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A Bridge Back in Time – tracing the history and facts of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

✦ It is one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, an image people regularly and immediately identify with Australia and certainly a universally recognised symbol of the country’s largest city, Sydney.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, also affectionately known as the ‘Coathanger’, recently celebrated its 90th birthday so we thought, as part of our focus on history and heritage this month, it would be appropriate to take a peek into the bridge’s past.

There had been plans to build a bridge connecting the north and south shores of Sydney Harbour as early as 1815. It wasn’t until after World War I that planning and progress really got underway when, in 1914, John Bradfield was appointed “Chief Engineer of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Metropolitan Railway Construction”.

After the government passed the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act No. 28 in 1922, the contract for construction went out to tender to a number of international architectural and construction firms, with UK based Dorman Long eventually winning the rights to design and build the landmark structure.

The Sydney Harbour bridge was based on Dorman Long’s design of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK which opened in 1928, although the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City also had an influence on the design.

Controversial opening ceremony

Initially land had to be cleared to allow the construction to commence and it is estimated 469 buildings on the north shore, both private homes and commercial operations, were demolished to allow things to proceed, with little or no compensation being paid!

Construction proper started in September 1926 with work on the arch getting underway two years later in October 1928. The southern end of the project was constructed first to minimise errors and help with alignment, and on August 20th 1930 the arches successfully joined together. Work on the road surface in addition to laying tracks for trains and trams was completed a year later and the bridge was eventually opened on March 19th 1932 by the then New South Wales premier Jack Lang.

However, the official opening ceremony that day was initially plunged into controversy as, immediately prior to premier Lang cutting the ribbon on the bridge’s southern side, a man on horseback dressed in military uniform rode up and slashed the ribbon with his sword, claiming he was opening the bridge in the name of the people of New South Wales. He was promptly arrested and a replacement ribbon was quickly assembled so the official opening ceremony could go ahead. A similar ribbon-cutting ceremony by North Sydney’s mayor Alderman Primrose was conducted on the bridge’s northern side, luckily without any similar incident!

The atmosphere that day was said to be very jovial, with decorated boats, floats and ships cruising in the harbour waters below the bridge and up to 1 million people getting involved with the festivities. Songs were written and performed and three postage stamps were issued to commemorate the occasion. Once the opening ceremony had been conducted by officials, people were permitted to walk across the newly opened megastructure now dominating their harbour shore and skyline.

What’s in a bridge?

Made entirely of steel, of which about 80% was imported from England, the bridge took a total of six years to construct. It contains 6 million hand driven rivets and possesses huge, custom-made hinges on either side of the bridge at the foot of the pylons that are designed to absorb expansion often brought about by the frequently blazing Sydney sun which, on especially hot days, can increase the height of the arch by up to 18 centimetres.

Composed of two 28-panel arch trusses, it is currently the tallest steel arch designed bridge in the world with a distance of 134 metres, or 440 feet, from the top of the structure to the water level in the harbour below. It is also the 8th longest spanning-arch bridge in the world and, until 2012 when the Port Mann Bridge opened in Vancouver, held the world record as the widest long-span bridge at 48.8m (160 ft) wide. The total weight of the steelwork of the bridge is 52,800 tonnes, with the arch itself weighing 39,000 tonnes.

As one would imagine, the maintenance and upkeep of such a colossal structure is very demanding. First and foremost is to ensure the safety of those crossing the bridge, be it by foot, by car or bus, by train or bicycle. Ongoing inspection efforts are therefore imperative with a legion of trades constantly employed on the bridge including ironworkers, boilermakers, fitters, electricians, plasterers, carpenters, plumbers, riggers and painters.

Indeed, keeping the bridge looking its best takes a tremendous amount of painting with the combined steelwork working out at 485,000 m2, 120 acres - the equivalent of sixty football fields!

One noticeable celebrity who was previously a part of the painting crew in the 1970s, was internationally acclaimed Australian comic and actor Paul Hogan, who worked as a bridge rigger before rising to fame - although, he has never confirmed which of wrestling crocodiles in his Crocodile Dundee guise or painting the bridge was the tougher task!

Crossing a divide

Nowadays you can climb the southern arch of the structure through an official tour operator and, of course, the bridge has often been the centrepiece for cultural and sporting events held in the city. The fireworks extravaganza held every New Year’s Eve has seen some incredible displays over the years as all eyes of the world turn to Sydney as the first major city to welcome in the New Year.

Likewise, the bridge became a global icon during the 2000 Summer Olympic Games with the famous five Olympic rings emblazoned on the arches throughout the competition, underpinning one of the most successful Games of modern times.

Just before those Olympics, on May 28th 2000, the “Walk for Reconciliation” took place, highlighting the plight of widespread suffering endured by Australian Aboriginal children forcibly placed into the care of white parents in a little-publicised state government scheme. Estimates state that between 200,000 and 300,000 people walked across the harbour bridge that day in a symbolic gesture of crossing a divide.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was added to the NSW State Heritage Register on June 25th 1999 then, on the date of its 75th anniversary on March 19th 2007, to the Australian National Heritage List.

On February 5th this year it was officially announced that the national Australian flag, the New South Wales state flag and the Aboriginal flag will now permanently fly on flag poles above the bridge.

The ‘coathanger’ has come a long way in a relatively short period of time but, as it fast approaches its centenary, unquestionably stands as an iconic and symbolic piece of heritage that Aussies all over are rightfully proud of.


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