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These short articles were published one at a time in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter.

No.1 - Princes Bridge
No.2 - MacRobertson Bridge
No.3 - Sandridge Rail Bridge
No.4 - Lines Composed Upon Spencer Street Bridge
No.5 - Kane's Bridge
No.6 - West Gate Bridge
No.7 - Chandler Highway Bridge

No.1 Princes Bridge

This article was first published in the  White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.173 on 19 May 2006.
In that same newsletter you will find some quiz questions related to Princes Bridge.

When the first European settlers arrived in Melbourne in 1835 there was no permanent crossing point of the Yarra River. Over time various punt and ferry operators set up business but there was still no bridge. In those times there was no point in waiting for the government in Sydney to provide a bridge and most of Melbourne’s early infrastructure was provided by private enterprise. On 22nd April 1840 a private company was set up with the intention of constructing a bridge across the Yarra.

In our own time, we have become familiar with activist groups in country towns who agitate for a bypass to be built around their town and then become surprised that after it is built no-one seems to visit there and spend money anymore and much of the employment dries up. Things were different in the 1840s. The traders in Elizabeth Street vied with those in Swanston Street to have the through traffic that would be generated by a bridge. Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe favoured an Elizabeth Street crossing, but despite such official pressure the private company favoured the construction conditions at Swanston Street and it was there in 1840 that they opened their wooden toll bridge. Until that time William Street had been the de facto main street of Melbourne since it led down to the docks, Coles Wharf and the Western Market. With the construction of the bridge, Swanston Street quickly became regarded as the main street and remained so until recent time when the city authorities decided it would be a good thing if  the major carriageway should be closed to most traffic but not open up to pedestrians.

By 1850, the government had caught up and built a fine single span structure of brick and stone, opened it on 15 November, called it Princes Bridge, and made it available to the public for free. Little did they know that within a year, gold would be discovered in country Victoria, there would be a population explosion, Melbourne would become recognised as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and the narrow carriageway on this fine bridge would become inadequate for such a bustling city.

Princes Bridge - 1853

Come 1888 and our second International Exhibition, Melbourne had designed and built the third bridge on the site and the one that we know today. By that time the Yarra River had been heavily modified both upstream and downstream and the major floods of the early years were becoming less common. In the best Melbourne tradition, the bridge is built on solid bluestone bulwarks – none of your flimsy Sydney sandstone here – with plenty of cast iron. Solid yet elegant, befitting the style of the city which had forced itself onto the international map.

When ex-pat Melburnians in London become homesick they make their way down to Blackfriars Bridge and through the mist and the rain pretend that they are gazing at the structure that helped define the centre of gravity of Melbourne.

Some reflections underneath Princes Bridge

This article was first published under the heading Melbourne's Hidden Gems in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.173 on 19 May 2006

If you make your way across Fed Square towards Princes Bridge you will find a set of bluestone steps leading down to river level. At the base of the stairs is a series of vault-like structures cut into the bank that have served many purposes over the years – few of which would be approved of by the polite society crossing the bridge above. In recent months, this area has been turned into a café and wine bar and I sometimes like to sit there at the end of the day and watch the decades slowly flowing past. “Would you like some water sir?” asks the waiter. I remember that Garryowen, writing at the time of the wooden bridge tells us “Originally the city was solely dependent on the Yarra water, which was frequently unfit for man or beast (but) the people of Melbourne had to swallow it, though often rectified with large dashes of execrable rum or brandy.” “No thank you” I tell the waiter – “I’ll have a scotch with no water”.

Underneath Princes Bridge

From this position at the water’s edge it is possible to see little huddles of tourists crossing the bridge and pausing to examine the painted crests on the cast iron lamp posts. That is what their guide book instructed them to do. At water level, indiscernible shapes float past just below the water’s surface and I am reminded of Fergus Humes’ description of the place around the time of opening of the new bridge. “Rats are scampering along among the wet stones, and then a vagrant dog poking about amid some garbage howls dismally. What is that black speck on the crimson waters? The trunk of a tree perhaps; no it is a body . . . floating down with the current. People are passing to and fro on the bridge, the clock strikes in the town hall, and the dead body drifts slowly down the red stream far into the shadows of the coming night – under the bridge over which the crowd is hurrying, bent on pleasure and business.”

