26 May 2021

Gundagai's heritage bridge survives troubled waters, only to be toppled by a truck

| Edwina Mason
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Partially demolished Prince Alfred Bridge in Gundagai

The Gundagai community is stunned the iconic Prince Alfred Bridge has been partially demolished by NSW Crown Lands. Photo: Alan French/Facebook.

It took two days but, crunch, it went – the partial demolition of a 152-year-old timber viaduct that spans the Gundagai floodplain, leaving residents aghast that a section of the heritage-listed tourist attraction could be wrecked without consultation.

None were shocked more than Robert Butcher, who has served on Gundagai’s historic bridges committee for 44 years.

The first he heard of the work was when a passer-by asked him what the heavy machinery was doing there.

Prince Alfred Bridge viaduct over flooded Murrumbidgee River

Prince Alfred Bridge in its heyday as it spanned the Murrumbidgee River and its surrounding floodplain. Photo: Gundagai Historic Bridges Inc.

In a town where everyone has a story, it’s a time-honoured tradition for visitors to return to Gundagai to share their tale of crossing Prince Alfred Bridge in its glory days.

At 922 metres in length, the bridge and its adjoining hand-hewn timber viaduct enjoyed its status as the longest bridge in NSW, coursing over the mighty Murrumbidgee River and its floodplain for 63 years until surpassed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge .

For 110 years it conveyed Hume Highway traffic, which passed through Gundagai, until a new Sheahan Bridge bypass took on that responsibility in 1977.

Most of all, it did what it was intended to do: survived a century and a half of frequent flooding.

Today, it is as much a part of Gundagai as the Dog on the Tuckerbox, and the town’s 1852 flood heroes, Yarri and Jacky Jacky, have statues erected in their honour.

It remains a monument to the community’s commitment to ensuring the safe passage for trailblazing settlers who arrived at the riverbank in the early days of settlement.

The Prince Alfred Bridge structure was built in the spot explorer Charles Sturt – who in his 1829 search of the great inland sea – deemed safest to cross the Murrumbidgee River, thus setting the path for the passage of the thousands of pioneers on the north-south route linking Victoria and NSW.

As safe as it was, in time the river crossing became a major obstacle for the increasing numbers of travellers. Following the devastating 1852 flood, which claimed 89 lives, regular petitions and deputations were made to the Colonial government for a bridge.

Lack of funds and economic justifications foiled those efforts for 14 years, before the government finally relented and provided £37,000 for the entire river flat to be bridged.

Prince Alfred Bridge viaduct in Gundagai

A spectacular latticework of wood, the Prince Alfred Bridge viaduct is an excellent example of early engineering solutions to crossing major flood plains. Photo: Gundagai Historic Bridges Inc.

Constructed between 1864 and 1867, Prince Alfred Bridge was one of the first iron truss bridges to be built in NSW, and the first major bridge crossing spanning the Murrumbidgee River. A short sloping viaduct descended to join the road over the river flats until the long timber viaduct was completed in 1869.

A spectacular latticework of wood, the viaduct was an excellent example of early engineering solutions for crossing major flood plains, their national significance recognised with listing by the National Trust of Australia.

But long has been the battle to preserve it.

Robert recalls back in the late 1970s, soon after Sheahan Bridge opened, there was much talk in the community about preserving Prince Alfred Bridge.

“Back then it was up to the Department of Main Roads to maintain it, but they didn’t because they knew a new bridge was being built,” he says.

Robert says the biggest struggle for the past 40 years has been determining ownership of the structure, and in that time the viaduct has deteriorated to the point where it has closed.

Now in the hands of NSW Crown Lands, the aged and battered treasure is closed to traffic and looking at a $20 million restoration bill.

“We got to a point where we agreed the upper part of the bridge could be removed, leaving the piers and girders and two viewing platforms at either end so people could get an idea of its span and what it looked like,” says Robert.

“I don’t know what’s happening because Crown Lands have knocked down a hell of a lot already, taken out the piers and I don’t know what they have in mind. We haven’t heard back about what they want to do with it.”

Partially demolished Prince Alfred Bridge in Gundagai

Locals believe that now the Prince Alfred Bridge’s integrity has been compromised, the next flood will sweep what remains of it away. Photo: Alan French/Facebook.

A NSW Crown Lands spokesperson said the demolition work has been undertaken on the Oibell Drive spans of Prince Alfred Road Viaduct Bridge after routine engineering assessments identified some deterioration caused by recent heavy rainfall and impact by a truck.

They said work was also required on the Landon Street overpass.

“The department has been liaising with Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council, and safety fencing has been placed around the overpass until the community is consulted on the development of a management plan for the bridge,” said the spokesperson.

