There was no television or social media but for eight years the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the biggest show in town.
On the 85th anniversary of the bridge opening this Sunday, it is perhaps forgotten that people had been arguing about it for years: Henry Parkes contested the seat of St Leonards in 1885 on the slogan "Now who will stand at my right hand And build the bridge with me" while the author Ruth Park wrote of a "vociferous tunnel party".
So when construction finally started it was prime viewing.
The people of Sydney watched as they tore down Milsons Point and Dawes Point and thousands slept rough in the ruins as the Depression hit. Meanwhile above them, men seemed to defy gravity crawling over the grey steel as it inexorably linked arms across the harbour.
There were no nets, just rope strung between stanchions and if a southerly buster was expected the Observatory would hang out a warning black ball.
"The construction of the bridge was a major event for Sydneysiders at the time. Everyone watched over the years as each day their city changed before their eyes," says State Library of NSW curator Anni Turnbull.
"About 1400 worked on the bridge. Sixteen died – two of them stonemasons getting granite for the bridge in Moruya.
"The bridge was nicknamed 'the iron lung' because it was the lifeblood of Sydney. It gave work to thousands across NSW and literally helped many local families stay alive."
The State Library of NSW is celebrating 85 years of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with the release of an oral history collection of interviews made in 1982 with about 70 surviving men and a woman who had built the bridge.
Here is public works photographer William Brindle's memory of the bridge's famous chief engineer John Bradfield: "He was a very demanding fellow. He knew what he wanted and he wanted everything yesterday."
The National Film and Sound Archive released an online exhibition featuring archival footage over the eight-year construction and controversial opening on March 19, 1932.
Highlights of the exhibition and collection include:
- Major Francis de Groot's slashing the ribbon with his sword, before the official opening by premier Jack Lang;
- a recording of the Queen Mother deeming the bridge "one of the wonders of our time";
- a 1984 tourism promotion starring former bridge rigger Paul Hogan;
- the first BridgeClimb in 1998;
- songs about the bridge in the 1930s;
- and behind-the-scenes photos of the post-apocalyptic bridge from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdrome.
The State Library also has a bridge anniversary display that features an engraved cigarette case presented to de Groot after he was detained at a reception house for the insane following his ribbon-cutting exploit, and subsequent conviction for offensive behaviour two days later. He was fined £5 with £4 costs.
The engraving reads: "He is not insane. 21st March 1932."
HOW THE EVENT WAS COVERED AT THE TIME
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on March 21, 1932
The Sydney Harbour bridge was officially opened by the Premier (Mr. Lang) on Saturday in the presence of a vast concourse and amid scenes of pageantry without parallel in Sydney's history.
On the land and on the water, in brilliant sunshine and amid the splendour of the illuminations at night, Sydney added another chapter to its history in a great blaze of colourful scenes of swiftly-changing brilliance.
Cheers swept the crowded scene at the southern approach to the bridge when the Governor (Sir Philip Game) read the King's message; when, later, his Excellency unveiled a tablet and named the structure Sydney Harbour Bridge; when the Premier declared the bridge opened; and when, amid a reverberating Royal salute of 21 guns and the joyous siren note of the watercraft, the Premier severed the blue ribbon across the southern approach; a majestic air force dipped in salute, palatial liners moved in stately procession under the bridge, and the pageant itself, with its floral and other floats, was displayed in all its magnificence.
Proceedings took a sensational turn when, during the speech by the Minister for Works (Mr. Davidson), a comparatively young man on horseback, wearing the uniform of a military officer, his breast aglow with decorations, approached the ribbon on the southern highway, and cut it with his sword, declaring the bridge open. He was arrested. This incident is described in another column.
Political colouring was given to the scene when boo-hooing among a section followed the car occupied by the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons), following the official party's return to the dais after the formal entry into the northern suburbs.
Mr Lang cut the ribbon with a pair of jewelled scissors. It was a simple ceremony, fraught with significance because, in opening the highway across the harbour, it represented the culmination of years of planning, and years of work.
The ribbon stretched across the bridge near the toll offices on the southern side. Mr Lang was accompanied to this last frail barrier by the official party, including the Governor (Sir Phillip Game) and the Prime Minister (Mr Lyons).They halted at the ribbon, and an army of photographers poised their cameras on the other side. Mr Roland D Kitson representing Dorman, Long and Company, handed the golden scissors to the Premier; there was a little pause while the voices of the radio announcers could be heard telling millions of people what was about to happen. Then the shining blades closed on the ribbon, the halves fluttered to the ground - and the bridge was open.
Immediately wireless signals were sent to the aeroplanes hovering above, and almost as one they swooped in salute over the arch. More signals went to the harbour craft below, and in a second, almost, the air was filled with the din of sirens and the roar of speed boats. Everyone knew that the great moment was over, but the prime movers in the little drama, the Premier and those with him, had to be patient while the photographers had their way with them. Presently they got into their motor cars and were driven across the bridge, while the aeroplanes chased each other in breathless arcs through the sky.
The scissors Mr Lang used were made of Australian gold, and were mounted with six flame-coloured opals. Flannel flowers, waratahs and gum leaves were hand-wrought on the handles, and in the midst of all this craftmanship was the Harbour Bridge. The blades were engraved with the following inscription: Presented to the Hon. J.T. Lang, M.L.A., Premier and Treasurer of New South Wales, by Dorman, Long, and Co, contractors, opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, March 19, 1932.
The pageant through the cheering city
Nature contributed magnificently to the splendour of the pageantry that heralded the opening of the bridge. The sparkling sunshine of a glorious day lent the final gracious touch that spelt absolute success for such an occasion.
In glittering legend and symbolism: in beautiful living figures, and in all the flowers of Flora's domain, the gigantic tableau told the story of a State that is the cradle of Australian development, from the far-off days of the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Foremost in the great scene was a little army of the State's sturdy childhood and youth, aglow with the joyful spirit of the hour - a wonderfully impressive picture of a young democracy's goodly and proud heritage.
From every window, every balcony, every other vantage point, there came bursts of echoing and re-echoing cheers, as the youngsters marched past, and there came into view, amid the crash of triumphal music, bridge workers, who were accorded a magnificent ovation, aborigines, and then, in a riot of colour, the historical, rural, floral, and other parts of the pageant.
Vast human tide
A vast, moving, colourful spectacle, symbolical of the life of the State in all its phases, the pageant Itself was splendidly conceived and faultlessly carried out. Looking forward to this break in the gloom of depression as a hopeful augury of a future of brightening promise, the people, happily excited and stimulated by the carnival spirit, gave themselves over to the glamour of the day. Trams, ferries, motor cars - and even buses - brought them teeming into the city from all points of the compass.
And then came the ebb. The return of the sightseers to their homes, tired, jostled, but satisfied with all they had seen, and heard, was one of the great spectacles of the historic day. The temper of the home-going crowds was splendid.
Although tens of thousands lined the tram routes near the Quay, swarming on to the cars long before the latter reached their terminal point; although at one time a crowd of several thousands was wedged in a solid mass at St James Station, sriving to reach the underground; although two seemingly unending queues awaited their turn at Wynyard Station booking offices, there was no disorder, no lack of temper. It was a tribute to the equanimnity of that vast multitude, as much as to the efficiency of the officers responsible for the transport facilities that not a single hitch occurred.