June 11, 2020

History on the Hume: Gundagai's heritage bridges

The historic bridges of Gundagai are a fascination for all visitors. Whether they are history or architecture buffs doesn’t matter, the gnarly contortions of the vast timber truss viaducts capture the imagination of photographers and viewers just the same.

The Prince Alfred Bridge, facing south, near the end of its working life. (Flickr User: Peter 1977)

The need for long bridges over the broad Murrumbidgee floodplain became abundantly apparent when, despite the urgent warnings of the local Wiradjuri people, the original township of Gundagai was built on the alluvial plain and washed away by a massive flood in 1852 with great loss of life.

Drone view of Prince Alfred timber viaduct facing south (R Eime 2020)

The location of the first bridge, The Prince Alfred Bridge, was chosen almost accidentally by Charles Sturt, the first European to investigate the area in 1829. Sturt identified a safe crossing point which was used to erect the grand wrought iron (Warren) truss bridge in the mid-1860s which still stands and carries traffic today.

The 1866 wrought iron Warren truss bridge is still going strong (R Eime 2020)

The near-kilometre-long timber beam viaduct that once fed the vehicular and pedestrian traffic was completed after reconstruction work in 1896. It continued to carry heavy traffic as part of the Great South Road and later the Hume Highway until it was finally closed in 1977 when another massive bridge was constructed, the Sheahan Bridge.

Looking north toward the main township, from right to left: the Prince Alfred Bridge, the Railway bridge and, in the far distance, the beginning of the Sheahan Bridge. (R Eime 2020)

The Sheahan Bridge, bypassing Gundagai township altogether, opened to highway traffic at the same time and was further duplicated in 2010.

An early steam train crosses the timber viaduct en route to Tumut (SLNSW)

The second timber truss bridge carried the railway to Tumut from 1903 until the closure of the line through Gundagai altogether after the 1984 floods. The last train across the 820m bridge and viaduct was on 26 November 1983.

Today all the old bridges are ‘managed ruins’ and heritage-listed for preservation. Plans have been floated to create pedestrian and cycle access, but the timber continues to deteriorate to the point where access to both bridges has been sealed at each end.

Staying in Gundagai

Flash Jack's is tastefully converted 130-year-old former convent. (supplied)

Flash Jack's was originally built in 1891 as a convent and then served as a school for many years. Now a brand new, trendy boutique hotel above the main street of Gundagai has commanding views of the beautiful hills surrounding this pretty town. Ph: 0438 390 528

Further reading:

Details of the 1852 flood and bridge petition at Aussie Towns

NSW Heritage Register

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