Dedication of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When it was constructed, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the second-longest steel-arch bridge in the world, and it remained both the third-longest steel-arch bridge and the world’s widest steel-arch bridge through the end of the twentieth century. The bridge greatly improved transit between Sydney and North Sydney, and it also led to an increase in tourism and commerce in Sydney. The bridge’s construction may have been the single most important factor in Sydney’s rise to international prominence.

Summary of Event

On March 19, 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was officially opened by John Thomas Lang, the premier of New South Wales. Several thousand people attended the dedication ceremony. Many anchored their sailboats and yachts in the harbor, and thousands more watched and listened from the beaches as Lang, chief engineer John Job Crew Bradfield, and many others spoke over a public-address system. There was clearly a great deal of interest in the event, and attendance numbers may have been boosted by the serious advertising effort undertaken by New South Wales’s Urban Transit Authority. For example, the poster that Douglas Annand created for the event later became a valued piece of Australian art. [kw]Dedication of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (Mar. 19, 1932) [kw]Sydney Harbour Bridge, Dedication of the (Mar. 19, 1932) [kw]Harbour Bridge, Dedication of the Sydney (Mar. 19, 1932) [kw]Bridge, Dedication of the Sydney Harbour (Mar. 19, 1932) Sydney Harbour Bridge Bridges;Sydney Harbour Engineering;bridges [g]Australia;Mar. 19, 1932: Dedication of the Sydney Harbour Bridge[08010] [c]Engineering;Mar. 19, 1932: Dedication of the Sydney Harbour Bridge[08010] [c]Transportation;Mar. 19, 1932: Dedication of the Sydney Harbour Bridge[08010] [c]Urban planning;Mar. 19, 1932: Dedication of the Sydney Harbour Bridge[08010] Bradfield, John Job Crew Freeman, Sir Ralph Lang, John Thomas De Groot, Francis

The Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction in 1930.

(Courtesy, National Library of Australia)

Before the ribbon was cut, several important speeches were made, including one from Bradfield, who predicted that the bridge, which now linked Sydney with the poorer area of North Sydney, would drastically improve the economic circumstances of many Australians. Before the bridge’s construction, people and companies delivering and procuring goods had to drive cars and take trains for many miles around the bay or contract ferries across the bay in order to reach Sydney’s industry and ports. This was often too expensive for common citizens and too inefficient for vibrant commerce, and economic development in Sydney was stifled for decades. Bradfield pointed out that the bridge would make it economically possible for more than a million people to reside in the North Sydney suburbs because they would have easy transportation to the city, an industrial powerhouse in New South Wales. The result of the bridge, Bradfield predicted, would be Sydney’s progression as a city that would rival New York in commerce, industry, and urban development.

Those in attendance at the opening of the bridge observed a parade of sorts that included a cavalcade of cars carrying Lang, Bradfield, and city, regional, and provincial officials such as the British governor-general and the New South Wales minister of works. The cavalcade was accompanied by outriders, decorated soldiers in military dress who rode on horseback. In fact, one of the most humorous and confusing events of the bridge’s opening concerned one of these outriders. Captain Francis de Groot, a furniture maker, dressed as a soldier, rode a horse, and even donned a sword and several war medals so that he could ride with the cavalcade. De Groot was a member of the New Guard, a paramilitary organization that rebelled against communism and the Labor Party, of which Lang was a leader. De Groot was not recognized as he rode with the procession to the bridge, where he waited through several speeches. Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, de Groot positioned himself very near Lang, who motioned for the ribbon to be cut after he finished his speech. Instead, however, de Groot cut the ribbon with his sword and declared the bridge to be open to all the deserving citizens of New South Wales. The ribbon was then retied, and Lang formally opened the bridge.

