Pink marked the homes slated for demolition. When the first sod was turned at North Sydney 100 years ago on Friday to mark the beginning of construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it was a day of hope-filled ceremonies and speeches.
It also foreshadowed the devastation of busy neighbourhoods from Waverton to Milsons Point.
Work started the next working day. Within three months of the celebrations marking the thrust of the ceremonial spade into the ground of today’s North Sydney station at the corner of Blue and Miller streets, 34 houses had been demolished.
Building the bridge involved the destruction of as many as 500 homes on the north shore along the path of the new highway, railway and approach to the bridge.
North Sydney Council’s historian Dr Ian Hoskins said some people renting homes or businesses would only have realised their properties would be resumed when colour coded maps were pinned on the wall of the old North Sydney Courthouse.
Many home owners and others had been notified by letter earlier. But for the “overwhelming majority” of residents who were renting homes and businesses, the news that they would be uprooted left them far from in the pink. Homes were destroyed near The Rocks, too.
By 1925, The Daily Telegraph detailed the “Vanishing Homes of Milson’s Point”, describing them as “Bradfield’s Slaughter”, referring to NSW’s chief engineer Dr John J.C. Bradfield.
Politician Jack Lang later wrote: “Bradfield wanted to be the Napoleon III of Sydney. He wanted to pull down everything in the way of his grandiose schemes. He was always thinking of the future.”
And Bradfield was probably the first man to plan for Sydney as a city of 2 million people, wrote Peter Spearritt in The Australian Dictionary of Biography.
The changes to provide for roads and rail to run across the new bridge would cut through the heart of North Sydney, said Jane Kelso, a historian with the Museums of History NSW. The bridge altered communities in unforeseen ways. “It was a great thing, and the bridge brought hope and progress. But it was also a time of enormous loss and inconvenience.”
The sod turning event was a pivotal moment for Sydney and the nation, NSW Roads Minister John Graham said. “Where would Sydney be without Our Bridge?” he said.
Before the bridge opened, going by road from the north shore to the city could take as long as a day and involved crossing five bridges.
Graham said that, when the bridge opened in 1932, about 11,000 cars a day crossed it. Daily traffic is now 160,000 vehicles a day, 480 trains, plus cyclists and pedestrians.
The anniversary was a chance to remember those who died during construction and pay tribute to those workers who are ensuring the bridge will be getting Sydney across the harbour for another 100 years, he said.
Compared with today, Hoskins said there was very little public protest from residents whose homes were resumed, although some wrote to the papers and politicians seeking mercy. Many were too old, sick and poor to search for a new home.
Unlike today, most people accepted the changes. “The only person I know who dug in his heels was Thomas Jenkins,” Hoskins said.
After Jenkins returned from World War I, he and his wife Cecilia ran the grocery store at 129 Alfred Street, North Sydney. “I sunk all my savings, pay and war gratuity believing I was establishing a home under perfectly safe conditions,” Jenkins wrote in a letter to the Public Works Department.
Jenkins lost hope when his neighbours and customers moved because their homes had been resumed. “We are being practically starved to death,” Jenkins wrote. He was offered a job on the Harbour Bridge only to be seriously injured by a hot rivet, Hoskins said.
The demolition follows the path of today’s Bradfield Highway. It started near Waverton and continued to Kirribilli and Milsons Point, including Henry Lawson’s favourite pub. Modest homes and grand mansions, a church, flats and pubs were destroyed.
Between 5 and 10 per cent of North Sydney’s population had to find new homes, Hoskins said.
The sod turning was a massive event, including a banquet. A bit like an episode of the ABC satire Utopia, it was a designed to create confidence.
Bradfield’s private papers, transcribed by engineer and historian William Phippen, revealed that, after decades of delays caused by commissions and inquiries, a ceremony was needed to prove the bona fides of the state.
A bridge was first suggested in 1815 and the possibility of a bridge had been investigated by several commissions and inquiries.
“I was told quite candidly that firms doubted the good faith of New South Wales,” Bradfield wrote.
The start of construction would be an “outward and visible sign of the bona fides of the states. Hence the Ceremony of turning the first sod,” he wrote.
At the ceremony, dignitaries referred to the bridge as the North Shore Bridge, a name soon dumped.
And the minister for public works received a silver model of a cantilevered bridge that would never be built. Within nine months, the cantilevered bridge proposal was dumped for the arch that was dubbed The Coathanger.
Historian Caroline Mackaness wrote Bradfield was most likely disappointed with the souvenir silver model of a cantilevered bridge because “the scheme had been superseded in his mind by the possibilities afforded by the arch”.
The State Library of NSW said loans used to finance the construction took the city 55 years to pay off.
In the end, the total cost of the bridge reached more than £6.25 million, or more than $500 million today — as well as 16 workers’ lives, says podcast The Bridge: The Arch that Cut the Sky.
“Once completed, it would stand as the largest single-arch bridge in the world.”
It was impossible for most people today to imagine how much more difficult the 500-metre trip to and from the north shore was a century or so ago.
In an address pitched to win support on the north shore before construction began, Bradfield said the “North Shore Bridge” would increase wealth and prosperity by bringing more people and traffic.
Benefits included reduced transport times: the 84 minutes in travel from Narrabeen to the GPO by tram, boat and another tram would be cut to 30 minutes, Bradfield promised. (Today it is anywhere from 25 minutes when the traffic is good to hours when the Spit is backed up.)
Bradfield said unimproved land value would skyrocket; the average person could be twice as well off; it would open up fine residential and agricultural land, including acreage suitable for orchards; there would be increased access to cemeteries, surf, sun and sand and fine views of the sea.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.