Another group of tourists pauses to examine the painted crests. At water level I am reminded that a century ago that this was the time of evening that the other rats would gather - the group of street kids who called themselves the Bourke Street Rats. They could make their way into the centre of the city, rumble some drunks, then meet up back here next to the bridge. The place where I am sitting has probably been used a number of times to divvy up the takings with probably more than the fair share going to the gang leader – a young thug called Squizzy. At around the same time, Clarice Beckett gave us probably one of the best paintings of the bridge as seen from the same position on the other side of the river. The tourists move on across the surface of the city to their next approved stop.

With the fading light it is time to venture underneath the bridge. The city lights reflect strange fractal patterns from the river onto the bridge’s underbelly while the regular rumble of the trams overhead coax the rivets into a song they have sung for over a century. And sometimes – just sometimes – at this time you may see shadows and catch snippets of conversation between the hyperactive 6 year old son of the bridge designer who wants to know how everything works and the young engineer who has been employed to work on the bridge while struggling to support his mother and put himself through university at the same time. The young engineer patiently explains how the interlocking patterns come together to form a larger, stronger structure and is immediately bombarded with five more questions. As I head off along the river I hear John Monash quietly begin his next explanation to the young Percy Grainger.

A bridge can take you more places than just the other side of the river.

Princes Bridge detail

No.2 – The MacRobertson Bridge

This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.175 on 2 June 2006.

“You seem miles away” says my friend as we pass the MacRobertson Bridge.

At first sight this bridge, which crosses the Yarra at Grange Road linking Toorak and Burnley, may seem unremarkable. However ‘Mac’ Robertson, the man who gave Melbourne the bridge was certainly not unremarkable. We have mentioned Mac in this newsletter before as Melbourne’s own Willy Wonka building a sweets empire from nothing and being the natural successor to E.W.Cole of the Book Arcade as a master of marketing (as distinct from a Master of Marketing). Perhaps less well known is that Mac is the main reason that Melbourne has become the undisputed philanthropy capital of Australia with over 80% of Australia’s philanthropic trusts registered here.

In the early 1930s, Melbourne was a somewhat grey and sombre place. Much of the wealth of the gold rush had been swept away by the major depression of the 1890s. After that, wartime strictures arrived (along with 6 o’clock closing) and just as Melbourne was starting to climb out of its enforced isolation it was hit by the (not quite as) great depression of the 1930s with many people on ‘susso’ and the dole. As 1935 approached there was some optimism in the air and art deco buildings such as the Manchester Unity with Melbourne’s first escalator were starting to give Melbourne a modern atmosphere. The artist of choice to represent this new-found optimism was Napier Waller. Like many artists of the time he was likely to connect Melbourne with classical antiquity rather than dwelling on the less prosaic aspects of Melbourne’s history. Here was a Melbourne with neither blood nor mud on its hands. In Collins Street, the newly refurbished Newspaper House boasted on its mural “I’ll put a girdle around the earth” while a block away at their newly refurbished department store, Myers was intent on putting a girdle around every Melbourne matron.

It was in this atmosphere that Mac was thinking how he could help Melbourne celebrate the centenary of its foundation by Batman and Fawkner in 1835. As Australia’s highest taxpayer he felt no compulsion to make an additional donation to the government for the event – they would probably only spend it on expensive advertising promoting themselves. Better to spend it on something promoting Melbourne. The London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race ensured that Melbourne was on the front page of newspapers around the world for weeks. And if the newspaper happened to mention that Mac Robertson owned a sweets company he didn’t mind all that much. In the centenary year of 1934-35 a number of Melbourne buildings were floodlit for the first time, making it very suitable for destination marketing.

