30 July, 2011

A bridge too far?

Naturally enough, bridges are important crossing points along any river and as I have discussed previously, the Barwon is no exception.
Once the Barwon River flows through Geelong however, there is no point of crossing until one reaches the river mouth at the towns of Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove - a distance by road of some 19-20km. In recent times, this distance was highlighted when the Barwon Heads Bridge was nominated as an available river crossing point for those in Geelong wanting to cross the river during the UCI World Cycling Championships which saw the closure of the Moorabool Street, Prince's and Queen's Park Bridges - a round trip approaching 40km just to get to the opposite side of town? Bearable for the space of a week, but not very practical on a regular basis.
Original Barwon Heads Bridge December 2009 during
How difficult must life have been then, for those living in Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads before the construction of the Barwon Heads Bridge?
Prior to its erection in 1927, a trip from Barwon Heads to Ocean Grove on the Bellarine Peninsula required either a boat or a round trip via Geelong on the road. In the early days a rowboat service was available and later, a motor launch. Today a trip between the two towns takes a few seconds in a car or a couple of minutes on foot. A quick swim across the river in good weather always seems like an inviting option too, however the accidental drowning of a swimmer who tried just that in 2008, showed fairly clearly that it is not a wise option. As the 26 year old swimmer attempted to cross from one bank to the other, he was caught in a strong incoming tide which created dangerous undercurrents and was unable to swim out. By the time he was rescued, he was unable to be resuscitated.
There is no question that the erection of the bridge made life safer and far more convenient for almost everyone (with one notable exception I will mention later). It can also be said however, that the bridge at Barwon Heads was a source of controversy even before its construction began.
Realising that crossing the river by boat was not adequate to the needs of growing traffic movement, various ideas were put forward to solve the problem. Whilst a bridge was the preferred option for most, it was also expensive so other, cheaper options were touted. These included a punt and in 1910 a pontoon ferry service was recommended, but was soon shelved for lack of support.
Whereas a pontoon ferry capable of carrying motor vehicles would have cost a total of about £600 in 1910, the bridge would have cost many thousands more. When a ferry was again suggested in 1925, the estimated cost had increased ten-fold. The idea was once again shelved, this time in favour of a bridge, as traffic flow - partly due to an increase in holiday makers from Melbourne - made the ferry untenable.
As a result, a call was put out for tenders, with the winning submission by Stan Patience of Gippsland to cost £10,400. The expense was to be divided between the Country Roads Board and the shires of South Barwon and Bellarine with public subscriptions providing the final £1,000. The bridge would be a timber truss structure, a little more than 300m in length.
The finished product was opened on Christmas Eve, 1927, but without the presence of construction boss Stan Patience who had died some months earlier in a workplace accident at Marshalltown Timber Yard.
Whilst most were happy to see the completion of the new bridge, for one group it spelt the end of their livelihood. Prior to 1927, Ocean Grove was home to a thriving fleet of couta boats which fished off the coast outside the heads. Unfortunately for the fleet, the erection of the bridge meant that they could no longer moor their vessels in the harbour upstream at Ocean Grove. This resulted in the fleet moving instead to new facilities below the bridge at Barwon Heads.
The bridge which still stands today, remains largely unchanged. In 1933, the timber surface was sealed with bitumen. Major repairs had to be carried out following the record flooding of 1952 then in 1961 the bridge was remodeled and in 1965 was widened, at which time the pedestrian walkway was moved to the upriver side of the bridge. Cantilever fishing platforms which were part of the original design were added back to the structure during renovations in 1998.
Newly completed road bridge at Barwon Heads
It was in this year that the ABC TV series Seachange first aired. Filmed in and around Barwon Heads, the bridge featured regularly in the show which ran until 2001. In an echo of real life, the bridge was often the focus of debate and controversy amongst the population. This was also true in real life and never more so than in 2006 when it was determined that the original bridge had reached the end of its lifespan and needed replacing.
Whilst everyone realised that something needed to be done, there was no agreement as to how the issue should be resolved. VicRoads determined upon replacing the original bridge with two new structures - a road bridge and a separate pedestrian bridge located downstream. This option was widely condemned by the local community, including such celebrity figures as cycling star Cadel Evans, forcing VicRoads to rethink their plans for a two-bridge solution.
Ultimately however, this protracted three year battle was unsuccessful and a contract was awarded to McConnell Dowell Pty Ltd in 2009 to build the two bridges. Construction began on the road bridge which replicated the style of the original and incorporated various timber components from the earlier bridge. The new bridge has 34 spans supported by 165 treated timber piles. Strength is provided by steel beams running through the structure which is over topped by a reinforced concrete deck. At 308m the new, two-laned bride is slightly longer than the original. The bridge was opened to traffic in November, 2010.
Almost completed pedestrian bridge downstream of the
reconstructed road bridge at Barwon Heads
The controversial pedestrian bridge which was constructed downstream of the road bridge opened to the public in April, 2011. At 4.5m wide, this bridge is half the width of the other and is made from 18m concrete spans, with single piers supporting each span. The piers are positioned to align with every third timber pier in the road bridge. The pedestrian bridge also incorporates fishing/viewing platforms along its length on the downstream side and a boardwalk at the Barwon Heads end with beach access, facilities for bike parking, seating and a drinking fountain which have been available to the public since June.
An official opening event is scheduled for later in the year, and true to form, there is already controversy over the naming of the bridge. A competition to choose a name has been announced with opponents claiming it should remain simply the Barwon Heads Bridge. In the past week, this issue has taken a new turn with some suggesting that following his stunning win in the Tour de France, the bridge be named after Barwon Heads resident Cadel Evans, however authorities have been quick to quash this idea and the issue if a name is yet to be resolved.


  1. You appear to have overlooked completely the river crossing at the Breakwater

  2. Thanks "Anonymous". That was not my intention, but rather to show that Barwon Heads was considered an option. The James Harrison Bridge of course remained open at all times as did the Ring Road bridges and the Moorabool St Bridge was also partially open at some times.