Auckland’s ‘coat-hanger’ bridge – Roadside Stories


[Narrator] Before the Auckland Harbour Bridge
opened in 1959, the only way to cross the Waitemata Harbour between Auckland and the
North Shore was by passenger or vehicle ferry. The idea of a bridge was first mooted in the
1860s. During the late 1920s, the first serious plan to build a bridge was hatched, but the
Great Depression put a stop to it. From the mid-1940s, the mayor of Auckland, Sir Jack
Allum, began promoting the idea of a bridge and in 1951 the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority
was established. The bridge was originally going to have five
traffic lanes and two footpaths but for financial reasons this was reduced to four traffic lanes.
Tolls at each end of the bridge would pay for its construction, though tolling was finally
stopped in 1984. Nearly 200 men were sent out from England
to build the bridge, and they made up about half the construction team. Work began in
1955 but did not progress well because workers went on strike nine times within the first
year, mainly over wages. There were no harnesses or other safety equipment
for the workers. Men simply dangled from cranes and clung to the ends of girders as the bridge
was built. [1950s news reporter] ‘Few jobs could be more
risky than that of a steel erector, but the men take things in their stride. They climb
the ladders up the posts swiftly and nimbly … and walk to and fro along their narrow
ledges as comfortably and causally as though they were walking along a street. [Narrator] The bridge consists of seven spans
set on six concrete piers. The bridge’s ‘coat hanger’ design allows ships to pass underneath
but during construction the height above the water of the structure posed a major problem
with putting the spans in place. To solve it, the large third span was built on top
of one of the smaller spans then floated down into place on a decreasing tide. The manoeuvre
was known as ‘Operation Pick-a-back’. Working on the concrete piers over 30m below
sea-level was dangerous work, with some bridge workers suffering the ‘bends’ or decompression
sickness. It is remarkable that the three deaths at the construction site did not happen
until 1959 when the bridge was nearly complete. The Auckland Harbour Bridge finally opened
in 1959. It was over a kilometre long, contained nearly 6000 tonnes of steel, over 17,000 cubic
metres of concrete and 7000 litres of paint. In the first months over a million cars crossed
the bridge and the congestion made it immediately obvious that the bridge was not wide enough. In the late 1960s, less than a decade after
the bridge opened, two dual-lane additions were prefabricated in Japan then attached
to the bridge. These became known as the ‘Nippon clip-ons’. Despite the clip-ons and other measures to
improve traffic flow, congestion is still a major problem on the bridge. There have
been recent studies looking at light rail using the bridge and alternative routes across
the harbour including tunnelling under it. But for now, the Auckland Harbour Bridge remains
the most popular way for Aucklanders to get from one side of the Waitemata Harbour to
the other.

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