However, like many a self-made-man, Mac was also intent on contributing something more lasting and practical for the people of Melbourne. There had long been needed a bridge over the Yarra in the Burnley area so Mac donated the money. His other gifts to the people of Melbourne for that centenary year include the herbarium in the Botanic Gardens, a fountain at the St Kilda end of the surrounds of the newly built Shrine and a girls’ high school which bears his name.

Sometimes I imagine I can see Mac inspecting the details of his newly built bridge in 1935. At the same time, further down river is another man standing on Princes Bridge. A lot of water had flowed under those arches since he first worked there as a young engineer and he was now contemplating the view of the newly built Shrine for which he had been the major driving force.

“You seem miles away” says my friend as we drive along the Monash Freeway under MacRobertson Bridge. “Not miles away” I say. “Just 70 years”.

No. 3 – The Sandridge Rail Bridge

This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.176 on 15 June 2006.

In 1853 the backwater settlement of Melbourne had been transformed into a bustling, hustling wild west town with the discovery of gold. Down by the city docks at the Western Market, the traders could sell you all you needed for an expedition to the goldfields. “You’ll need snow shoes my man, and bear traps – have they told you about the drop bears? Hurry, hurry, hurry! The best bear traps in Melbourne today only at the Western Market from Crazy Otto!” Fortunately we’ve moved on to more civilized times.

Few passenger vessels could make it up the Yarra to Cole’s Wharf and the Western Market. In fact few could even secure a berth at the major piers in Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) or Williamstown. Many took the Geelong option. It was closer to the Ballarat goldfields (and MUCH closer if you believed some of the distorted maps produced at the time by Geelong entrepreneurs [who at that stage were just starting to develop their characteristic bollard-like {which we have commented on in an earlier newsletter} stature and who had a number of inns to comfort the weary traveller, many with serviced rooms {although I don’t understand what that meant}] and where the bear traps were said to be cheaper) but still the majority of ships had to anchor in Hobsons Bay (at one stage it was said you could walk across Hobsons Bay on the decks of ships) with many of them abandoned by their crew who had headed off to the goldfields. Passengers often found that in order to be ferried from their ship to Sandridge Beach or Liardets Beach it cost them as much as their total passage from Europe or America. Then once they were landed, they had to cart their heavy luggage several miles through the swamps over dubious tracks to reach Melbourne. You would possibly encounter a few tents offering ‘colonial wine’ or ‘guaranteed fast communications with the home country’ or advance touts for serviced accommodation in Melbourne. Fortunately we’ve moved on to more civilized times and today if you make your way up Bay Street Port Melbourne you will find stores offering cafe lattes, international phone cards and the occasional young lady promoting the benefits of certain short-stay hotels.

It was in this atmosphere that Australia’s first steam railway was formed to transport passengers between Melbourne Station (now called Flinders Street Station) and Railway Pier in Sandridge (now called Station Pier). Like much of Melbourne’s early infrastructure, the railway was created by private enterprise and only much later taken over by the government. A timber bridge was built across the Yarra in 1853 in a straight line between the city station and Port Melbourne. The best place to view the remains of this important rail route is from the observation deck at the Rialto Building. From there you can still clearly see the route (albeit with a casino plonked on part of it) and the reason for the bridge’s unusual alignment across the Yarra. Hoddle’s government grid imposed its stark geometry on the landscape with little regard to practicality. Elizabeth Street was an intermittent creek which regularly flooded (some older [I refrained from the term geriatric] subscribers may even remember flash floods in the 1970s) but the Sandridge Bridge struck out in a practical straight line to the docks thus creating a defiant diagonal. Melbournians don’t like diagonals – they’re somehow sinister, along with curves, and lets come straight out and say it – Sydney-like!

