While the Sydney Harbour Bridge requires no introduction, Sydney’s Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge barely rates a mention. Yet, this bridge also has its mysteries.
I’ve caught the train over the bridge many times. While I usually have my nose in a book or am furiously scribbling in my notebook, I’ve often wondered about the row of abandoned sandstone pillars poking out of the water like ghostly headstones…a testimony to engineering defeat.
What went wrong? What is their story? Why are they there?
Yet, that’s where my queries stopped.
That was until we went on a historic Hawkesbury River cruise last weekend and we cruised past the abandoned pylons, underneath the new Hawkesbury River Bridge and found out what happened.
Fortunately, the old bridge was safely replaced before the crumbling bridge gave way and two crowded steam trains crashed into the Hawkesbury River with a catastrophic loss of life.
The original Hawkesbury River Bridge was an engineering catastrophe doomed from the start. Indeed, it could well have been built by Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers Engineering!
Yet, it was quite a different story when the bridge opened in 1889 to much fanfare and acclaim:
“The 1889 Hawkesbury River Bridge, Long Island Tunnel, Woy Woy Tunnel and the heavy earthworks and tunnels of the Cowan bank were the key engineering works on the Sydney to Newcastle rail link (The Short North). Together they demonstrate a high degree of engineering achievement in building a railway line in difficult and dangerous terrain. The 1889 Hawkesbury River Bridge in particular was a major technical achievement at the time: it was the fourth largest bridge constructed in the world, one of its caissons reached 49m, had the deepest bridge footing in the world and it was the longest bridge in Australia, pushing bridge design and construction techniques to the limit. The bridge was also the first of the American designed truss bridges that were introduced to Australia in the late 1880s and 1890s and thus the first to utilise the American principles of lightweight bracing, pin joints and eye bar tension members. It was the only steel trussed bridge of its type in Australia when it was built and the first major use of steel for bridges with previous examples being built in wrought iron. Its remains are tangible evidence of the change in engineering technology from British to American at this time and the decline of John Whitton’s British based design influence on the NSW railway system. There is enough extant fabric in the remaining abutments, piers and the Long Island tunnel to demonstrate the engineering achievements of the original Hawkesbury River crossing. www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=4800130
However, cracks soon started to appear in this so-called engineering achievement and the original bridge lasted only 60 years.
So what went wrong?
This newspaper report from 1946 tells the story well.
River flow by.