Sydney Harbour Bridge

Year:1932

Duration:8 years

Cost:£4.2m (£234m today)

Country: Sydney, Australia

Build a landmark bridge across Sydney Harbour

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a steel arch bridge across Sydney Harbour. Built in 1932, it carries road and rail traffic, as well as pedestrians. It connects Sydney’s central business district to the north shore.

Nicknamed ‘the Coathanger’ because of its arched design, the 1,149m-long, 48.8m-wide structure is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge – measuring 134m from the top to the water below. It’s also the sixth longest spanning-arch bridge in the world.

The structure – along with Sydney Opera House and the harbour itself – is part of one of the most famous images of Australia. The view is frequently used to establish that a film or TV show is set in the country.

There had been proposals for a bridge as early as 1815, when British architect Francis Greenaway – who’d been transported to Australia for forgery – suggested the idea.

Greenaway wrote to a newspaper saying that a bridge would ‘give an idea of strength and magnificence’.

More serious planning got underway in 1914, when John Bradfield was appointed chief engineer for a bridge scheme. Bradfield got the idea for the structure’s design after a trip to America in 1921 – drawing up outline plans for a crossing based on the Hell Gate Bridge in New York.

The New South Wales government ran a tendering process in 1924. With six companies bidding, the contract went to British firm Dorman Long and Company, who’d built Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge.

The arch design was chosen over proposals for a suspension bridge, as city bosses thought it would be better suited to the heavy traffic they expected to use the crossing.

Difference the project has made

The Sydney Harbour Bridge opened up the northern side of the harbour and allowed Sydney to expand to the north.

Before the bridge was built, crossing the harbour meant taking a ferry boat. The bridge meant people and goods could make the journey far more quickly.

The bridge improved communications in the Sydney area – easier movement of goods and people helped boost the local economy.

How the work was done

Engineers started work for the bridge by demolishing around 470 homes and commercial buildings on the north shore. Owners were paid little or no compensation.

Early work included the construction of concrete piers to support the approach spans of the structure. An approach span is the part of a bridge that carries traffic from the land to the main part of a bridge.

The next major stage of the work saw the construction of giant ‘creeper cranes’ on either side of the harbour. The cranes hoisted men and materials into place to build the structure.

The cranes got their name because they ‘crept’ along the arches as they were constructed. The cranes finally met when the two halves came together.

Engineers worked on the southern end of the scheme ahead of the northern end to help with the alignment of the structure. The two half-bridges met on 19 August 1930, after less than two years.

The project team finished the deck for the roadway in 1931, when the creeper cranes were dismantled. Engineers then laid the road surface and rail tracks across the bridge. The first test train went over the structure in January 1932.

Some 1,400 workers helped build the bridge. Sixteen men were killed in accidents during construction.

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The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an Australian cultural icon.

New South Wales government website

Fascinating facts

The bridge was opened by New South Wales prime minister Jack Lang on 19 March 1932. A crowd of around 1m people turned up for the event.

Just as the prime minister was about to cut the ribbon, Francis de Groot of right-wing group the New Guard slashed it in half with a sword. De Groot – who was disguised as a military horseman – was protesting as he believed that a member of the British royal family should open the bridge.

De Groot was convicted of offensive behaviour and fined £5. He later successfully sued police for wrongful arrest.

People who made it happen

  • Chief engineer: John Bradfield
  • Designer: Sir Ralph Freeman
  • Construction engineers: Dorman Long and Company

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