Updated: Jul 12
My grandfather built timber bridges in Australia
A trained carpenter, he spent years as a contractor building road bridges in NSW, between 1895 and 1905. I guess you are wondering why I remember something that happened so long ago? Well, even in his 70s, he was responsible for building a wooden bridge on our farm, so unless the creek was in high flood, we could reach the main road by car. And I crossed that bridge twice every day, on my way to school, for nine solid years.
A few years ago, I did some research to put some facts around the family story that my mother’s father, Harry Littleproud, had actually been a bridge-builder in NSW. What I found was fascinating. For most of his contracting years, he worked in partnership with a man named JJ Taylor. Harry had come to NSW from New Zealand in the 1880s.
Probably his first experience was in the early 1890s, when he worked on building a bridge over the Snowy River, near Tumut. He told my cousin he met his later wife, Agnes Phillips, during the time. She lived in the nearby town of Bombala. But soon after this date, Harry was drawn to the Western Australian goldfields. He didn’t make a fortune, and only survived typhoid through the dedicated nursing of his mate. I have a small tobacco tin containing samples he brought back to NSW.
After his return, he again began working on timber bridges. In 1897, Taylor and Littleproud won the contract to build a timber beam bridge over the Hunter River, on Melville Rd near Maitland. There is a photo on Facebook of its surviving remnants. Also in 1897, they were contracted to build a replacement for a bridge which had burnt. This was the bridge over the Vacy River at Patterson, not far from Newcastle. My husband and I visited it during the 1990s, when it was in original condition. We marvelled at its height above the bottom of the river, and how it swayed as laden timber trucks roared over it. It has been modernised since I saw it.
In 1898, they also won a contract to work on a bridge at Rossi’s Crossing on Wollondilly Road, outside Bathurst. This had been built years before with brick supports, but the original timber road and side rails had been burnt. Taylor and Littleproud replaced the timberwork. This bridge also was in excellent condition when we visited, and I believe still survives.
In 1902 the pair won a contract to complete the timber bridge over the Wollondilly River at Upper Burrangorang. This was a low level timber beam bridge to connect the town, perhaps at Apple Grove Crossing, with the road from the foot of the mountains, to the uplands. Silver and lead deposits had been discovered at Yerranderie on the far edge of the escarpment in 1895, and bullock carts were transporting the riches down from the mines, through the Burragorang township. Later the entire valley, including the township and the bridge, was drowned when the Warragamba Dam was built in the 1950s to provide drinking water for Sydney. The bridge reappeared in 2007, almost intact, when the water level in the dam was very low.
As well as these 3 important timber bridges, JJ Taylor and HF Littleproud won contracts and built other bridges, eg. 1898 bridges over Brogo River at Brogo; 1899 bridge over the Allyn River at St Marys near Gresford (this bridge was washed away in 1970, but the concrete bases to the piles remain); 1903 bridge over Gilroys creek between Bowral and Robertston; and 1905 Dukes Bridge west of Wagga. I do not know if any of these survive.
I found all this information on the TROVE website, which has copies of the NSW Government Gazettes, listing the contracts that were awarded for building the various bridges.
In 1906, Harry and his wife Agnes (they married in Sydney in 1900), moved to Queensland, where they eventually lived on a dairy farm about 25 km north-east of Chinchilla. Their daughter Emmie married my father Ray, and the pair lived on another farm about 15 km north east of Chinchilla. After Emmie and Ray had been isolated on our farm by a number of floods, they convinced Harry to supervise the construction of a wooden bridge across our creek. This was about 1934.
Important timbers for the bridge were actually felled on our farm. The massive girders, 13 metres or more in length, were cut from some of the tall gums that grew in the paddocks. These white gums which can be nearly 20 metres to the first branch, are now well known as Chinchilla gums. I’m sure they provided the posts, kerbs and other wood as well, but no stories have survived about that.
It might have been 30 years since Harry had built his last road bridge, but he had not lost his skills. That bridge survived 70 years of road traffic and floods, and has only recently been upgraded.
I am very proud of my grandfather, who built timber bridges in Australia.