Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bridging the gap - Pambula River's 1896 bridge.

Although the Pambula River was a vital natural resource for the local community, it also represented a sometimes unfordable barrier to travellers in anything other than the driest of seasons. Once the main settlement relocated north & south of the river flats, & the colony’s road networks began to expand, permanently connecting the two sides quickly gained economic & social importance, & particularly during the almost annual flooding, the two settlements were often cut off from each other.

Initially, traffic of any kind had to simply brave the river bed, but around 1890 pedestrian traffic was provided with their first foot bridge. However, frequent flooding meant that this was often lost in the deluge. In 1893 the foot bridge was washed away, an incident that was repeated in January 1895, & again in May 1896, “…causing considerable inconvenience & preventing South Pambula children from attending school.”

Pambula River Bridge soon after construction.
It was around the late 1880’s that the Pambula Progress Association began lobbying for a vehicular traffic bridge across the river. In 1893, Messrs Doherty & Hamilton met with Bega District resident engineer Mr J. D. Postle, who indicated that if the Association could suggest a definite site, levels could be taken & estimates prepared “…which would tend to facilitate the granting of the bridge.”

Association members met in June to consider the issue & six local men were appointed as a sub-committee “…to inspect & advise…” as to the best spot. The same month, Mr Postle visited the proposed site “…near the southern end of Manara [sic] Street...” & after measurements & levels were taken, “…it was found the bridge will require barely a chain & a half in width.”

Pambula River Bridge C. 1950's / 60s.

However, with no further action taken, the need for a traffic bridge had become a regular subject in local print media by January 1894, & in February it was reported that “During the week the Resident Engineer for the district accompanied by two assistants took fresh levels & measurements for a bridge over Pambula River.” The topic of making application for the bridge was subject to “…a lengthy discussion…” at the monthly Pambula Progress Association meeting & eventually it was moved that “…a strong & favourable letter be written to the Honorable The Minister for Works pointing out the serious necessity for a bridge over the Pambula River on the main Bega-Eden Road & drawing the Minister’s attention to the many accidents that have occurred to strangers crossing the river in wet weather.”

In March 1894 it was reported that “The late rains appear to have been general along the coast. The Pambula River was again uncrossable, causing the usual amount of delay & inconvenience. When will the authorities have the much-needed bridge erected over this small but dangerous stream? Possibly after a few valuable lives have been sacrificed, the convenience will be granted…”

Pambula River Bridge from the northern approach, 1963.
© The estate of A. C. ("Bubby") George.
The following month at another progress association meeting, it was proposed that an “…urgent letter be written to the Department of Public Works asking for a traffic bridge over the Pambula River.” It was also pointed out that Pambula & South Pambula should be connected something that could not be achieved by any means other than construction of the proposed bridge.

In May 1894, it was claimed that “Our river is just now in a very critical state at the crossing place, a ditch having washed out in the centre which is gradually widening & will – with the advent of another small flood – render the stream permanently uncrossable.” It was further stated that “…the footbridge is erected over a deep & dangerous hole, from which any of the school children falling in would find it impossible to escape.”

By August 1895, with still no action, yet another resolution was passed by the Pambula Progress Association to write to the local parliamentary representative “…asking him to do his utmost to get a sum placed on the estimates for the construction of the Pambula Bridge.”

Pambula River Bridge C. 1964.
© The estate of A. C. ("Bubby") George.
Finally, the following month, the Public Works Department contacted the association to inform them that they had completed a site survey & as soon as the plan was ready “…the whole question will be taken into further consideration.” In January 1896, the organisation was informed that the Minister for Public Works had approved of the erection of a bridge over the river & local media commented that “This news will be received with general feelings of satisfaction throughout the Pambula district.”

By February, Government Surveyor Mr J. T. Grey was making further surveys & the following month tenders were finally called for the 105 foot long structure, to be erected in Monaro Streets, with approaches on either side. In July 1896, after years of lobbying, the Pambula Progress Association won their battle when it was announced that Contractor McHugh had arrived at Pambula & commenced erection of the bridge over Pambula River. The same month it was noted that work on the structure was “…progressing apace…” with pile driving having commenced. In October, further tenders were called for the erection of hand rails on the finally completed Pambula River Bridge.

Pambula River Bridge during the 1971 floods.
© The estate of A. C. ("Bubby") George.
Despite the years of lobbying however, the bridge was constructed at the same level as the surrounding landscape, & being in the midst of a flood plain, the northern & southern settlements were still cut off from one another during flooding. While some sections of the community appreciated the new bridge, the structure itself was also regarded by others with little more than disdain. Following a particularly destructive flood in 1919, it was commented that “The water ran around the north end [of the bridge] taking the approach, while no water runs underneath…” because of the logs & other debris becoming lodged on the bridge & blocking the waterway. It was claimed that “This structure has caused the ruination of several properties on the flat & will destroy more with every flood.”

Debris banked up along the bridge during the 1971 floods.
© The estate of A. C. ("Bubby") George.
These regular, almost annual inundations, continued to create havoc for road users, & located as it was on one of the nation’s major highway transport routes, had serious economic & social implications for the local population as well as other users. The 1990s & early 2000s saw growing pressure both from within the neighbouring community & beyond to secure funding for construction of a new bridge & associated approaches less prone to flooding. Finally, the NSW & Federal Governments made money available for a new $17 million structure, which opened in March 2008, after which the old 1896 bridge was pulled down after more than a century of service.

© Angela George.

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