I have a weakness for bridges. Romantic trysts just happen to be arranged with the backdrop of the world’s first iron bridge. Multiple crossings of the gorgeous Severn Suspension Bridge are absolutely essential for that work trip. And in pride of place of the mantlepiece, of course, is a railway poster of the famous cantilever bridge over the Firth of Forth.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that my paddles lately all seem to end up under what it pleases me to call Brooklyn Bridge. That’s not its real name, mind, but since it starts on Long Island and takes you through the thriving metropolis of Brooklyn (population 744) I think I can get away with it.
There was that morning jaunt from Parsley Bay, past the oyster leases and beneath the swooping welcome swallows, to the top of Mullet Creek, where the Newcastle trains disappear into the Woy Woy tunnel, once the longest tunnel in the southern hemisphere.
I’ve been lucky enough to go on on some beautiful railway journeys in my life – from Montreal to New York in winter, past above-ground swimming pools frozen like giants’ ice-cubes; from southern Thailand to Bangkok, looking out at the richest of tropical orchards woven into the jungle; between snowcapped mountains and sea on the West Highland line to
Hogwarts Mallaig. But I reckon this journey along Mullet Creek, not a place that will ever be immortalised in the baby names of the rich and famous, is my favourite. There’s something about a railway line that leaves roads far behind, forging its own way along the empty shore.
If you ask the driver, you can get off near the top of the creek at Wondabyne, the only station sans road access in Australia. Every now and then, you see people jumping off the train and straight into a tinnie, zooming off to the shacks on the other side of the river before their fish supper gets cold.
For a few years in the late nineteenth century, while the first Hawkesbury River bridge was being built, if you were travelling north by train from Sydney, you would disembark at Long Island, board the double-decker paddleboat the General Gordon, and steam off to Mullet Creek Station, then just north of Wondabyne. Now people hop off here to do part of the Great North Walk – a 250 kilometre walk from central Sydney to the beautiful beaches of Newcastle – or to wander up to Pindar Cave. Judging from the smorgasborg of rusted out craft I saw in the shallow water at the top of the creek, it’s also a place where people take their boats to die.
Then there was this weekend’s jaunt, downriver from Deerubbin Reserve – a popular spot, right by the freeway, to fish or have a picnic for those who find the perpetual roar of traffic reassuring. With the ever present possibility of a quick exit, I guess it’s ideal for the heavily pregnant or those who find their relatives a bit hard to take. But I can’t really bag people for their passion for the internal combustion engine since I get all hot and bothered at the prospect of a paddle underneath (count ’em) three great big bridges.
This weekend’s jaunt took me past Spectacle Island Nature Reserve, under the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, natch, and around Dangar Island, swished along smartly by the current and the falling tide.
Have you ever been bored enough in an airport to try walking the wrong way up a moving footpath? Trying to paddle across the current to get to one of the beaches on the eastern side of the island was a bit like that. It all seemed a bit too hard in the end, so I went where the river wanted to take me, downstream, floating just above perilous rocky reefs by off Bradley’s Beach and veering round the seagrass beds.
And then through the sailing boats, swaying and tinkling like expensive marine windchimes, to Sandy Bay, the best place in the world to be homeless. The folks whose setup I saw there – a tarp flanked by a beached ramshackle boat and a solar panel – had no-one for neighbours but a horde of blue soldier crabs. There was no sign of the human residents, but I now know what it’s like to be a celebrity, thousands of beady eyes watching and waiting on your every move.
Quite a few people live rough around Brooklyn. “Good caves, a shower at Brooklyn Baths and walking distance to the bottle shop”, as RB commented with unseemly enthusiasm. In the Depression, apparently, lots of people came to live in these parts for just this reason – shelter and a bit of space for chooks or a veggie garden. I didn’t see a chicken run in Sandy Bay but Brooklyn does seem to have some kind of common flock, judging from these good looking fellas that we met down by the marina a while back.
I reckon the Hawkesbury estuary is Sydney Harbour through the looking glass – a parallel flooded river valley, bordered by bush instead of multimillion dollar apartments. If the Harbour has its iconic Bridge, the Hawkesbury has its own engineering marvel – nearly three times as long, resting 50 metres and more deep in soft black mud.
The modern bridge is the second one to cross the river here. The old bridge, finished in 1887, was the last link in the railway that spanned four colonies, connecting Queensland to South Australia.
Sir Henry Parkes, on the day of the bridge’s official opening, pronounced: “In this great system of material arteries which we completed today, we see the crimson fluid of kinship coursing through all the iron veins” (Sharp, 2001, 4). Apparently the other grandees were a bit more underwhelmed by the prospect of a federated Australia, bound together with railways. Nonetheless, the day after, the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald was headline was “United Australia”
At the time it was built, the old bridge was the longest in Australia and had the deepest footings in the world – 180 feet below the high water line – though they still didn’t reach solid ground.
The Union Bridge Company from New Jersey won the contract to build it (on a pin-jointed truss system, as I’m sure you want to know), giving Brooklyn, the railway town that was set up to house the workers, its American name. The tender being won by an American company was one in the eye for the old country, though it pleases me in some strange way that the riveted steel for the spans was made by Arrol Brothers in Glasgow, who also worked on the bridge across the Firth of Forth.
But the original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge didn’t last. Its piers, filled with rubble instead of solid concrete, fractured under the weight of the trains that crossed here, the only bit of duplicate track on the line. The piles were starting to crack in the 30s, but the problem only came to light when a US railway geek doing a bit of light recreational reading of an engineering textbook spotted that the piles weren’t built to the original specifications. The death knell of the old bridge, though, was the extra rail traffic of the war.
The piers of the old bridge remain, like golden castles guarding the river.
I’ve had a great time reading the fantastically detailed history of the building of the new bridge by Major-General Albert Cecil Fewtrell, the Chief Civil Engineer of the NSW railways, who supervised its completion.
There’s some entertaining reading between the lines. When it came to putting the metal spans onto the concrete footing, it seems some fool had a plan to float the 1,600 tonne metal spans over to the pilings at water level and then haul them out with giant cranes perched on the piers. But Major-General Fewtrell soon sorted them out:
“Consideration had been given early to the proposal to float out the spans at low level … The decision [was made] to revert to the high level method of floatation following the return of the Author from active service in 1943” (Fewtrell, 1946, 27)
The prep they did for the task of floating the massive spans from the construction docks – the cuttings still visible on the north shore of Long Island – onto the concrete pilings at high tide also gives you a sense of the guy.
A large board, representing the land and water at the site of the new bridge, was laid down in the southern tunnel. Model piers were accurately fixed in position in the “stream,” and miniature spans, pontoons, and equipment were used so that the men could practice in detail movements and prepare for emergencies.
Don’t you want to play with those 1/32 scale tiny cranes and miniature pilings? I really really do.
Fewtrell thought that everything had gone swimmingly. But the new bridge, the bridge that was supposed to last 200 years, is crumbling. After years of delays, just this last week, work started on repairing the concrete footings and its rusting reinforcing steel. When I paddled past, there were huddled men in high vis jackets and mysterious icons dangling from the bridge deck – all the signs that a new engineering miracle is about to begin. And I’m sure it’ll happen.
But at this stage, once again, I reckon it’s Hawkesbury River 1: human engineering 0.