The remarkable service of Launceston's King’s Bridge

IT IS 160 years since British civic engineer William Doyne designed the bridge that spans the entrance of Cataract Gorge to provide a road connect between Launceston and the West Tamar.

An early image of King's Bridge looking from the Tamar Yacht Club (TAHO LPIC 147/4/230).

When the Cataract Bridge finally opened for public use in January 1864 it was described in The Examiner as “one of the greatest and most successful trophies of engineering skill in this colony.”

The impressive wrought iron structure, re-named King’s Bridge in 1904 when a second lane was added, has become a symbol of Launceston’s unique location and the rugged beauty of the Cataract Gorge.

It was a century before another bridge was built over the Tamar River (the Batman Bridge at Deviot opened in 1968) and a second bridge was built over the entrance to the Cataract Gorge (the Paterson Bridge opened in 1972).

Today we take the bridges for granted but early residents had to rely on water transport.

Until 1864 a punt operated across the mouth of the Cataract Gorge to transport livestock and goods and there was a small ferry to carry passengers.

You had to pay a fee to the boatman for the trip.

And the river crossing was not always a reliable or safe method of making the crossing. Floods, tides and strong winds disrupted the service from time to time.

The Examiner commented that, “these primitive modes of transport have always been attended with much inconvenience and loss of time, as well as expense.”

In May 1858 the West Tamar Road Trust advertised that a public meeting would be held at the Rose Inn (Rosevears) to consider a proposal for a bridge over the South Esk River “at the Cataract.”

After much discussion and some amendments the Tasmanian Parliament passed the Cataract Ferry Bridge Bill in October 1861. It allowed the West Tamar Road Trust to borrow up to £10,000, at no more than 8 per cent, to fund construction of their bridge.

By 1862 the trust had engaged British civil engineer William Doyne to advise them on the best design for their bridge. Doyne had come to Tasmania to advise the Launceston and Western Railway Company.

Doyne proposed a wrought iron arch bridge that apparently could not be made in Australia. He won approval to design a bridge that could be pre-fabricated in England and he agreed to oversee the project.

On Saturday 23 August 1862, The Examiner reported on the progress of the project:

The site selected is about fifty yards above the present ferry, and the approach on this side will be behind the mill, and on the other to the ferryman's house.

It will be a wrought iron girder bridge, supported on an iron arch, crossing the river in a single span. The total length of the bridge will be about 200 feet.

Its width is 10 feet, leaving a roadway of 8 feet, and two footpaths of 4 feet; but should traffic so increase as to render more room for vehicles necessary, provision has been made for placing the footpaths outside the main parapets, leaving the entire width of the platform, 10 feet, for roadway.

The spring of the arch is 18 feet, and the platform will be about 20 feet above high water. By the present mail the Trustees remit to London £2,500, which it is expected will cover the cost in England.

In December 1862 the contract to manufacture the bridge was awarded to the De Bergue and Co. engineering works in Manchester. Like Mr Doyne, Charles De Bergue had a background in railways.

As well as meeting the requirements of the bridge site in Launceston the structure had to be suitable for transport as ship’s cargo.

When the bridge was loaded on the 300-ton bark Syren in London in April 1863 it comprised 555 packages weighing 105 tonnes.

The packages contained 500 wrought iron pieces and nearly 24,000 rivets.

While the Syren was at sea the abutment works in Launceston were got underway and there must have been some concerns when the Syren failed to arrive as expected in July 1863.

The ship finally arrived in Launceston, nearly a month overdue, on 3 August to be assembled on a floating dock near the North Esk wharves.

It took four months to complete the huge structure and on Tuesday 8 December it was towed into place by the marine board’s steam tug Tamar.

The Examiner of Thursday 10 December 1863 described the day:

Most fortunately the weather and the state of the tide were all that could have been desired. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and there was scarcely a ripple on the smooth waters of the two Esks.

The assembled bridge on a barge ready to be towed into place in December 1863 (Weekly Courier, 16 May 1903).

Shortly before eight o'clock, all preliminary arrangements having been completed, the dock was hauled out into the stream.

The Tamar tug was then lashed alongside, and slowly but steadily moved off with her huge colossal-like companion, accompanied by the Harbour Master's and other boats, well manned and furnished with warps and other appliances.

By nine o'clock the bridge had been towed up safely close to its destination, and the dock was secured by warps fastened to each side of the Gorge.

The steam tug then cast off and returned to the wharf. The dock was then gradually swung round by means of the warps in order to see if the arch fitted into the abutments.

This fact having been satisfactorily ascertained the dock was swung back again, and secured in the middle of the stream by strong ropes passing from each side, fore and aft, to the banks of the river.

Gaily coloured bunting was then hoisted as an indication of success – so far.

Nothing more could be done with the bridge on that day, as the arch could not be permanently placed until iron plates had been affixed to the sloping sides of the abutments, and before putting on these, it was requisite to ascertain whether the arch would fit, or whether any alteration in the abutments would be necessary.

There was no necessity for any alteration, as it was found that where the plates were fastened down, the fit would be quite close.

The West Tamar Road Trust gave very little notice of the installation of the bridge, “being desirous that this part of the work should be performed as quietly as possible” but hundreds of spectators turned up on the town side of the river to watch the manoeuvre.

There was also a large crowd on the West Tamar side as well as people in boats.

“The whole scene was picturesque in the extreme, and would have afforded a subject well worthy of the artist's pencil,” stated The Examiner.

It took several days to complete the installation but before the bridge decking could be completed heavy rain fell across northern Tasmania and on December 14 roaring floodwaters in the Cataract Gorge gave the new structure its first big test.

The torrent of foaming waters reached the abutments of the newly installed bridge but no damage was done although the barge and punt were washed away.

The Cataract Bridge was officially opened on 14 February 1864.

For many years the Cataract Bridge gave great service to the residents of Launceston and the West Tamar but as the 19th century was coming to a close it was obvious the single lane bridge was inadequate for the increasing traffic.

And that was before the arrival of the motorcar.

A second lane is added to the Cataract Bridge (Weekly Courier, 16 January 1904).

In June 1902, the foundation stone was laid for a second span for the Cataract Bridge that was being made by the Salisbury Foundry in Launceston.

It was a replica of the original structure.

When the widened bridge opened in July 1904 it was re-christened King’s Bridge in honour of King Edward VII.

In 1992, Kings Bridge was awarded a Historic Engineering Marker by the Australian Institute of Engineers in recognition of its significance to Northern Tasmania.

King's Bridge has withstood numerous floods in its 158 year history (Weekly Courier, 17 April 1929).

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