The confirmed consultations on work occurred through a working group, including representatives from NSW Crown Lands, Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council, Gundagai Bridges Heritage Inc, National Trust of Australia, Engineering Australia and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

“Local residents who live in the vicinity of the spans have also been advised about work,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson said further community consultations will be held on the development of a management plan for the bridge prior to any further work.

Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council Mayor Abb McAlister said the work was undertaken with very little notice to the community.

“They could have let people know within reasonable time before they did it,” he said. “But you know these government bodies that have no attachment to the subject and go in quickly and do it.”

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Another example of our disposable society and lack of pride in our history. I was devastated to find the whole bridge gone in late March 2022 when I went to see family in Tumut. I can’t even remember hearing anything in the news. Looks like another sneaky stunt done by someone only out for themselves. Was the historical society even given the demolished wood or did someone make money “upcycling” it? A lot of questions should be answered. Shame on who decided to do this.

Bloody disgrace

Nicole Barbe1:49 am 04 Nov 21

The truck third party insurance should pay, because it covers huge amounts of money, Was the truck driver held accountable? There is no excuse to pull the rest of it down. We the people love our bridge and there is and never will be anything like it! Save it for our children. We loved it and there’s lots of people would love to see it but haven’t.

Nicole Barbe10:29 pm 03 Nov 21

The truck insurance company should pay out because third party can caver huge amounts to assets damaged by your vehicle. 😭Really upset, and so angry at the crown lands for demolishing it. Why can’t NSW govt leave people and history in peace? I lost my children that I loved to take there! And I wanted to show my friend the bridge who has never seen it Leave it alone. Fix it where possible, it doesn’t matter if it does deteriorate. We the people love it! 💖Gundagai and it’s wooden bridge.💖

NSW and Commonwealth Governments should have come up with support for restoration of the bridge m,any years ago when such a prospect was economically feasible. Many requests were made by the Bridge Committee (GHBI) but rejected in favor of more politically favorable grants.

Shocking useles government departments destroying historical stuctures

Nicole Barbe10:48 pm 03 Nov 21

Yes! Crown lands, NSW govt a disgrace to our history. Thoughtless.

That’s just vandalism, mindless destruction if an iconic old bridge. NSW Crown Lands should be taken to court and forced to restore the bridge. It’s an essential part of Gundagai and Australia’s heritage and should be restored or preserved at the very least.😢😤

Brilliant comment yes !

I am so sick of our various governments seeing no value in Australia’s heritage. Every other country is willing to fund maintenance work on Heritage structures.

Simon Carter2:03 pm 31 May 21

It’s such a shame to see this historic part of Australia’s motoring history deteriorating like it is. It deserves to be saved and presented at least in some part.

What a shame that it has come to this. A photo can not tell the story of the enginuity that went into its construction.
Hope they can still save some significant sections.

Bernard Nolan10:21 am 31 May 21

We saw this “relic” in the last few days. Notwithstanding it’s heritage it would cost “an absolute fortune” to “bring it up to ‘scratch'” even for walkers let alone bicycles. As it stands at the moments I would not even consider venturing on to the bridge or, for that matter, going anywhere near it as a “slight” breeze could topple it!!!???

Chris Le Brocque9:21 pm 30 May 21

Gundagai is a beautiful town with a lot of history. WHAT A SHAME to lose this piece of history.
We often stay in Gundagai on our way to Victoria. The people are dry friendly and helpful.

Colleen Finch8:35 pm 30 May 21

The bridge should be saved as a historical landmark. It would be lovely to have it open to people wanting to walk across it. Gundagai is such a lovely town and places of interest should be preserved to make features that bring tourists into the area.

The timber should could have been used for a worthwhile cause. It lasted all those floods, turn it into another bridge from same wood. Use it as a bridge of memory. Or a love bridge towards marriages

Bloody disgusting

Roger Hallett5:15 pm 30 May 21

Some time in the 1950s there had been a lot of rain in NSW. My dad was driving the family from Sydney to Melbourne and parts of the Hume had been flooded delaying us. We got to Gundagai and stayed overnight in one of the hotels in the main Street. Next morning we ventured across the mighty Murrumbidgee over the bridge. I was only about 7 years old and can’t remember anything else about this 5 DAYS drive. But I remember the hotel, the river in flood – and that magnificent bridge. Please save it!

