The building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge filled the hearts and minds of residents for years.
The first person to walk across the Harbour Bridge arches was chief building supervisor Mr Lawrence Ennis. Three planks of wood had been laid across the final, small gap.
Now there was another contender for ‘first across’……one Albert Wranke. My partner Rob casts doubt on his story, but I’m sure it’s true. 😎
Wranke was a young German/Swedish traveller, working his way around the world. In 1930 he arrived in Sydney and was staying in a George Street boarding house. He was having a tough time finding employment. One day he caught the ferry across to Mosman, hoping to get a casual gardening job. Unfortunately he missed out on the work and didn’t have another 4d to pay for the ferry back. He said, ‘I reached Milson’s Point and asked a man what was the best way to get back to the city without any money. He told me it would be a long swim!’ (The Sun, April 19 1931) The man then said that by road Albert would have to travel a very long way; around Lane Cove and over many bridges. By now it was eight o’clock and it seemed that he wouldn’t be back at the boarding house until morning.
‘Just then I saw the bridge arch. I climbed the arch in the dark, but I thought it was joined. It was one sure big shock when I found a big gap in the middle. I thought I would have to go back, but when I started I saw two watchman….I saw tiny lights and shiny black water below, I had to jump, but oh my life, it was one long way; yards. I shut my eyes and jumped, and just grabbed the other side, with my elbows or hands or something. Then I pulled myself up and was safe. That water looked horrible then, and the lights they winked at me. I took one deep breath, thought that jump was worth more than a four penny ferry fare – and went home, all excited like.’ (The Sun, April 19 1931)
At the time of Albert’s leap of faith in 1930, the bridge builders were approaching a crucial stage of construction. When the gap reduced to three and a half feet a most intricate procedure began. The 128 cables holding up the great half-arches at either end were to be eased, finally bringing the Harbour Bridge (and the city of Sydney) together.
The tension on the cables was to be reduced four strands at a time, at just three inches a time, a laborious business which was to take about two weeks. When the last few inches remained, temperature would come into play, with expansion and contraction of the giant steel bridgeheads. They weighed 14,000 tons each.
THE STRAIN RELAXES & THE HARBOUR BRIDGE COMES TOGETHER
This last stage developed into a race between the men who were releasing the cables and the falling temperature. After five o’clock the steelwork contracted so rapidly that the slackening cables could not keep the arch arms together, although the pilot pins were still in their sockets. Under the glare of arc lights, with whistles shrillng and telephones ringing the slow battle dragged on hour after hour, until towards midnight the arms began again to approach each other.
In the early hours of the morning, human patience won. The arms touched, the pins thrust firmly into their sockets, and the terrific strain of all that steel rested no longer on the cables, but on the bearings that will hold its weight for all time.
Above the sleeping city the bridge builders smiled, shook hands, and then went home to bed. The job was done. (Bowen Independent, August 30, 1930).
Work could then begin on constructing the road bridge below the arches.
Sydney artist Robert Emerson Curtis was fascinated by the bridge, and recorded its progress in lithographs. The example below is titled Joining the Arch and dated August 7 1930.
I was privileged to complete this article while sitting at the Opera House Bar looking across to the bridge. Not a bad office space.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge will be ninety years old this year. I hope I’m still around for the centenary celebrations.😎
OF COURSE YOU CAN STILL CLIMB ACROSS THE HARBOUR BRIDGE (AT A PRICE) OR WALK (FOR FREE)
HERE IS A WONDERFUL FILM OF THE BRIDGE CONSTRUCTION