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West Gate Bridge

 

In the gardens surrounding the engineering school at Monash University you will find what seem like incongruous pieces of industrial rubble. Is it a piece of post-modernist landscape gardening? To find out we need to head towards the city.

The river flowing through the city and out to Port Phillip Bay and which we call the Yarra bears little relation to the river known by the Aborigines before white settlement and which we think they called ‘Birrarung’. Of the river from Herring Island in Burnley to the bay only the section from Princes Bridge to the new Convention Centre follows the same path. The rest is a channel made by white man about 3Km shorter than the Birrarung. In the early days of European settlement a trip from (the then non-existent) Herring Island would wind its way through the now Botanic Gardens, along the current route from the current Princes Bridge, over the falls at Queen Street, around the back of Batmans Hill where it started to meander north and loop around the Ascot Vale area before heading back and joining up with the Maribyrnong. Thus anyone wanting to travel by land in a straight line from the city to the Footscray area would need to cross the Yarra/Birrarung twice then the Maribyrnong as well as traversing a swamp. No wonder the Western Suburbs were seen as a ‘different country’. Even heading west to Ballarat you would first head north-west up Mount Alexander Road to avoid the river.

Over time a new more direct channel was dug and the old river was filled in and sold off to the residents of Ascot Vale as a place where they could build their houses. Many residents in this area today are unaware that live directly above the original river bed, although there are still a few telltale signs in the area indicating the original route of the river.

Gradually, swamps were drained and bridges were built and eventually it became relatively easy for a family from the eastern suburbs to go and observe the strange customs, rituals and language of those from the west. Similarly those from the west could go and observe the strange customs, rituals and language of those from the east. Both families would return home saying the other people seemed OK but you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.

All this time, the people of Williamstown remained the most distant of all. They had their own port and direct contact with the ‘real world’ so didn’t need much contact with the east or the west. Then by the late 1960s came a proposal to link Williamstown and Geelong with Melbourne via a giant bridge over the mouth of the Yarra. The conversations over the picket fences seemed to concur that it would never happen.

But happen it did. Engineering firms were brought in from Britain to oversee the project while the local John Holland Group started casting the pre-stressed concrete. The partially finished bridge was towering above the land below when tragedy struck. While bringing together pieces of the span there was a major collapse resulting in the deaths of 35 workers. A Royal Commission was immediately set in train which laid the blame on the design and structural methods employed. It remains one of Melbourne’s worst industrial disasters.

Work resumed and the bridge completed in 1978. Tolls were charged but back then petrol and time were cheap so many people preferred to expend the latter rather than pay the former. Before long the government felt compelled to remove the tolls and the bridge has since served Melbourne for over thirty years.

Perhaps the best place to appreciate the bridge is from the wetlands in the park below. From there you can view the elegance of the three dimensional s-shaped structure. If you are there at the right time of year you may also share the experience with migratory waterbirds from distant countries.

Meanwhile back at the engineering school at Monash University you can see some of the rubble from the bridge collapse. Students know that if a writer is slightly sloppy with their apostrophes or a musician is slightly sloppy with their parallel fifths or a historian is slightly sloppy with their dates then there will be a certain degree of tut-tutting. However the garden reminds engineer students daily of the consequences of being slightly sloppy with their design, calculations or procedures.

 

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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