Men at work: Sydney’s Harbour Bridge

By Chrissie Goldrick 19 March 2010
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The iconic “coathanger” has come a long way since the last rivet was hammered home.

FOR ALMOST EIGHT YEARS from 1925, the skies above Sydney rang with the sounds of metal on metal as a massive tangle of raw steel was beaten, welded and riveted into the great arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It would link the North Shore to the heart of the city, forging a lasting monument to the vision, courage and ingenuity of the men who conceived and built it.

Today’s bridge-climbing tourists, who pay $100-$295 for the privilege, are protected by safety measures virtually unknown to the engineers, riggers and dogmen who plied their trades up to 130 m above the water. The project was completed against the backdrop of the Great Depression and jobs on the bridge were highly prized. Although there were a few stoppages and strikes, overall the men enjoyed above-award wages as compensation for the risky working conditions. Priority was given to ex-servicemen who had faced far greater dangers during World War I.

Construction chief Lawrence Ennis described the workers as heroes: “Every day those men went onto the bridge, they went in the same way as a soldier goes to battle, not knowing whether they would come down alive or not.” Sixteen workers lost their lives – a figure considered modest for such an ambitious project.

THE JOINING OF THE two arms of the arch in 1930 was an important milestone and workers were given a half-day holiday to mark the occasion. It was another two years before the completion of the lower deck that would carry the trains, trams, cars and pedestrians across the harbour.

The unfolding spectacle captured the imagination of photographers, writers and artists. C.J. Dennis described it as “that arch that cut the skies” in his poem “I dips me lid”, penned to celebrate the opening in 1932. Leading photographers developed a fascination for the bridge that continues today. Henri Mallard, a contemporary of Harold Cazneaux, clambered on the upper reaches to record with a luminous clarity the drama of bridge workers’ experiences. His photograph here shows one of the vertical hangers, which will eventually support the traffic deck, being moved into position below the southern curve of the arch. A dogman and his co-workers wrestle the hanger into place, teetering high above the harbour, where ferries ply the waters as normal.

Australian Geographic Issue 85 (Jan – Mar 2007)

Gallery: Painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge