Aileen Davis attended Sydney Harbour Bridge’s opening in her mother’s arm, she’s back 90 years on
The Sydney Harbour Bridge celebrates its 90th birthday.
Aileen Davis was 17 days old when she was first introduced to what songwriter Henry Edwin Horne described at the time as Sydney’s “arch of wonder”.
On March 19, 1932, at its grand opening, her mother carried her across the giant steel structure that her grandfather William Thomas Brown helped build.
“He got a job as a riveter … that’s how he fed the family, all the 10 kids,” she said.
Ms Davis walked across the bridge on its 75th anniversary in 2007, and today, exactly 90 years since her first crossing, she’s making the journey once more.
“To come today is incredible, to see the growth of Sydney and to see the old bridge again,” she said.
“It has a great significance of memory of the family, and I remember things about my grandfather when I look at it.”
As the Sydney Harbour Bridge enters its 91st year, its record as the largest steel-arch bridge in the world remains intact.
A ‘proud arch’
With an arch span of 503 metres and a height of 134m, Ian Hoskins, a historian and author of Sydney Harbour: A History, said it was a remarkable achievement for its day.
“It changed the scale of the harbour,” he said.
“It was built at a time when there weren’t any skyscrapers, so it was a colossus structure that could be seen across the suburbs.
“And it really made Sydney Harbour, this extraordinarily large harbour, seem a little smaller.”
Dr Hoskins said the idea of a bridge connecting the two sides of the harbour city was dreamt up by the grandfather of English naturalist, Charles Darwin, as early as 1789.
“When he read descriptions from Governor [Arthur] Phillip, he wrote a long poem about hope arriving in Port Jackson, and he mentioned a proud arch spanning this amazing Sydney Harbour,” he said.
“And goodness me, that’s exactly what was built.”
Though there were many false starts.
In 1856, plans were drawn up for a large, flat, single-span bridge from McMahons Point to Dawes Point, but the technology of the time made it an impossibility.
“One of the problems that people faced with bridge-building in Sydney Harbour was the size of the harbour,” Dr Hoskins said.
“It’s a good 500 metres from Dawes Point across to Milsons Point where the bridge currently spans and having a bridge that could sustain that stress without a pylon going down in the middle of the water was difficult to achieve.”
In 1900, an international competition for the design and construction of a bridge in the harbour flopped due to an economic downturn and change of government.
Early designs envisaged a cantilever or suspension bridge but in 1923, civil engineer John Bradfield settled on the double-hinged riveted steel arch with granite-faced concrete piers that exist today.
“He was drawing up plans for a whole complex transport system in Sydney, and clearly a bridge is an integral part of that,” Dr Hoskins said.
More than 1,500 people were involved in the bridge’s construction over a period of nine years.
In that time, 16 workers died at the site.
It was finally completed in 1932, coinciding with one of the worst years of the Great Depression.
The day it opened, it’s estimated that between 300,000 and 1 million people took part in celebrations around the harbour.
Then Premier Jack Lang had been invited to cut one of two ceremonial ribbons at a ceremony on the bridge’s southern end but at the crucial final moment, far-right agitator and royalist Francis De Groot beat him to the post.
“There were royalists who thought Lang cutting the ribbon was disrespectful, that it should have been the governor,” Dr Hoskins said.
De Groot was a member of a short-lived fascist organisation called The New Guard.
He managed to blend in with the cavalry by riding in his uniform on horseback through the crowd, then used a sword to slash the ribbon in half.
He was arrested, charged and ultimately fined 9 pounds for the act.
Today, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia’s most beloved and iconic structures and continues to be a vital piece of the city’s infrastructure.
Every day, more than 160,000 vehicles make the journey across it.
“Bradfield foresaw the coming importance of automobiles, he knew that was going to happen,” Dr Hoskins said.
“He was exactly right about the impact of the car. By the 1950s there were traffic jams on the bridge and up the Pacific Highway, so the Warringah Expressway was ploughed through North Sydney.
“Then in the 1990s, we built a tunnel, and now we’re thinking of another tunnel. Build the roads and they shall come, that’s the lesson there.”
Aileen will be featured in the ABC’s Golden Oldies campaign as part of the broadcaster’s 90th anniversary celebrations. Her story will be one of many airing on ABC TV from April 3.