The diagonal Sandridge Bridge carried the first steam passenger service in Australia. IIRC (that’s ‘If I remember correctly’ for those whose jobs allow you the time to spell such things out in full) the steam engine on the first journey was not a locomotive but a stationary steam engine strapped to a wagon and somehow supplying traction to the wheels. I’m sure some gunzels out there will fill us in on that.

By 1859 the bridge had been replaced by a sturdier one. Then, came 1888 and our grand exhibition year. The gold had run out but Melbourne had become an important mercantile centre. There was a major International Exhibition to be held in the temporary building built by David Mitchell (they say his daughter wasn’t a bad singer) in the Carlton Gardens and Fred Baker had been brought out from London to sing the role of the devil in the new Princess Theatre, and Steven Street had been renamed Exhibition Street because an election promise said it would be turned into a boulevard with a bridge extending across the rail yards. The main function of the rail line from Station Pier had now become the transporting of heavy freight so a new bridge was to be built.

The contractor David Munro was engaged. He was already building the new Princes Bridge nearby, and, from what we can tell, an engineering student already working on Princes Bridge to pay his way through university, showed particular interest in the new materials (steel girders instead of iron). We don’t know if John Monash ever worked on the current Sandridge Bridge, but we can be pretty sure that he clambered of every inch of it during its construction.

When the last rail services across the bridge ceased in 1987 and were replaced with light rail taking a slightly different route to Port Melbourne the bridge remained abandoned and derelict for a number of years. The bridge was an important relic of Victoria’s industrial past, but because of its bulky structure it also blocked views up and down the Yarra. If it was removed it could help turn Melbourne into a riverside city – if it stayed it provided a connection with the past. It was therefore with interest that we observed what was to happen.

This year, several days before the Commonwealth Games the bridge was reopened as a pedestrian access with a series of 2 dimensional sculptures representing various waves of migration to Victoria. The press releases said that these sculptures will move across the bridge three times a day. I have looked closely and am yet to see one move (hums whimsically “The hills are alive, I just saw one moving”). I’m sure if enough subscribers concentrate their energies on the bridge we will be able to make them move – probably several days before state election time.

The Sandridge Rail Bridge represents many things to those who know its history (ignore many of the “official” guides and popular tourist bibles which tell you it is the “original” rail bridge) but currently it represents to us a particular publicly sanctioned approach to historical preservation. In the manner of certain educational institutions and museums which are busily rewriting history to fit a prevailing ideology, the current Sandridge Bridge uses a historical structure as a platform to display certain ideologies (however laudable) that have everything to do with now and little to do with then. If you want to appreciate the bridge and why it’s there, we recommend viewing it from underneath. There in the quietness you can get a feeling for what made it important when it was built. Later you may want to venture onto the platform above to receive the ‘official’ version of why the structure is important.

No.4 – Lines composed upon Spencer Street Bridge

This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.178 on 29 June 2006.

It was a crisp winter Sunday morning and I was standing in the middle of Spencer Street Bridge. The mists were still on the surface of the water and the city had not yet properly woken. I think

“This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.”

“Gather around, gather around!” says a voice behind me. I turn around to find a group of about a dozen people in woolly hats led by a guide equipped with a sheaf of notes and leather elbow patches. From an outlet beneath the casino forecourt comes a sudden discharge of water. The light grey discharge merges with the darker grey of the Yarra to form fascinating changing patterns and eddies which slowly pirouette their way under the bridge. I think

“The river glideth at his own sweet will”

The guide observes the discharge with obvious distaste and quickly diverts attention upstream. I try to ignore his commentary, but the megaphone makes that well nigh impossible. “Straight ahead is the turning basin where the ships used to tie up” says the guide.

