30 October, 2014

Branching out - a bridge of contention

The Leigh Grand Junction Bridge which crosses the Leigh River at Mount Mercer comes with quite a bit of history attached. A little research has shown me that more than the single post I had initially intended will be required to untangle the threads of its past. This first post looks at the original bridge built on the site.
Note: I can find no photos of the original bridge so have settled for photos of the relevant shire halls in which decisions about its future were made.
By the late 1860s, there was mounting pressure from local farmers for the erection of a bridge across the Leigh River near Mt Mercer, to expedite the transport of goods and stock through the district. A petition submitted to the Leigh Shire Council in 1869 requested that the engineers of the Leigh, Buninyong and Meredith Shires look in to building a bridge at the point where the three shires met, the intention being that the cost of construction and on-going maintenance would be shared between them. Buninyong Shire were keen to proceed and, it is stated, initiated the project.
Original Buninyong Shire Offices 1837-1874, photograph held by the Victorian State Library
A simple enough arrangement, right? Perhaps.
Things started moving and in 1870, the Meredith Road District (which was not proclaimed a shire until 28th April, 1871) received correspondence from the Buninyong Shire asking that it contribute to the cost of building the bridge which was estimated at about £2,000. The bridge would be located "near" the boundary of the three shires but not at the exact point at which they met as this was deemed impractical. Instead, a site a few hundred metres to the north was selected, presumably placing the bridge entirely within the Shire of Buninyong.
By early 1871 however, progress stalled when the three shires decided that a timber bridge costing not more than £1,000 was all they could afford. Things hit a further stumbling block when Buninyong Shire elected to delay construction for a further six months for financial reasons.By 1872 however, construction was finally underway and the Victorian Government Gazette of 12th December, 1872 records that a payment of £533/6/- was made to Buninyong Shire for that purpose. The work seems to have progressed without further delay and the bridge was finally completed in 1873. In the end, the total cost of the project was in the order of £1,068 - about twice the amount contributed by the Victorian government. The additional cost was covered by the shires with Buninyong paying half and Meredith and Leigh a quarter each.
Only a few years later, disaster was narrowly averted when in January, 1875 bushfires threatened the new bridge which is said to have caught alight on several occasions, however it survived and that is where things stood - at least until 1881 when the bridge required repair. Recognising their responsibility under the original agreement, the Leigh Shire agreed to contribute one quarter of the cost of the £30 spent on repairs by Buninyong Shire and felt that Meredith Shire should do likewise. Upon receiving a request from Buninyong for a conference to discuss the issue, the Meredith Shire chose to take no action and as far as I can tell, did not make a financial contribution.
Meredith Shire Hall 1968, photo by John T. Colliins, held by the State Library of Victoria
It seems however that the measures were only temporary and by 1883 a Leigh Shire council meeting heard that the bridge was in such poor condition as to be almost impassable and was a danger to life. What measures were taken to solve the problem, I could not see. Things reached a head however in August 1889 when it was reported that the western approach had given way, taking part of the bridge with it. An engineering report reiterated an earlier recommendation that this section of roadway should be further dug out and a new section added to the existing bridge.
Once again engineers' reports were sought, along with financial assistance from the government. The cost of repairs was estimated at £568 of which the government initially offered to pay £100. This did not sit well with the shires of Leigh and Buninyong who felt that the government should pay one third of the cost, with each shire contributing the same. It was also demanded by the Leigh Shire that the liability of Meredith Shire to contribute should be tested. The sticking point according to Buninyong Shire was that Meredith had surrendered land to Buninyong at the original time of construction, and therefore Meredith Shire felt it was no longer responsible for the ongoing cost of the bridge. Approached on the issue, Meredith councilors indicated that the bridge was not within shire boundaries, never had been and was "now" even further away (more of which later). Leigh Shire - whose borders did not include the bridge either - wanted ministerial intervention to resolve the matter and were less than impressed when it was slow to arrive.
Leigh Shire Hall, taken March 2014
Eventually after several months' delay, it was decreed that the government would pay £200 on the proviso that Leigh and Buninyong each contributed £200 and sorted out their boundary differences (no mention of Meredith).
Plans for the repairs were drawn up by the Leigh Shire engineer - Charles Anthony Corbett Wilson and the work was overseen by Mr Hale, acting engineer for the Buninyong Shire. In June, 1890 Buninyong accepted a tender to repair the bridge and construct a bluestone abutment to stabilise the site. The eventual result was that the bridge was repaired using much of the original timber to cut costs, with a view to replacing it ad hoc down the track. At this time, it consisted of five spans (each 25 foot in length) with a masonry (presumably bluestone) abutment on the west side.
Whilst there does not seem to have been an official opening of the original bridge, there was - on the 17th September, 1890 - an official re-opening, attended by politicians, councilors and members of the public who were treated to a luncheon and speeches (with suitable toasts) before those present walked in procession across the bridge, sang "God Save the Queen" and "Auld Lang Syne" and the bridge was declared open.
And so things remained for a few more years. In 1898 however, the timbers in the bridge were yet again declared to be rotting and in 1902, the passage of a traction engine across the bridge, caused its southern end to drop by around 18 inches. A rubble wall was suggested by the Buninyong engineer to shore up the structure. The works were completed by September, 1902 with Leigh Shire again contributing financially. Further repairs were necessary when a bushfire damaged the timbers of the bridge in 1906.
Finally however, by 1908, it was clear to all concerned, that a new bridge was necessary.

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