 22 October 1887, p.12; Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 1887, p.13
  16. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 8 March 1907, p.46; 11 September 1908, p.27
  17. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 30 October 1908, p.27; Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times, 3 November 1908, p.2
  18. Swan Hill Guardian and Lake Boga Advocate, 8 April 1918, p.3; 10 June 1918, p.3; 24 June 1918, p.2; 4 July 1918, p.2; Riverina Recorder, 12 June 1918, p.2; 17 July 1918, p.2
  19. Sydney Morning Herald 27 June 1923
  20. C Essex (1988), The Town of Lots of Time: Historic Clarencetown, Williams River, N.S.W., Raymond Terrace, p.17; Newcastle Morning Herald 2 June 1880
  21. Moree Gwydir Examiner and General Advertiser, 28 September 1922, p.2; Riverina Recorder 28 February 1925
  22. Errol Lea-Scarlett (1968), Queanbeyan: district and people Queanbeyan Council, p.91; Ann Jackson-Nakano (2001), The Kamberri, Canberra, Aboriginal History Monograph 8, p.121
  23. Australian Star 4 December 1897, p.4; Australian Town and Country Journal, 7 April 1900, p.37; Wingham Chronicle 11 April 1900, p.2; Port Macquarie News 14 April 1900
  24. Riverina Recorder, 28 February 1925, p.3
  25. Riverina Recorder, 28 February 1925, p.3
  26. C Schofield (1988), The Shaping of Hornsby Shire, Hornsby Shire Council, Hornsby, pp.90-91
  27. Empire 7 June 1870; Australian Town and Country Journal, 9 March 1872
  28. Sydney Morning Herald 13 September 1893; DJ Fraser (1992), ‘Cowra Bridge: preservation of a unique structure’, Papers of the 6th IEA National Engineering Heritage Conference, Hobart