Upstream is the Queen Street Bridge, but when Batman, Fawkner and others arrived it was a set of rapids and a natural barrier to shipping moving any further up river. The ‘falls’ as they were known also blocked the tidal salt water from moving further upstream. This was therefore a natural “spot for a village” – shipping access to the sea on one side and fresh water for the settlement on the other. The water tumbling over the falls had created a natural basin suitable for ships to dock and turn. It was here that John Batman’s only male heir was drowned whilst fishing. With gold and the expansion of the settlement the turning basin was artificially enlarged, and the older railway viaduct (the one closer to Flinders Street) roughly traces the outline of the turning basin at its largest. It must have been a wondrous sight for those arriving after a three month sea voyage from England with very little landfall along the way to sail up the Yarra on a crisp winter morning to the growing city already boasting buildings of impressively carved stone.

“Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

The guide continues “Of course docks were unattractive places and all that smelly cargo and deals taking place wasn’t what you wanted in the centre of the city so gradually the docks were moved out of the city”. Well, the bridge on which we’re standing is certainly so low as to stop any serious shipping making its way into the city any longer. Over time the retreat of major shipping downstream has been made practically irreversible by the construction of low bridges. Even the Bolte Bridge is too low to allow what could be the exciting prospect of international cruise ships docking in the middle of the new Docklands precinct.

“By the 1920s people were building dull simple bridges like this one” says the guide. “Not quite so simple” I think. On the south side it was known by the engineers in 1928 that they would have to go quite deep in order to find bedrock footings to support a bridge capable of carrying heavy traffic. The cylindrical reinforced concrete supports gradually worked their way diagonally towards the solid rock but struck an unexpected obstacle. At 20 metres below sea level they struck a solid object that took three week work to remove. This object was a red gum stump – the last time I saw a portion of it was at the museum in the Old Treasury Building. It was dated at about 8,000 years old and appears to have lived for well over 400 years. The soil from around its roots is of the sort now only found in the high country. What was this tree doing so far underground?

To answer that we need to rewind 10,000 years. During the last major Ice Age, sea levels were much lower and the Yarra flowed in a small canyon through the centre of Melbourne some 30 to 40 metres deep. Temperatures were colder, rainfall was higher and the steep banks of the ‘Yarra Valley’ in the centre of Melbourne were a temperate rainforest. It was in this valley that the majestic red gum that slowed the building of the Spencer Street Bridge had grown. This Yarra Valley flowed past Spencer Street, then turned left and roughly followed the route of the Sandridge rail line before flowing out onto Port Phillip Plain. Lower sea levels meant the area we now know as Port Phillip Bay was a dry plain with the Yarra River running through the centre. It was swelled along the way by tributaries such as the Maribyrnong, Werribee and Barwon Rivers. The river then probably banked up into a lake, constricted in its flow by the narrow gap in the rocks we now know as ‘The Heads’. It most have been an awesome (back in the days when that word meant ‘inspiring awe’ rather than ‘mildly interesting’) sight to watch the Yarra force its way through ‘The Heads’ onto the continental shelf and off to Bass Straight. As the water levels rose, Port Phillip Plain disappeared under water and the water levels of the rivers rose until they meandered across the top of the river valleys that had filled with silt.

The outlet under the casino concourse produces another discharge of muddy water. Many modern structures built near the present day Yarra have to deal with the fact that they are literally floating in the mud of the old Yarra Valley. Structures like the casino and the Domain Tunnel choose to accept there will be seepage and manage it in different ways. The Arts Centre concert hall (now Hamer Hall) had also to deal with the electrolytic properties of this mud and find solutions to prevent this eating into the structure.

By the time Europeans settled in 1835, the Yarra was not a major geographic barrier but was regarded by the local Aboriginal people as an important boundary between clan groups. This may well have stretched back in their cultural history to when the deep Yarra Valley with its dense temperate rainforest formed a formidable natural barrier. As I stand on the bridge I can feel the mud and silt dissolve away revealing the valley below while I remain perched on the bridge above with its impressive 30 metre pylons revealed to view stretching down to the imposing red gum growing at the base. Here on this very special canyon bridge I can take in the view of Melbourne at an earlier time. I think

“Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty”

“Let’s move on,” says the megaphone. “there’s not much history here. We’re off to Collins Street.” “Oh I’ve been waiting for this,” says one of the woolly hats “I do so love history.”

