The Opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
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Australia Between The Wars

A Bridge for The Future

The first European settlement had been established in Sydney less than 30 years when a plan to build a bridge spanning the northern and southern sides of the harbour was proposed. Sir Francis Greenway, Sydney's convict architect, believed the construction of a bridge could represent a ‘strength and magnificence that would reflect credit and glory on the colony’.

Greenway's dream inspired many others. By 1890 the level of ferry traffic on the harbour had become so heavy that the construction of a bridge was essential for the development of the city. Numerous proposals continued to be discussed during the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1922 that the government finally approved the construction of Sydney's bridge. A brilliant government engineer named John Job Crew Bradfield was appointed to head the project.

Sydney sacrificed much of its heritage for the bridge. Many elegant colonial buildings and 438 of the small cottages of the suburb construction of sydney harbour bridge.PNGknown as ‘The Rocks’ were demolished as construction began on the southern approaches. A huge workforce of skilled tradesmen set up their workshops at Milson's Point to manufacture the steel girders and the thousands of parts required for the bridge. To avoid shipping hazards under the bridge, it was decided to build the arch in two halves, anchored by huge steel cables in rock at either end.

More than 1000 men were employed to build the bridge; sixteen died. Standards of industrial safety were poor and conditions were dangerous for men working on the slippery steel 90 metres above the water.

The Greatest Arch Bridge of The Age

At 10.15 pm on 19 August 1930, the steel workers gathered high on the centre of the arch with electric lights shining on them. Hundreds of steel cables supporting the two main cables of the bridge were slackened and the north and south spans of the bridge met and were bolted into place. On the following morning flags were proudly flying from the top of the cranes and ships sounded their horns in celebration. The bridge workers were given a half-day holiday and a two-shilling bonus to toast the bridge.
In the following year, the deck of the bridge was built and the road, tram and train lines were finished. The roadway linking the north and south sides of Sydney Harbour was named the Bradfield Highway.

When it was completed, the great arch soared to 135 metres above sea level. The massive weight rested on four steel bearings set in concrete foundations that were dug 12 metres into the sandstone rock of the harbour foreshore. The Sydney Morning Herald summed up the sense of achievement when it proclaimed: ‘Across Sydney has been thrown the greatest arch bridge of the age, a commanding structure with stately towers that stand like the pillars of Hercules bestriding the tide.’

Politics and Pageants

When building on the bridge began, the economy was booming. However, by 1931 the Depression had hit hard. The Commonwealth Government had borrowed heavily from overseas lenders to finance huge public works projects such as the Hume Weir and the Harbour Bridge. The government had difficulty in meeting the interest payments, so many other projects had to be cancelled, adding to the growing numbers of unemployed men. Almost in defiance of the unemployment and hardship of the era, work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge continued through the depths of the Great Depression.

Opening Ceremony March 1932

Crowds of up to one million people gathered on the harbour foreshore to view the lavish opening ceremonies including a two-kilometre procession of decorated floats and marching bands.
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A procession of passenger ships and an aerial display of the Royal Australian Air Force continued to entertain the crowds. A spectacular fireworks display and a Venetian Carnival were combined with balls and dinners across the city to mark the occasion.

Songs were composed and stamps were issued in commemoration of Sydney's achievement. C. J. Dennis wrote a poem that expressed the pride of the people of Sydney in having finally built the ‘mighty span’ that had been talked of for over 100 years. Dennis wrote of a dream in which Governor Phillip and the Sentimental Bloke (a character invented by Dennis) ‘Stands up, salutes the Bridge, an dips our lids’.

Francis de Groot Incident

The Labor Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang, was to open the bridge by cutting a ribbon at its southern end. However, just as Lang was about to cut the ribbon, a man in military uniform rode up on a horse, slashing the ribbon with his sword and
Francis de Groot interrupting proceedings
opening the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the name of the people of New South Wales before the official ceremony began. He was promptly arrested. The ribbon was hurriedly retied and Lang performed the official opening ceremony. The intruder was Francis de Groot a member of a right-wing paramilitary group called the New Guard. He was opposed to Lang's leftist policies and was resentful of the fact that a member of the Royal Family had not been asked to open the bridge.

A Symbol of Triumph

In 1982 the bridge was closed for the day to allow pedestrian access for a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Harbour Bridge opening. In May 2000 the 'Walk for Reconciliation' opened the bridge to thousands of pedestrians again. As a response to lang cutting ribbon.PNGthe findings of the inquiry into the Stolen Generations, Australians walked across the bridge as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation.