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Sydney Harbour Bridge

A photograph of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset.

Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset. Image courtesy of Virtual Australia.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia's most well known and photographed landmarks. It is the world's largest (but not the longest) steel arch bridge with the top of the bridge standing 134 metres above the harbour.

Fondly known by the locals as the 'Coathanger', the Sydney Harbour Bridge celebrated its 70th birthday in 2002, with its official opening in March 1932.

A history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

It was as early as 1815 that Francis Greenway proposed building a bridge from the northern to the southern shore of the harbour.

It took some time for this to become a reality with design submissions invited in 1900. All the submissions were considered unsuitable and so the momentum for the bridge crossing stopped.

However, after the First World War more serious plans were made, with a general design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge prepared by Dr J J C Bradfield and officers of the NSW Department of Public Works. The New South Wales Government then invited worldwide tenders for the construction of the Bridge in 1922 and the contract was let to English firm Dorman Long and Co of Middlesbrough.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge construction started in 1924 and took 1,400 men eight years to build at a cost of £4.2 million. Six million hand driven rivets and 53,000 tonnes of steel were used in its construction. It now carries eight traffic lanes and two rail lines, one in each direction, but at the time of its construction the two eastern lanes were tram tracks. They were converted to road traffic when Sydney closed down its tram system in the 1950s.

A photograph of Captain Francis De Groot 'opening' the Bridge.

Captain Francis De Groot 'opening' the Bridge. Image courtesy of Pylon Lookout

An interesting past

The Bridge has an interesting past including its official opening on 19 March 1932. Before the NSW Premier, the Honourable John 'Jack' T. Lang, could cut the ribbon to signify the opening of the Harbour Bridge, Captain Francis De Groot of the political group The New Guard slashed the ribbon with his sword. Captain De Goot believed that the only person to open the Bridge should be a member of the Royal Family. Captain De Goot was detained, the ribbon tied together, and the Premier then officially cut the ribbon.

As many as 800 families living in the Bridge's path were relocated and their homes demolished without any compensation given when the Bridge started construction. Sixteen workers lives were lost during construction of the Bridge.

Image of Grace Cossington Smith's painting 'The Bridge in Curve', c.1930.

Grace Cossington Smith, The Bridge in-Curve, c.1930, tempera on cardboard 83.6x111.8cm. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Flying under the Bridge

It is reported that in 1943 a flight of 24 RAAF Wirraways flew under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with one of the pilots changing his flight path at the last moment to go over the top of the Bridge only just clearing it in time.

There is another story of the Americans flying under the Harbour Bridge, with one Kittyhawk flying under in about February 1942 and two Kittyhawks in May 1942. Again in May 1942, the Dutch flew three aircraft of the 18 Squadron NEI-AF under the Bridge in formation and then circled back to do another flight under the Bridge in a single line.

On 22 October 1943, Flight Lieutenant Peter Isaacson and his crew flew the huge Australian Lancaster, Q for Queenie, under the Harbour Bridge during a tour around Australia to raise funds for the war effort.

Climbing the Bridge

BridgeClimb started in 1998 and attracts tourists and locals alike to climb the monument. After climbing through catwalks and up ladders and stairs, the view is absolutely breathtaking. There are day, twilight and night climbs and a group of twelve will leave for a climb every ten minutes. The safety precautions taken include a blood alcohol reading and a Climb Simulator, which shows Climbers the climbing conditions that might be experienced on the Bridge.

By all reports, BridgeClimb is fantastic and one of the 'must dos' while on a trip to Sydney, with royals and celebrities such as Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark, Matt Damon, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Ferguson, Cathy Freeman, Kylie Minogue and Kostya Tszyu all having done the Climb.

The Pylon Lookout

The Pylon Lookout is at the southern eastern end of the Bridge (the Rocks end) and visitors can go and see an exhibition about the Bridge and well as see the spectacular 360° view from the top of the pylon.

A photograph of the closing of the arch during construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge 1932.

Closing of the arch during construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1932. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia A6180, item 29/8/80/21.

Did you know...

The top of the arch actually rises and falls about 180 mm due to changes in the temperature!

In 1932, 96 steam locomotives were positioned in various ways to test the load capacity of the Bridge.

When the Bridge opened, it cost a horse and rider three pence and a car six pence to cross. Now horse and riders cannot cross, you can bicycle across in a special lane and walk across the Bridge for free. Cars cost around A$3.30 for a southbound trip and it is free to go northbound.

The Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England is a much smaller version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, its length measuring 397 metres and the main span 161 metres. There is much controversy surrounding the two bridges and which one may have been a model for the other. Although the Tyne Bridge was opened in 1928 - four years before the Harbour Bridge was opened - the tender was submitted and contract signed for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1924. The designs for the Harbour Bridge were put forward by Dr. J C Bradfield before this date. The tender for the Tyne Bridge was accepted and contract signed later that year in December 1924.

In 1932, the average annual daily traffic was around 11,000 and now it is around 160,000 vehicles per day.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962), Bridge framing vista of City, 1910-1962, glass plate.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962), Bridge framing vista of City, 1910-1962, glass plate. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

One of Australia's well-known celebrities, Paul Hogan, was once part of a workforce virtually permanently employed repainting the Bridge, in that they started another coat of paint after finishing the last.

The Sydney Harbour Tunnel was built to cope with ever increasing harbour traffic problems and opened in August 1992. It is 2.3 kilometres long and cost A$554 million to construct. It is strong enough to withstand the impact of earthquakes and sinking ships. It carries around 75,000 vehicles a day.

In 2003, a project commenced to remove the lead-based paint from the Bridge and replace it with a more durable non-lead-based paint.

Some interesting facts about the Bridge

Length of arch span 503 metres
Height of top of arch 134 metres above mean sea level
Height to top of aircraft beacon 141 metres above mean sea level
Width of deck 49 metres
Clearance for shipping 49 metres
Height of pylons 89 metres above mean sea level
Base of each abutment tower 68 metres across and 48 metres long
(two pylons rest on each abutment tower)
Total length of bridge 1149 metres including approach spans
Bearing pins Each of the four pins measures 4.2 metres long
and 368 millimetres in diameter
Thrust on bearings Under maximum load approximately 20,000 tonnes
on each bearing
Number of rivets Approximately 6,000,000
Largest rivet Weighed 3.5 kilograms and was 395 millimetres long
Longest hanger 58.8 metres
Shortest hanger 7.3 metres
Total weight of steelwork 52,800 tonnes including arch and mild steel approach spans
Weight of arch 39,000 tonnes
Rock excavated for foundations 122,000 cubic metres
Concrete used for bridge 95,000 cubic metres
Granite facing used on pylons and piers 17,000 cubic metres
Allowance for deck expansion 420 millimetres
Allowance for arch expansion The arch may rise or fall 18 centimetres due to heating or cooling
Number of panels in arch 28, each 18.28 metres wide
Record tonnage erected 589 tonnes of steelwork was erected on the arch in one day on 26 November 1929
Paint required 272,000 litres of paint were required to give the Bridge its initial three coats
Facts and figures from: Mackaness, C. (ed.) 2006, Bridging Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney.

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Last updated: 14th August 2008

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