No. 5 - Kane’s Bridge

This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.306 on 2nd April 2009.

Kane's Bridge in Studley Park

It had been a strenuous run through Studley Park. I sat underneath the shade of the suspension bridge to recover for a while and enjoy the solitude. My reverie was interrupted by a loud banging. On looking up I could just make out the shape of a red haired boy of about 10 or 11 years of age. He was jumping on the bridge presumably with the intention of making it wobble. “Ouch!” I said loudly. “Who said that?” said the urchin on the bridge. At least he had stopped jumping. “Me.“ I said, feeling that was full and sufficient information. The obnoxious minor jumped once more. I was reminded of W. C. Fields’ observation that “anyone who hates dogs and small children can't be all bad”. “How would you like it if people kept jumping on you?” I said. “Who are you?” demanded the trainee juvenile delinquent. “You deserve red hair” I thought. “I am” I said putting on my best bridge voice, “Kane’s Bridge, and I would take it most kindly if you would desist from your percussive animations.” “What? “Stop jumping!” I said firmly.

“But you’re such a funny old bridge and wobble each time I jump.” “We suspension bridges are not ‘funny’ as you so quaintly put it and I’m not that old – I was built in the late 1920s. In ancient civilisations people would sling a rope across a ravine and clamber monkey-like underneath it to get across. Later they would have three ropes with the middle one lower so that you could walk on the lower one and hold onto the outer ones. Look above your head. Those two cables are just the same and they form a catenary curve. People got the idea of suspending a platform underneath the cables and you ended up with a suspension bridge like me. We have a long and proud history.”

“You still wobble.” said the brat. “All suspension bridges wobble.” I explained. “Recently an Australian engineering company built a suspension pedestrian bridge across the Thames in London called the Millennium Bridge. The cables are so tight it’s hard to see it’s a suspension bridge. On opening day with thousands of people walking across, it started to wobble badly from side to side and they had to close it. The engineers found that as we walk we press outwards slightly with each step much like a skater or skier. Once a few people are walking in step causing a slight sway then others subconsciously adjust their walking to brace against the sway and their push creates an even bigger swing. The engineers closed the bridge, figured out the problem and installed dampers to stop the resonance. And if you keep jumping on me you might start a resonance.” The child jumped once more. Obviously he had no respect for physics, engineering, history or my solitude.

“Then there’s the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster all caused by a small boy jumping on the bridge.” I said in my most serious bridge voice. “What was that?” “A small boy started jumping on a suspension bridge in America and started it wobbling. The wind picked up the wobble and set it vibrating at its natural frequency and the giant bridge collapsed. Go home and look up ‘Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse Newsreel’ on a search engine.” “Cool!” said the wide-eyed youth. Clearly, knowing how things work held no fascination for him but watching them collapse or blow-up was ‘cool’. I must admit I made up the bit about the collapse being initiated by a small boy’s jumping, but it did collapse, and where would Western Civilisation be without some myths and legends to frighten the young into submission. I relaxed in the shade of the bridge pleased with my morning’s work.

I was still quite pleased with my little deception and was ready to move on. “Parabola!” said a deep voice. “What was that?” I said. “Parabola.” repeated the voice. “If you’re going to impersonate me, at least get it right. A cable suspended from two points forms a catenary but once you hang a platform below it transforms into a parabola.” “Well I . . “ “And as for Galloping Gertie . . “ “”Galloping Gertie?” “That’s the nickname we other suspension bridges gave to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, well Galloping Gertie didn’t collapse through being excited into her natural frequency by the wind despite what you’ll read in text books, it was due to aeroelastic flutter. Do try to get these things right. Besides, even though I was originally built in the late 1920s the great flood of 1934 my moorings were swept away and I ended up all swept to one side of the river so I had become a swing bridge. So then I was rebuilt up here, way above the flood level, by susso labour in 1935.” “You mean like Work for the Dole?” “No, the dole pays money, susso only payed food rations. If you’re going into the bridge impersonating business you’re going to have to do better than that.”

