30 November, 2016

Still standing

By the late 1850s, Batesford was a thriving township boasting a blacksmith's forge, bakery, post office, two shoemakers, four hotels, a museum and free library built by Henry Aaron Smith, two schools, three churches and a boarding house. On the outskirts of town was a pound and downstream from the town, the Hope family had erected their flour mill on the west bank of the Moorabool. A police barracks also stood west of the river, north of the road to Ballarat to service the gold escorts, whilst surrounding farmland had become popular with the many vignerons and orchardists - predominantly from Switzerland - who chose the fertile Moorabool Valley to plant their fruit.
By 1861 the population had grown to 254 people (Ian Wynd, So Fine a Country: a history of the Shire of Corio, 1986) and what began as a rough ford was now the main river crossing on the road to the goldfields and the Western District. As late as 1858 however, travellers on this busy road still relied on a timber bridge to cross the river.
An early view of Batesford looking north-west c1866-1880 by John Norton.
Image held by the State Library of Victoria
 Surprisingly perhaps, the decision to construct a more permanent bluestone bridge at the crossing in 1859 occurred with very little fuss at all by comparison with the complaints and criticisms which accompanied the reconstruction of the previous bridge in 1853. Prior to construction, there were no complaints about the condition of the timber in the old bridge, nor were there reports of flood-damage and the rebuilt timber bridge was little more than five years old when in 1858 tenders were called for the construction of a new stone bridge. Whilst I have found no official explanation for the decision to build the bluestone bridge at this time, I suspect that the construction of the Geelong-Ballarat railway line about a mile to the north of Batesford may well have been the deciding factor. According to Bettina M Blackall (On the other Side of the 'Ford: A Heritage Trail, Geelong Historical Records Centre) the bridge was designed by the Victorian Government Board of Land and Works who were also responsible for designing the Moorabool Viaduct which still carries the lien over the Moorabool River today.
A distant view of the Moorabool Viaduct, November, 2015
Commenting on the construction of the railway on 5th January, 1859 the Geelong Advertiser noted that:
...it is a mistake to suppose that railways supersede ordinary roads and bridges ; on the contrary, the more the railways are extended, the more will common roads be required. There will be less continuous traffic on the highways, but their ramifications must be extended and the tracks kept in good order.

It would seem then, that the Government was well aware of the need for additional infrastructure to support its huge investment in the new railway line and Batesford in this instance, was the beneficiary.
Prior to the bridge works getting underway however, £3,200 was also allocated "to complete the construction of the Ballarat road between Geelong and Batesford" (Ballarat Star, 16th December, 1858). Next the Victorian Government Gazette published a notice on 31st December, 1858 declaring that they had accepted a tender "For erecting a bridge over the River Moorabool, at Batesford".
The successful contractor with a tender of £ 3885, 19s, 6d was Mr David Barry who held several other contracts in the district. His bid had been selected ahead of five other tenders and the Government was no doubt pleased with its choice as construction seems to have progressed smoothly and with little disruption.
Building a stone bridge however, took time. Construction got under way in February, 1859 and on 5th April the Geelong Advertiser declared that it would be a further five months before construction was complete and gave the following assessment of the progress thus far:
The bridge will have five arches and here, as at the Viaduct, piles must be driven before the foundation can be laid, as no bottom can be got more solid than mud, without digging to an unreasonable depth. Piles have already been driven for three of the piers and the stonework has been carried above the winter level of the river. The rains, therefore, will not interfere with the further progress of the work. The appearance of the river at present would not justify to the eye of a stranger, the large dimensions and solid make of the bridge in course of construction. The water lies here and there in pools in the bed of the river, and where it crosses the direct line of the road it is dry. The raised approaches to the new bridge on either side of the river are in course of completion. There are said to be forty men employed on the work.
The solid design of the Batesford Bridge was similar to that of the bridge at Richmond, Tasmania in that none of its five arches included a keystone. The basalt used in its construction was quarried locally from the same source used to supply the material for the nearby Moorabool Viaduct.
Once construction was underway, it was elected to use rubble masonry rather than the more expensive ashlar masonry, meaning in the case of the Batesford Bridge, that the bluestone blocks were not cut to a regular width, but instead used whatever lengths were available. This being said, coursed rubble was used, meaning that although the lengths varied, the stones were still laid in regular, horizontal courses of even height.
In mid-June, further details of construction emerged:
The abutment piles had been driven to a depth of 26 feet, whilst those for the central piers were 28 feet deep. With 70 men now on site, the abutment on the western bank was almost complete with that on the east bank requiring a further two week's work. The piers had been built to a height of 10 feet above the summer water level and were 8 feet thick at the base, narrowing to 4 feet 6 inches.
Construction of the arches - each to measure 30 feet across - was just beginning, starting with that closest to the west bank. To assist in this process, a mobile crane erected on a scaffold was used to lift the arch stones into place. The underside of each arch would stand 19 feet above the summer river height and around two feet higher than the flood of 1852 - the largest recorded since European settlement. The width of the bridge was 20 feet with stone parapets rising on either side, thus preventing the kind of accidents which seemed to occur with alarming regularity on the previous timber constructions (The Argus, 14th June, 1859).
By 7th October The Argus further claimed, things were progressing so well, that the stonemasons and a number of the other men employed in the building process voted to hold a public dinner in honour of the contractor Mr Barry.
By this time the bridge must have been all but complete and if not already, then very nearly open to traffic. It was not until 2nd January however, after some small alterations to the original cost estimate, that responsibilty for the bridge passed from the contractor to the Government. Once again The Argus (13th January, 1860) was at pains to point out the good working relationship between Mr Barry, his men and the district engineer.
Batesford Bridge, Moorabool River painted by prominent Australian artist
Walter Herbert Withers, some time after his arrival in Australia on
New Year's Day 1883
One one point however, there was significant discord: the approaches to the bridge were as steep and dangerous as ever. Whilst a significant sum had been voted towards the completion of the road between Geelong and Batesford at the end of 1858, this did not it seems, include safety measures on the riverbanks at each end of the bridge or changes to the alignment of the road descending into the Moorabool Valley.
On 14th June, 1859 whilst the bridge was still under construction, The Argus pointed out that mishaps on the descent to the river had cost four lives and caused the deaths of numerous horses and bullocks and a significant loss of property. The correspondent further claimed that:
Representations have in vain been made to the Government, the Road Board, and the District Engineer. The disgraceful state of the hill remains unaltered, and most likely will do so until a coach-load of passengers, containing some man of importance, shall be precipitated into the chasm that is ever yawning at the bottom of the hill. I had no idea that this portion of the road was so dangerous as it is, and was surprised to find that, although £10,000 [a slight overstatement] is being spent to put an excellent stone bridge over the Moorabool, not a pound is to be spent in making this approach to it safe. This exhibits the most wanton disregard of public safety, and cannot be too severely condemned. There is every facility for improving and altering the road down the hill, by giving it a greater sweep, and the expense would be a mere trifle compared with the advantages to be gained.

