Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bridges that let boats through

As a boy, I used to ride my bike across the two-tiered bridge (road/rail traffic) over the Clarence River between South Grafton and Grafton. So, I often watched the heavy span of our bridge being raised to allow a river boat through.

This mechanical spectacle impressed me greatly, because it involved a degree of tremendous power that had no common measure with the other everyday events of my life. I was incapable of fathoming the means by which this gigantic segment of steel could be raised laboriously—in a litany of metallic creaks, clangs and groans—into a vertical position. The only mechanical engineering devices that measured up to the power of the massive bridge span were steam locomotives, which were a familiar sight at the South Grafton railway station.

After a trip to Brisbane or Sydney in a train drawn by such a locomotive, your hair and clothes were sprinkled with specks of coal dust, and the passenger's grimy body exuded a smoky smell. Having arrived at your destination (often dazed after a night with little sleep), your first wish was to get under a shower and change into clean clothes. I remember the first arrival of a diesel locomotive at South Grafton, around 1952. For the entire community, it was an exciting event. The railroad department invited people aboard for a free return trip across the Clarence River, to the little-used station at Grafton. An aspect of the new train that impressed me immensely was a dispenser of chilled water in paper cups.

My grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] started Grafton's Ford dealership in 1925.

At that date, the bridge over the Clarence did not yet exist. So, vehicles were transported across the river by a steam ferry.

At the South Grafton end of the crossing,  in 1881, my Irish great-great-grandfather Michael O'Keefe [1831-1910] had purchased the Steam Ferry Hotel.

After his death, it was inherited by his son-in-law James Walker. Renamed Walker's Hotel, and rebuilt after a fire, it became South Grafton's best-known hotel, and still stands today.

Meanwhile, train carriages were floated across the Clarence River on a ferry, the Swallow.

The bridge that we know today was opened in 1932. So, one of its earliest users would have been my father, Bill Skyvington [1917-1978], riding his bicycle across to the dairy farm of the family of his future wife, Kathleen Walker [1918-2003], in Waterview, on the outskirts of South Grafton. In those days, there wasn't much vehicular traffic between the northern and southern banks of the Clarence.

This lack of heavy traffic was just as well, since automobiles were likely to drift over the central line when turning around the bridge's two nasty corners, one at each extremity, designed to allow the presence on the lower level of the bridge of a relatively straight railway line. At the Grafton end of the bridge, in Kent Street (where we lived in the '50s), there are two massive concrete viaducts leading up to the bridge: one for road traffic and the other for trains.

That's to say, the low railway viaduct (in the background of the above photo) was aligned with, and at the same level as, the main central segment of the bridge. Motorists, on the other hand, had to turn a corner at the top right-hand point of the higher-level vehicle viaduct (in the foreground of the photo) where it joined up with the main linear segment of the bridge. Here's a view of the southern corner, taken from the level of the railway line and pedestrian crossing:

And here's a view from the southern bank at a time when the Clarence was flooded:

In the following view, looking back towards the bank at South Grafton, you can see that the archaic structure is covered in rust:

The following two photos (which I found on the Internet), apparently taken through the front windscreen of a truck (equipped with a heavy steel protective grid, seen in the lower half of each photo), reveal that the Grafton Bridge is totally obsolete and indeed dangerous with respect to modern road traffic:

Here's an aerial view of this same South Grafton end of the bridge:

The following amateur videos illustrate the unique setting of the bridge:

At the end of this first video, click to view the same author's second video (labeled XPT2), which includes the experience of crossing the bridge in a motor vehicle. Then there's this train-driver's vision of the bridge:

It was recently announced that plans are under way for a second bridge at Grafton. But the existing 80-year-old bridge (whose moveable span ceased to function long ago) will remain in service.

I was reminded of our antiquated bridge across the Clarence when I saw this photo of the fabulous suspension bridge that was opened in Bordeaux a fortnight ago.

The big three-masted barque that was present at the opening ceremony is the Belem, launched in 1896.

POST SCRIPTUM: As if our dear old bendy bridge didn't have enough problems already with its traffic saturation, blocked lift-span and rusty metal, The Daily Examiner revealed an additional ailment here.

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