Nicole Barbe-Lukin10:57 pm 03 Nov 21

Thank you for your story. Took my children so many times to see it. So unique, there is nothing like it! ,😢

Sad to see it go. I travelled over that bridge many times

Geoff Stewart1:22 pm 30 May 21

The bridge should be maintained as other heritage listed assets have

Kevin Bourke11:50 am 30 May 21

I grew up in Gundagai and the clankety clank sounds used to put me to sleep in our house above the bridge. I have watched as the bridge deteriorated over the years to the stage now where it is beyond restoration. I think 2 things should happen First demolish most of the bridge and stockpile the timber for sale as firewood or memory bits. Second restore a small section in the middle so we can always see what our forefathers constructed which provided such a vital transport link.

Neil Lendrum11:50 am 30 May 21

It is a disgrace that a government office can commence work without reasonable notice being given to stake holders. Especially something with such strong heritage values.

George Zivkovic11:38 am 30 May 21

I have always enjoyed seeing both bridges in Gundagai whenever visiting the town & still cannot understand why State governments haven’t done anything to renovate/maintain/preserve them.

Just to clarify, when the story says “some deterioration caused by recent heavy rainfall and impact by a truck”, when did the truck damage occur? I was in Gundagai for the races in April & noticed fenced-off areas & detours on the road to the track that goes under the bridges.

Would make a great bike track. I would love to ride over it. I remember going over it as a kid, it was a highlight of the long drive for me.

Virginia Smith10:27 am 30 May 21

Please set up an international gofundme or similar to rebuild the bridge! It straddled the floods. It linked 2 towns. It was the connection of the plain and the hills. It means something. A lot to me. My ancestors lived and are buried in Gundagai. My heart is there.

Charles Atkin8:06 am 30 May 21

It’s a marvelous structure and should be preserved

Bloody disgrace, name and shame the Neanderthals that authorised and or contributed to this wanton destruction.
I have over 65 years worth of memories of this magnificent construction as the one bright point in our annual three day torturous trek to Adelaide to visit my grandparents for Christmas.
The joy of the bridge crossing was enhanced by my father allowing us the one hot meal of the trip in that magnificent old milk bar just off the end of the bridge.

Robert C Coward6:31 am 30 May 21

Why could it have not been left for Walker’s Push Bike and maybe Motor Bikes

The systematic removal of heritage … void of meaningful public consultation and oiled by secrecy, stealth and bluff…so many wooden bridges, many very serviceable, set to be demolished and replaced with concrete. Google Cuttagee Bridge in Bega Valley Shire and see a community distraught and struggling to save its iconic heritage wooden bridges. State and Federal funding agencies need to have big RED FLAGS in their application forms re Australian, State and Local Heritage values….and act to protect them.

Kevin Wilson5:19 pm 29 May 21

Leave it alone it’s our history

Carolyn Chant2:19 pm 29 May 21

It’s disappointing that we’re happy to destroy what our forebears have done.

Heritage listed obviously doesn’t Mn ean a thing.

The residents of Gundagai should have been notified.

Carolyn Chant2:14 pm 29 May 21

It’s a shame that we are quick to destroy our history that our forebears created.
It’s very shameful that the Gov didn’t let the people of Gundagai know what they were going to do.

Andrew Coogan11:02 am 29 May 21

The viaduct is part of Australia’s history and a tangible link to a long gone era, so we should value it and look after it. In the last school holidays we stopped in Gundagai on our way between Sydney and Melbourne. Our kids enjoyed seeing the viaduct, how it was constructed (no concrete) and imagining what it would have been like, back in the day, to have vehicles going over it. The kids were amazed that the main national highway went over that narrow bridge and compared it to the current Hume Freeway. There is a photo at one of the viewing points showing a few old cars driving on to the bridge. So it gave our kids a sense of how things have changed, technologically and socially. Understanding our past is crucial if we are to imagine and create a better future for ourselves and others.
Another reason to preserve it is it gives travellers one more reason to stop and have a look around the town. We stayed a night and spent considerably more money in the town than we would have if we had just stopped for 10 minutes at the Dog on the Tuckerbox for a pee and a photo.

So pleased you stopped awhile and enjoyed beautiful Gundagai. You can tell your children that crossing on that bridge in a car when a semi trailer was coming the other way was quite terrifying! I am amazed that the bridge has been vandalised!

Preserve the bridge. Make a bike and walking track creating tourist attraction.

Bloody disgrace

Not worth restoring , has out lived its use, take photos an take it down , plenty of wood for recyndling ar wood heaters.

Jenny Noonan3:00 pm 28 May 21

Shame nobody seems to care about our heritage

Bruce Manuel5:53 pm 30 May 21

Our Govts. have no idea of saving heritage. They are all the same Libs Labor both state & Federal.

Megan Connor9:52 am 28 May 21

Disgusting should be restored
you can’t buy history
Just left to be destroyed disgusting act

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