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Spencer Street Bridge

Spencer Street Bridge
Robin Grow

At the western end of Southbank lies the Spencer Street Bridge, a major interwar crossing that carried traffic to and from the city over the Yarra River.

First contemplated in 1860, it was not completed until 1931. In the meantime, a steam ferry carried passengers across the river from 1884 to 1929. The ferry’s steam engine drove a capstan that pulled on a chain (secured on each bank) and thus pulled itself across the Yarra, connecting the southern end of Spencer St with the northern end of Clarendon St. The chain had lots of slack and mostly rested upon the river floor.

By 1922 it was agreed by all authorities that a new bridge was an immediate necessity and was essential to the development of the southern suburbs and would result in the opening up of Crown land in South Melbourne and the provision of trams on a new outlet from the city.

But who would be responsible for construction and, more importantly, who would pay for the bridge? It was a story repeated many times as Melbourne grew rapidly, described in newspapers as “municipal and political turmoil”. There was also the issue of what type of bridge was desirable – fixed, which would prevent shipping east beyond Spencer St, or movable – able to be raised for shipping, which would disrupt bridge traffic (including trams) in and out of the city throughout the day.

After careful consideration, the government chose the fixed bridge option in 1925. The new bridge reflected current engineering and design standards. It was a reinforced concrete structure of balanced cantilever type, together with subdued Art Deco styling at street level, including stylish lights at street level. Because there was still some concern in government departments about the strength of concrete, extra precautions were taken with the specifications and additional tests were undertaken by the Railways, who had won the tender and become responsible for construction.

The volumes of materials were impressive, consisting of 18 steel girders (each 40 metres long) and nine girders (25 metres long), delivered in the early hours of the morning because of their massive size. Construction had two main phases – the underwater sections (which could not impede navigation along the river) and the superstructure of the bridge. It would have a major effect on ship owners, trade, and infrastructure, as ships now had to find berths below Spencer St. Finally, it was finished and ready for opening for the official opening to all traffic in February 1931. Flags of all nations fluttered in the gusty breeze and the arrival of the official party was welcomed by ship sirens and the gasp of donkey-engines. The ceremony consisted only of the cutting of a ribbon, as all parties were conscious of keeping costs to a minimum in the Depression years.

But at last, Melbourne had another bridge over the Yarra and another tramline to service the area that became Southbank. •

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