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Before 1932, crossing Sydney Harbour involved either taking a ferry, or going 20km out of the way over a series of small bridges. In the early part of the 20th century, the use of motor cars increased and there were more commercial and residential developments on the North Shore. It was decided a bridge was needed to connect North Sydney to the City. A bridge across Sydney Harbour had been proposed by many people since 1815, but it was not until 1922 that the New South Wales Government began to seriously consider the project. There were 20 different designs submitted, but the winning one was from Dorman, Long and Company. John Job Crew Bradfield was the head engineer involved in building the bridge - the road surface on the bridge is named the Bradfield Highway after him. Refer Image1

In 1925 work on both ends of the bridge began at the same time - at Dawes point in the south and McMahon's Point in the north. The construction work moved inwards and met in the middle five years later.

Building the steel arch of the bridge was an immense task - apart from designing a way to keep the arch up in the air while it was being built, the engineers also had to come up with a way of letting the steel arch expand and contract. Steel expands (gets bigger) when it is warm (like on a hot day) and contracts (gets smaller) when it is cold. The arch of the Harbour Bridge rises and falls 18cm, depending on whether it is hot or cold. The engineers got around this problem by installing two massive hinges on both ends of the bridge that allow it to move, without the arch collapsing in on itself. The arch was held up in the air during construction by hundreds of thick steel cables that were attached to the ends of the incomplete arch and threaded down through U-shaped tunnels built into the sandstone foundations. Refer Image2

By the end of 1929 the arch was well underway. Huge 'creeper' cranes were used to lift the large steel sections of the arch into place and they were then held in place by rivets. Over six million rivets were used in the construction of the Harbour Bridge. In August 1930 the two halves of the arch finally met. The next stage was to build the road deck. The creeper cranes were used again to hoist the 'hangers' (the vertical pieces of steel that connect the arch and the road deck) and the platforms that formed the road deck.

By the end of 1931 the bridge was complete and had undergone a series of tests to make sure it was safe. The official opening took place on 19 March 1932. The New South Wales Premier, Jack Lang, had decided that he would open the Harbour Bridge, instead of inviting a member of the Royal family to open it. Before he could cut the rope, however, a uniformed man rode up on a horse and slashed the ceremonial ribbon with a sword. His name was F.E. De Groote and he was a member of the right-wing paramilitary organisation the 'New Guard'. De Groote was protesting 'in the name of the decent and loyal citizens of New South Wales' against Jack Lang performing the opening ceremony and not the King. As De Groote was arrested, the ribbon was re-tied and Jack Lang officially opened the Harbour Bridge.

The bridge was begun during a time of economic boom and became a symbol of that prosperity. But then the Great Depression hit. In Australia, as was happening all over the world, jobs were scarce. A third of Australians were unemployed so the bridge provided much-needed work for men in Sydney. During the eight years of construction up to 1400 men could be working on the bridge project at any time. The working conditions could be very difficult - there were no safety lines, or any scaffolding to stop men from falling and hurting themselves. Sixteen men were killed working on the bridge, most of them were killed by falls.

The final cost of the bridge was 10 057 170, 7 shillings and 9 pence - that is around $500 million in today's money. The final repayment of the original loan taken out by the New South Wales government to finance the bridge was made in 1988.

By looking at old photographs of the bridge you can see how it has changed over time. There used to be only four traffic lanes on the main part of the bridge, now there are six. The old tramlines were taken up in the late 1950s and replaced with the extra traffic lanes on the east side of the bridge, what is now the bus lane and the Cahill Expressway. Refer Image3

There are also other indications of how the bridge has changed over time. In 1932 the tolls were:

Motor cars and motorcycles with side cars 6 pence
Sulkies, buggies and hand carts 3 pence
Vans, lorries, wagons over 2 tons 1 shilling
Horse and rider 3 pence
Horse and cattle as loose stock 2 pence a head
Sheep or pigs 1 penny a head
 
Can you imagine trying to take a herd of cattle or sheep over the bridge these days? Information like this can show us how traffic over the bridge has changed. In the 21st century, two cars cross the bridge every second. In the 1930s, you were more likely to get caught in an animal jam, than a traffic jam.

The bridge is now an icon (a representative) of Australia and Sydney. Like the Opera House, it is one of the most famous identifiers of the city. The bridge has become a part of the city skyline that will never be eclipsed. It has also become a part of major celebrations in the city. During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the bridge wore the symbol of the Olympic rings. Each New Year's Eve, it is the centrepiece of a massive fireworks display.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is testimony to the idea that buildings are more than just the sum of their parts. The bridge may be just a steel construction, but to Australians and especially those who live in Sydney, it represents so much more. Built at a time when the world economy was collapsing, for many people the bridge represented triumph over adversity.


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