Thursday, October 16, 2008

The “inherently rotten” Whau Bridges (1855-1930)

(Image from NZ Building Record, 18 November 1925, p. 3)

The Whau Bridge portion of the Great North Road has been an important, if somewhat fragile, link with the West and the North for half the time there has been a bridge there. I imagine, before the Provincial Road Surveyor G. O. Ormsby set out the plans and advertised for tenders in August 1855 that the only way to cross the Whau River was to ford it — and most likely, watch carefully for the tides. That first wooden bridge didn’t last very long, apparently, before things were noticeably awry. Mr Cadman, a member of the Auckland Provincial Council, moved in February 1860 that the Government be requested to make necessary repairs to the bridge as soon as possible. Dr. Pollen, another member, pointed out that the bridge hadn’t been up all that long. He wasn’t aware of any great traffic over the bridge that would have worn it so, and “could not account for it otherwise than by its own inherent rottenness.” After much discussion, Cadman withdrew his motion, and nothing was done.

The “frightfully dilapidated and dangerous” bridge was finally demolished on 1870, and replaced by another made from best kauri timber, 175ft long, 14ft wide, with 16 inch piles driven into the river bed 25ft away from each other. Charles Dundas and James Reyburn were the contractors, but later sustained financial losses over the project. At this point, the approaches on either side were cut down, metalled, and part of the Avondale side of Great North Road realigned to meet the new bridge.

By 1902, the bridge was under the jurisdiction of the Waitemata County Council — and was already the worse for wear. The Avondale Road Board were well aware that this second bridge needed to be replaced, and had received an estimate from the Council for their share of about £100. A third bridge was constructed around 1907 — and by 1916 required repairs. At that point, the bridge was too unstable to bear the weight of a traction engine, but it carried more traffic than any other bridge in the county. The county councillors knew that if they didn’t do something soon, the matter of replacing the bridge with a ferro-concrete one would be taken over by the contributing bodies, such as the Avondale and New Lynn boards, and Auckland City Council. However, they deferred any decision until after the war.

Come 1920, and the proposal for the new ferro-concrete Whau Bridge was on the discussion tables again. Avondale objected to the proposed width of 40ft, saying it should be 50ft, and sent a letter to the Public Works Department objecting to the County Council’s proposal. By 1921, a conference of local bodies engineers recommended that instead of concrete, the bridge should be “a wooden structure in mixed Australian hardwoods,” or simply just repaired, mainly due to cost and the fact that the Waterways Commission at the time were considering (again!) a Whau Canal scheme. This did not go down well with the County Council. Their engineer, G. A. Jackson, pronounced the bridge as “quite safe for four-ton loads”, even though notices had been posted warning against using the bridge. This meant that a charabanc full of passengers had to stop at the bridge, unload everyone bar the driver, who would then drive across the bridge with the passengers walking behind, then reload everyone to continue the journey.

The repairs were made to the bridge in 1922, in the hope of extending its life by another ten years or so. By 1929, however, the AA’s president Mr. Grayson had lost patience. “The Whau Bridge, as a means of approach to the city, still seems to cause a lot of trouble. It is a very dangerous place indeed. I do not know what is wrong with the Whau Creek or whether there is a taniwha in it bigger than that at Arapuni. The Auckland Transport Board will not go beyond it. It is so dangerous that the local authorities have to place a traffic inspector there over the weekends when traffic is a little above normal.” The Main Highways Board had been the body in charge of the bridge up until then — now, with Avondale part of Auckland City and New Lynn a borough in its own right, things changed. A squabble broke out as to how to apportion costs of the now very necessary replacement, and a government commission was held in 1930 to try to sort it all out.

The Main Highways Board drew up the plans for the fourth, concrete, bridge — and even in 1930, the hoped-for Whau Canal influenced the layout, the Harbour Board insisting that it be placed at an angle, so as to accommodate any future development. It was proposed that Auckland City pay 40%, New Lynn 25%, Waitemata County 11.5%, Glen Eden 7%, Henderson 11%, Mt Albert 2.5%, Mt Eden and Helensville 1.5% of the cost.

Work finally began at the end of 1930, the contractor being J. Turner and the cost £6310. By September 1931, half the bridge had been completed enough to be opened to traffic, and the old 1907 bridge was removed.

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