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Lines composed upon Spencer Strret Bridge

This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.178 on 29 June 2006.

It was a crisp winter Sunday morning and I was standing in the middle of Spencer Street Bridge. The mists were still on the surface of the water and the city had not yet properly woken. I think

“This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.”

“Gather around, gather around!” says a voice behind me. I turn around to find a group of about a dozen people in woolly hats led by a guide equipped with a sheaf of notes and leather elbow patches. From an outlet beneath the casino forecourt comes a sudden discharge of water. The light grey discharge merges with the darker grey of the Yarra to form fascinating changing patterns and eddies which slowly pirouette their way under the bridge. I think

“The river glideth at his own sweet will”

The guide observes the discharge with obvious distaste and quickly diverts attention upstream. I try to ignore his commentary, but the megaphone makes that well nigh impossible. “Straight ahead is the turning basin where the ships used to tie up” says the guide.

Upstream is the Queen Street Bridge, but when Batman, Fawkner and others arrived it was a set of rapids and a natural barrier to shipping moving any further up river. The ‘falls’ as they were known also blocked the tidal salt water from moving further upstream. This was therefore a natural “spot for a village” – shipping access to the sea on one side and fresh water for the settlement on the other. The water tumbling over the falls had created a natural basin suitable for ships to dock and turn. It was here that John Batman’s only male heir was drowned whilst fishing. With gold and the expansion of the settlement the turning basin was artificially enlarged, and the older railway viaduct (the one closer to Flinders Street) roughly traces the outline of the turning basin at its largest. It must have been a wondrous sight for those arriving after a three month sea voyage from England with very little landfall along the way to sail up the Yarra on a crisp winter morning to the growing city already boasting buildings of impressively carved stone.

“Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

The guide continues “Of course docks were unattractive places and all that smelly cargo and deals taking place wasn’t what you wanted in the centre of the city so gradually the docks were moved out of the city”. Well, the bridge on which we’re standing is certainly so low as to stop any serious shipping making its way into the city any longer. Over time the retreat of major shipping downstream has been made practically irreversible by the construction of low bridges. Even the Bolte Bridge is too low to allow what could be the exciting prospect of international cruise ships docking in the middle of the new Docklands precinct.

“By the 1920s people were building dull simple bridges like this one” says the guide. “Not quite so simple” I think. On the south side it was known by the engineers in 1928 that they would have to go quite deep in order to find bedrock footings to support a bridge capable of carrying heavy traffic. The cylindrical reinforced concrete supports gradually worked their way diagonally towards the solid rock but struck an unexpected obstacle. At 20 metres below sea level they struck a solid object that took three week work to remove. This object was a red gum stump – the last time I saw a portion of it was at the museum in the Old Treasury Building. It was dated at about 8,000 years old and appears to have lived for well over 400 years. The soil from around its roots is of the sort now only found in the high country. What was this tree doing so far underground?

To answer that we need to rewind 10,000 years. During the last major Ice Age, sea levels were much lower and the Yarra flowed in a small canyon through the centre of Melbourne some 30 to 40 metres deep. Temperatures were colder, rainfall was higher and the steep banks of the ‘Yarra Valley’ in the centre of Melbourne were a temperate rainforest. It was in this valley that the majestic red gum that slowed the building of the Spencer Street Bridge had grown. This Yarra Valley flowed past Spencer Street, then turned left and roughly followed the route of the Sandridge rail line before flowing out onto Port Phillip Plain. Lower sea levels meant the area we now know as Port Phillip Bay was a dry plain with the Yarra River running through the centre. It was swelled along the way by tributaries such as the Maribyrnong, Werribee and Barwon Rivers. The river then probably banked up into a lake, constricted in its flow by the narrow gap in the rocks we now know as ‘The Heads’. It most have been an awesome (back in the days when that word meant ‘inspiring awe’ rather than ‘mildly interesting’) sight to watch the Yarra force its way through ‘The Heads’ onto the continental shelf and off to Bass Straight. As the water levels rose, Port Phillip Plain disappeared under water and the water levels of the rivers rose until they meandered across the top of the river valleys that had filled with silt.

The outlet under the casino concourse produces another discharge of muddy water. Many modern structures built near the present day Yarra have to deal with the fact that they are literally floating in the mud of the old Yarra Valley. Structures like the casino and the Domain Tunnel choose to accept there will be seepage and manage it in different ways. The Arts Centre concert hall (now Hamer Hall) had also to deal with the electrolytic properties of this mud and find solutions to prevent this eating into the structure.

By the time Europeans settled in 1835, the Yarra was not a major geographic barrier but was regarded by the local Aboriginal people as an important boundary between clan groups. This may well have stretched back in their cultural history to when the deep Yarra Valley with its dense temperate rainforest formed a formidable natural barrier. As I stand on the bridge I can feel the mud and silt dissolve away revealing the valley below while I remain perched on the bridge above with its impressive 30 metre pylons revealed to view stretching down to the imposing red gum growing at the base. Here on this very special canyon bridge I can take in the view of Melbourne at an earlier time. I think

“Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty”

“Let’s move on,” says the megaphone. “there’s not much history here. We’re off to Collins Street.” “Oh I’ve been waiting for this,” says one of the woolly hats “I do so love history.”

 

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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