50 Years on – Our Bridge

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One of our region’s most beautiful landmarks is having a birthday. Peter Lyne takes Focus readers back to when the Forster-Tuncurry bridge was born and how it has flourished over five decades.
In today’s society, access to most areas is easy.

It is difficult to imagine that until 50 years ago, accessing Forster-Tuncurry was at times a half-hour trip.
The link as we know it now between Forster and Tuncurry will pass an important milestone at 11 am on Saturday 18th July.

That date will see the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Forster-Tuncurry Bridge – and for the first time the bridge will have an official name after a competition conducted by the Great Lakes Historical Society.

Thousands of entries to name the bridge have been submitted, and the winning entry will be announced on the celebration day.

Whatever name is announced, it will not be official until approval from the Geographical Names Board and Government authorities have it gazetted, although rejection is unlikely.

> The History of the Bridge

The bridge was commissioned in September 1956 by the Government of the day, who called for tenders of their own design made of steel beams with concrete foundations to link the two towns. However, many interested parties submitted their designs in pre-stressed concrete after the successful construction of a similar bridge in Tasmania.

The Government were quick to recognise this new construction method and accepted one of Australia’s iconic construction companies – John Holland’s – tender. John Holland began building the first piles in Sydney, with all other work executed on site, where they employed up to 60 locals during its construction.

There was no modern technology 50 years ago and massive cranes were positioned at the site. The bridge was built with one 20 metre high crane and 3 ton cranes positioned on 3 barges.

The massive structure is 631 metres long, consisting of 47 pre-stressed spans, and 13.5 metres wide with 376 pre-stressed concrete beams.

The bridge is one of the longest pre-stressed concrete bridges in the southern hemisphere and was opened by the then Premier of New South Wales, J J Cahill, in 1959.

One of the bridge’s features is the graceful arch that is positioned six metres above the water.

The bridge has become a twin towns icon that changed the methodology by which residents and tourists commuted between the now popular residential and tourist towns.

The bridge has provided an essential link between the coastline and the Pacific Highway and has expanded many commercial and tourism opportunities for the towns. The coastline became accessible by the entire population, becoming an important commercial centre for the region.

The bridge was and has become an important facility for what we now know as a few minutes’ drive across the water landscape. It changed the way people thought and lived, as it now gave them more ready access to a new lifestyle.

The first vehicular ferry was established in 1922 enabling vehicular access and passenger movements between the two towns. This method of travel would often take up to 30 minutes.

Contributing significantly to the growth of Forster and Tuncurry, the bridge has established the region as one of the most popular holiday and living environments on the Mid North Coast.

The agricultural activity of yesteryear has been left in the history books, leaving fishing and tourism the activities of the local economy today.

Sitting 300 km north of Sydney, Forster and Tuncurry are two coastal towns that are now essentially one combination of urban mass – joined by a very large concrete bridge.

Both towns are located on opposite sides of the entrance to Wallis Lake, which is 26 km long and 9 km wide in places.

The combined population of the two towns is 26,000 – a figure that doubles during peak holiday periods.

The environment of today is totally different from the early days, when the area was sailed by Captain Cook in 1770 and Matthew Flinders in 1799.On the Forster side of the twin towns, explorer John Oxley (en route to Sydney after an inland expedition in 1818) carried a boat from Booti Booti to Boomerang Beach, where they spent the night. The area was inhabited by the local Aborigines  (Wallamba) who were members of the Worimi  people. Oxley named it Wallis Lake after the commandant of a penal settlement at Newcastle.

The Government issued a farming lease of a near million acres of land to the Australian Agricultural Company in 1825, but this was exchanged after finding that the land was unsuitable.

Timber suppliers investigated the Cape Hawke area in 1831 and eventually sourced the rainforests for cedar and pine using the Wang Wauk River and Wallis Lake to float logs to the coast.

The first European settlers on the townsite were the Godwin family, who came from the Central Coast in 1856. The family established the first recognised working relationships with the Aboriginal population, establishing a business marketing wild honey and oysters to Sydney.

The townsite, then known as ‘Minimbah’, was first surveyed in 1869 and renamed in 1870 after William Forster – who was then Secretary of Lands. The first school opened in 1870, along with sawmills and retail outlets, followed by a ship building facility and a shipping pilot station in 1872.

The region was becoming a major attraction for traders, with the building of one of the state’s biggest sawmills. The first hotel was built in 1874, and then the first police station in 1876.

Timber milling, shipbuilding and fishing were the principal industries in the early days, with sailing ships and steamships carrying fortnightly cargoes to Sydney.

The first oyster lease at Forster was granted in 1884, with a breakwater built on the southern side of the Wallis Lake entrance between 1900 and 1903.

The other link, Tuncurry, was originally called North Forster until 1875, when John Wright established a good relationship with the local Aborigines and adopted their place-name of ‘Tuncurry’ (which is believed to mean ‘good fishing place’).

At that time, Tuncurry consisted largely of tea-tree swamp and cabbage tree palms. In 1878 Wright had established a sawmill, a store, a shipbuilding yard and houses for his employees.

He established a school in what is now called Peel St, and the settlement’s first church opened in the old school room before the first church building was constructed in 1888. Later, a post office opened in Tuncurry (in 1889).

The settlement was proclaimed a village in 1893, with its first hotel and ice-works built in 1895 and a butter factory established in 1917. While timber was the region’s main source of income and prosperity, two Italian immigrants began fishing the waterways in the 1890s, adding another dimension to industry in Tuncurry.

> The 50th Anniversary of the Bridge’s Opening

The fifty-year celebrations will feature descendants of the official party who were part of the official opening of the bridge in 1959: Jane Douglas and Frank Avery from Tuncurry and Clara Myers and Sam Leon from Forster.

The re-enactment of the official opening will be held at 11am Saturday 18th July on the walkway, followed by a twin town’s celebrations and party.

These celebrations have been organised by the Forster Tuncurry Chamber of Commerce and Great Lakes Historical Society and will be held in John Wright and John Holland Parks with bands, vintage cars, boat rides and entertainment all featured.

Some entertaining blasts from the past, Lucky Starr and Little Pattie, who were the era’s music stars, will add to the trip down memory lane.

Story by Peter Lyne.

Photo by East Coast Photography

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