I remembered I had been accompanied for part of my run by someone who said he was an engineer. Maybe it was his voice on the other side of the knoll. I was about to investigate when I was interrupted. “Hey Mister! How do you spell Tacoma?”

No.6 – West Gate Bridge

In the gardens surrounding the engineering school at Monash University you will find what seem like incongruous pieces of industrial rubble. Is it a piece of post-modernist landscape gardening? To find out we need to head towards the city.

The river flowing through the city and out to Port Phillip Bay and which we call the Yarra bears little relation to the river known by the Aborigines before white settlement and which we think they called ‘Birrarung’. Of the river from Herring Island in Burnley to the bay only the section from Princes Bridge to the new Convention Centre follows the same path. The rest is a channel made by white man about 3Km shorter than the Birrarung. In the early days of European settlement a trip from (the then non-existent) Herring Island would wind its way through the now Botanic Gardens, along the current route from the current Princes Bridge, over the falls at Queen Street, around the back of Batmans Hill where it started to meander north and loop around the Ascot Vale area before heading back and joining up with the Maribyrnong. Thus anyone wanting to travel by land in a straight line from the city to the Footscray area would need to cross the Yarra/Birrarung twice then the Maribyrnong as well as traversing a swamp. No wonder the Western Suburbs were seen as a ‘different country’. Even heading west to Ballarat you would first head north-west up Mount Alexander Road to avoid the river.

Over time a new more direct channel was dug and the old river was filled in and sold off to the residents of Ascot Vale as a place where they could build their houses. Many residents in this area today are unaware that live directly above the original river bed, although there are still a few telltale signs in the area indicating the original route of the river.

Gradually, swamps were drained and bridges were built and eventually it became relatively easy for a family from the eastern suburbs to go and observe the strange customs, rituals and language of those from the west. Similarly those from the west could go and observe the strange customs, rituals and language of those from the east. Both families would return home saying the other people seemed OK but you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.

All this time, the people of Williamstown remained the most distant of all. They had their own port and direct contact with the ‘real world’ so didn’t need much contact with the east or the west. Then by the late 1960s came a proposal to link Williamstown and Geelong with Melbourne via a giant bridge over the mouth of the Yarra. The conversations over the picket fences seemed to concur that it would never happen.

But happen it did. Engineering firms were brought in from Britain to oversee the project while the local John Holland Group started casting the pre-stressed concrete. The partially finished bridge was towering above the land below when tragedy struck. While bringing together pieces of the span there was a major collapse resulting in the deaths of 35 workers. A Royal Commission was immediately set in train which laid the blame on the design and structural methods employed. It remains one of Melbourne’s worst industrial disasters.

Work resumed and the bridge completed in 1978. Tolls were charged but back then petrol and time were cheap so many people preferred to expend the latter rather than pay the former. Before long the government felt compelled to remove the tolls and the bridge has since served Melbourne for over thirty years.

Perhaps the best place to appreciate the bridge is from the wetlands in the park below. From there you can view the elegance of the three dimensional s-shaped structure. If you are there at the right time of year you may also share the experience with migratory waterbirds from distant countries.

Meanwhile back at the engineering school at Monash University you can see some of the rubble from the bridge collapse. Students know that if a writer is slightly sloppy with their apostrophes or a musician is slightly sloppy with their parallel fifths or a historian is slightly sloppy with their dates then there will be a certain degree of tut-tutting. However the garden reminds engineer students daily of the consequences of being slightly sloppy with their design, calculations or procedures.

No.7 – Chandler Highway Bridge

This article was first published in the  White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.336 on 30th October 2009.

“You’d think they’d have more foresight.”

