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Sandridge Rail Bridge

 
This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.176 on 15 June 2006.

In 1853 the backwater settlement of Melbourne had been transformed into a bustling, hustling wild west town with the discovery of gold. Down by the city docks at the Western Market, the traders could sell you all you needed for an expedition to the goldfields. “You’ll need snow shoes my man, and bear traps – have they told you about the drop bears? Hurry, hurry, hurry! The best bear traps in Melbourne today only at the Western Market from Crazy Otto!” Fortunately we’ve moved on to more civilized times.

Few passenger vessels could make it up the Yarra to Cole’s Wharf and the Western Market. In fact few could even secure a berth at the major piers in Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) or Williamstown. Many took the Geelong option. It was closer to the Ballarat goldfields (and MUCH closer if you believed some of the distorted maps produced at the time by Geelong entrepreneurs [who at that stage were just starting to develop their characteristic bollard-like {which we have commented on in an earlier newsletter} stature and who had a number of inns to comfort the weary traveller, many with serviced rooms {although I don’t understand what that meant}] and where the bear traps were said to be cheaper) but still the majority of ships had to anchor in Hobsons Bay (at one stage it was said you could walk across Hobsons Bay on the decks of ships) with many of them abandoned by their crew who had headed off to the goldfields. Passengers often found that in order to be ferried from their ship to Sandridge Beach or Liardets Beach it cost them as much as their total passage from Europe or America. Then once they were landed, they had to cart their heavy luggage several miles through the swamps over dubious tracks to reach Melbourne. You would possibly encounter a few tents offering ‘colonial wine’ or ‘guaranteed fast communications with the home country’ or advance touts for serviced accommodation in Melbourne. Fortunately we’ve moved on to more civilized times and today if you make your way up Bay Street Port Melbourne you will find stores offering cafe lattes, international phone cards and the occasional young lady promoting the benefits of certain short-stay hotels.

It was in this atmosphere that Australia’s first steam railway was formed to transport passengers between Melbourne Station (now called Flinders Street Station) and Railway Pier in Sandridge (now called Station Pier). Like much of Melbourne’s early infrastructure, the railway was created by private enterprise and only much later taken over by the government. A timber bridge was built across the Yarra in 1853 in a straight line between the city station and Port Melbourne. The best place to view the remains of this important rail route is from the observation deck at the Eureka Tower. From there you can still clearly see the route (albeit with a casino plonked on part of it) and the reason for the bridge’s unusual alignment across the Yarra. Hoddle’s government grid imposed its stark geometry on the landscape with little regard to practicality. Elizabeth Street was an intermittent creek which regularly flooded (some older [I refrained from the term geriatric] subscribers may even remember flash floods in the 1970s) but the Sandridge Bridge struck out in a practical straight line to the docks thus creating a defiant diagonal. Melbournians don’t like diagonals – they’re somehow sinister, along with curves, and lets come straight out and say it – Sydney-like!

The diagonal Sandridge Bridge carried the first steam passenger service in Australia. IIRC (that’s ‘If I remember correctly’ for those whose jobs allow you the time to spell such things out in full) the steam engine on the first journey was not a locomotive but a stationary steam engine strapped to a wagon and somehow supplying traction to the wheels. I’m sure some gunzels out there will fill us in on that.

By 1859 the bridge had been replaced by a sturdier one. Then, came 1888 and our grand exhibition year. The gold had run out but Melbourne had become an important mercantile centre. There was a major International Exhibition to be held in the temporary building built by David Mitchell (they say his daughter wasn’t a bad singer) in the Carlton Gardens and Fred Baker had been brought out from London to sing the role of the devil in the new Princess Theatre, and Steven Street had been renamed Exhibition Street because an election promise said it would be turned into a boulevard with a bridge extending across the rail yards. The main function of the rail line from Station Pier had now become the transporting of heavy freight so a new bridge was to be built.

The contractor David Munro was engaged. He was already building the new Princes Bridge nearby, and, from what we can tell, an engineering student already working on Princes Bridge to pay his way through university, showed particular interest in the new materials (steel girders instead of iron). We don’t know if John Monash ever worked on the current Sandridge Bridge, but we can be pretty sure that he clambered of every inch of it during its construction.

When the last rail services across the bridge ceased in 1987 and were replaced with light rail taking a slightly different route to Port Melbourne the bridge remained abandoned and derelict for a number of years. The bridge was an important relic of Victoria’s industrial past, but because of its bulky structure it also blocked views up and down the Yarra. If it was removed it could help turn Melbourne into a riverside city – if it stayed it provided a connection with the past. It was therefore with interest that we observed what was to happen.

This year, several days before the Commonwealth Games the bridge was reopened as a pedestrian access with a series of 2 dimensional sculptures representing various waves of migration to Victoria. The press releases said that these sculptures will move across the bridge three times a day. I have looked closely and am yet to see one move (hums whimsically “The hills are alive, I just saw one moving”). I’m sure if enough subscribers concentrate their energies on the bridge we will be able to make them move – probably several days before state election time.

The Sandridge Rail Bridge represents many things to those who know its history (ignore many of the “official” guides and popular tourist bibles which tell you it is the “original” rail bridge) but currently it represents to us a particular publicly sanctioned approach to historical preservation. In the manner of certain educational institutions and museums which are busily rewriting history to fit a prevailing ideology, the current Sandridge Bridge uses a historical structure as a platform to display certain ideologies (however laudable) that have everything to do with now and little to do with then. If you want to appreciate the bridge and why it’s there, we recommend viewing it from underneath. There in the quietness you can get a feeling for what made it important when it was built. Later you may want to venture onto the platform above to receive the ‘official’ version of why the structure is important.

 

BL

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Other articles in the series Seven Monuments of Melbourne:

Seven Bridges of Melbourne - overview

No. 1 – Princes Bridge
No. 2 – MacRobertson Bridge
No. 3 - Sandridge Rail Bridge
No. 4 – Lines composed upon Spencer Street Bridge
No. 5 - Kane's Bridge
No. 6 - West Gate Bridge
No. 7 - Chandler Highway Bridge


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