Lang was a controversial figure, although this was largely because he governed during a period of considerable tumult in the Australian economy, part of the Great Depression that engulfed the world. However, it was also due to disagreements over the bridge. Huge numbers of people were, in fact, wholeheartedly against the bridge’s construction, mainly because the massive amount of money that it required could have been used to bolster the nation’s railway systems. Also, many still believed that tunnels beneath the harbor would have been superior to a bridge, even though the construction of such tunnels was proved unfeasible by 1912. Finally, many were bitter about the way hundreds of people had been forced to leave their homes, which were to be demolished to make way for the bridge, without any compensation from the government.

By the time the bridge opened, the citizens of Sydney had seen the installation of the bridge’s two enormous pylons, which anchored the force displaced by the dual metal arches (although the lower arch was more important as an anchor). Many onlookers were very impressed by the pattern of perfect symmetry offered by the web of steel girders that connected the arches to each other and the arches to the deck. Many were also awestruck by the fact that the crown of these arches hovered 440 feet above sea level and the deck rose 178 feet above sea level.

In 1922, when Bradfield and fellow designer Sir Ralph Freeman finalized their design, their bridge promised to be the longest, widest, and most massive in the world. At the time, the only project remotely similar to theirs was New York’s Hell’s Gate Bridge, Hell’s Gate Bridge[Hells Gate Bridge] which had been designed by Gustav Lindenthal Lindenthal, Gustav in 1916. The Hell’s Gate Bridge, however, was 977.5 feet long, whereas the Sydney Harbour Bridge spanned 1,650 feet. Although Bradfield had been to New York to study long-span bridges, he had not seen the Hell’s Gate in person. Some said that he used the Hell’s Gate as an example in his original design, but clearly he must have studied it from a secondary source.

The immense Bayonne Bridge, which linked Newark, New Jersey, to Staten Island, New York, was finished in 1931, but there is no evidence that Bradfield and Freeman’s design referenced it. Although they are both steel-arch bridges, and although the Bayonne is three feet longer, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is more massive, and many argued that the Sydney bridge was designed with aesthetic value in mind, whereas the Bayonne’s value is entirely functional. Bradfield and Freeman’s task was further complicated by the need to include a connection to Sydney’s railway system in the plan—an engineering feat in itself.

Significance

Although the Sydney Harbour Bridge created controversy, it allowed millions of Sydney residents to believe that things would get better during the devastating years of the Great Depression. It turned the world’s attention to Sydney, and it also gave the city a moral victory over the Australian cities of Victoria and Melbourne, with which Sydney was in constant competition. The bridge cost an estimated ten million pounds (paid for by loans), which very roughly translates to more than a billion American dollars in more modern terms. This amount was not paid off until 1988. However, the bridge’s construction created fourteen hundred jobs on-site, and several thousand additional workers were needed to supply the site with materials. Given that Australia’s economic depression largely ended by 1933, it is possible that the bridge’s construction played an important role in the country’s economic improvement.

Bradfield’s predictions largely came true. The beautiful Sydney Harbor gradually became a huge tourist and business destination. Hundreds of office buildings and hotels were built to support and develop an increase in commerce and tourism after World War II, and the demand for housing around the Sydney Harbor continued to grow. In retrospect, the bridge was constructed at an opportune time—during a depression and before World War II—to help Sydney become one of the most important commerce centers in the world. The bridge made it easier for people and goods to move, but it also grew as a source of general interest: By the end of the twentieth century, approximately seven hundred tourists were paying each day to climb to its 440-foot crown. Sydney Harbour Bridge Bridges;Sydney Harbour Engineering;bridges

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Stephen, and Roberto T. Leon. The Encyclopedia of Bridges and Tunnels. New York: Facts On File, 2002. Provides historical background on tunnels and bridge types and a semitechnical analysis of these structures and how they function. Provides specifications of famous bridges and tunnels and ranks them by length.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorhouse, Geoffrey. Sydney: The Story of a City. New York: Harcourt, 1999. Discusses the history of Sydney in terms of cultural struggle, politics, urban planning, urban sprawl, shipping, and commerce.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephensen, P. R. The History and Description of Sydney Harbour. Adelaide, S.Aust.: Rigby, 1966. Provides an exceptionally thorough historical description of Sydney’s harbor from 1788 to 1965.

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