The fellow sitting underneath the bridge throwing a stick for his dog was not looking in my direction, but since I was the only other human within sight I assumed the statement was meant for me. “Just one lane of traffic in each direction” he said gesturing to the bridge above and still not turning his head to look at me.

 ““You’d think they’d have more foresight.”

“Hmmph.” I grunted. I find a grunt is useful under circumstances like this since it usually conveys to the listener what they want to hear. “I hear what you say comrade” he said tossing the stick once again “but I still say they should have had more foresight.”

I retired to a reasonable distance to contemplate both what I had said and the bridge above my head. It was originally built as part of the Outer Circle rail route in the late 19th century. The Inner and Outer loops were to carry freight and also open up new land for settlement once they were served by passenger. rail. It is no surprise that two of the politicians who voted to allow the railway had also bought up lots of land around said railway. However their plans were to be thwarted by Global Downturn of the 1890s (well it seemed global here in Melbourne its effects were so devastating). "Hmmph." I reflect.

“I know what you mean, but they should build more railways” says my companion as he heaves the stick again. I grunt in a non-committal manner as I reflect that some historians such as Tim Flannery have blamed this devastating 1890s depression on, among other things, over capitalization in railways. “And that ugly factory over there – they should get rid of it.” I grunt again.

The APM paper mills started life where Southgate now stands. Paper manufacture needs a steady supply of good quality water and that was available above the Queen Street falls. Over time factories and tanneries in Richmond polluted the water and the paper mills were force to pipe water down form above the next barrier – Dights Falls. Eventually they moved to their current location and the part of the Outer Circle railway with the more established section of the rail network remained one of the few heavy freight uses of the Outer Circle.

My companion’s dog has spotted a rabbit and set off in pursuit. The rabbit, sensing a city dog, stops turns and stares defiantly and the apartment dog returns whimpering to its master.

Melbourne’s rail system grew up as ‘spokes’ radiating from the city and only the inner and outer circles offered cross-town rail travel. How romantic for the suburban housewife to have the occasional steam train rattling past the back fence. Not really. Monday was traditionally washing day when the womenfolk of the family would spend the whole day scrubbing and washing and hanging the whites on the line to be bleached by the sun only to have a dirty, smelly machine trundle past belching smoke and soot and depositing a grey cloud on your day’s work. Only part of the outer circle was electrified and most of the rest was gradually decommissioned and turned into linear parks or used for other purposes. The inner and outer circle routes would now prove ideal for light rail or tram routes giving cross-city connection but it would be a brave politician who tried to now reclaim that land for its original purpose. The rail bridge above our heads was eventually converted into a road bridge for the Chandler Highway.

“Just two lanes of traffic up there.” says my companion. “You’d think they’d have more foresight. They should start thinking about more railways.”

“Hmmph.” I say. My companion and his dog depart. "Good speaking with you." he says.

Postscript – Ghost bridges

You can find some additional musings on bridges which have now disappeared at The White Hat Guide to Ghost Bridges of Melbourne.


Copyright © 1995 - 2015 White Hat.

Book cover - Flinders Street Station - Beyond the FacadeFlinders Street Station - Beyond the Façade

Launched in 2009 this is the most comprehensive book on the history of Flinders Street Station together with its social history associated which has been published to date.  In 2010 Flinders Street Station - Beyond the Façade was declared the Overall Winner for the Victorian Community History Awards

Click on the link below for details of purchasing Flinders Street Station - Beyond the Façade from an Australian distributor who guarantee their prices are lower than Amazon.

Beyond the Façade: Flinders Street, More Than Just a Railway Station

“Hi White Hat
My book, "Beyond the Facade: Flinders Street, more than just a railway station" took out the Overall Winner for the Victorian Community History Awards on Thursday which was a great day for self publishers and for me in particular!
"The Community" that my book represents is huge and the stories and connections keep flowing in. The judges' comments were very much in line with yours from last year when we met for a beer beside the Yarra. I really appreciated the vote of confidence you gave me for my work!
Regards Jenny Davies”

You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.