By the time the bridge was complete and ready for handover in January, 1860, the issue of the approaches was still outstanding as The Argus (13th January, 1860) was once again keen to point out:
As usual, however ... the approaches to the bridge have not been protected. Although it has been open now for months, there is nether fence nor wall on either side to prevent a vehicle or horse from going over. It is, and always will be, dangerous until this is done. Nothing has been done, either to diminish the danger of that dangerous hill leading to the ford on the Geelong side ; the declivity is still as great, the road still as narrow, the turn at the bottom still as sharp, and the huge drain as deep and hungry-like as ever, still yawning for more human victims. Perhaps some day a great catastrophe may draw attention to this dangerous road, and the district engineer or surveyor may find himself in a very uncomfortable position ; he has had warning enough already, in the number of lives sacrificed. But it is strange that the inhabitants at the ford and persons using the road do nothing to get it improved.

The five-span bluestone bridge at Batesford, November, 2016
And so it continued until April, 1860 when local MP Peter Lalor of Eureka fame, took the community's grievance to the Commissioner of Roads and Bridges, arguing for realignment of the road. Finally, in a letter from the Commissioner dated 12th April, Lalor was assured that the issue would be addressed "as soon as the Road Engineer [could] spare the time to prepare specifications.
Despite this, it was a further eight months before a contract for £791, 12s, 6d was awarded to George Scithers to complete the "alterations at East-hill, Batesford" (The Argus, 15th December, 1860), and not a moment too soon it would seem, as it wsa stated only days later that the road was in a bad state due to recent rains.
Eventually however, Batesford had its new, flood-proof stone bridge (presumably with an improved approach, although I can find no further mention of the realignment), which continued to carry traffic across the Moorabool River for more than a century. It survived its biggest test in 1880 when the largest flood ever recorded hit the Moorabool River, submerging the town of Batesford, leaving only the spire on the Catholic Church above water. Dozens of residents had to be rescued by boat from the rising floodwaters which rendered virtually every home and business in the town uninhabitable. When the water receded however, Barry's bridge was intact.
The modern Batesford Bridge which today carries traffic on the Midland Hwy was constructed in 1971. Unlike other modern bridges in the region, I can find little information either about its construction or its specifications, other than a mention in the country Roads Boards's Fifty Eighth Annual Report for the year ending 30th June, 1971 which noted that the bridge was one of a number which used a new technique of driving steel H piles into the ground to the required depth to provide support for the piers upon which the bridge would sit.
Two pairs of concrete piers support the three spans of the deck - also concrete - with the abutments constructed from concrete and stone.
The 1970s concrete bridge on the Midland Hwy at Batesford, November, 2016
Today, the bluestone bridge built by David Barry still stands next to the Batesford Hotel but is only used as a service road. The majority of the traffic now uses the two-lane concrete bridge built in 1971.

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