A Bridge Too Far? [Auckland Harbour Bridge Part 1]

Sunday, 31 May 1959 marked a turning point in the history of Tāmaki Makaurau. After a century of dreaming, campaigning, planning, and politicking, a bridge finally connected Auckland City to the North Shore of the Waitematā. Throughout that time, ten formal proposals were submitted to local councils or the Government, at least as many bridge and tunnel designs were sketched, and endless amounts of ink were spilled arguing the topic on paper. However, the history of a bridge across the Waitematā does not begin with an ambitious Pākehā proposal published in a newspaper; rather, its origins are a narrative passed down through the generations from the earliest Māori who called the Tāmaki isthmus home.

Image: Whites Aviation. View of Westmere with Meola Reef stretching across the Waitematā at low tide, May 1946. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 580-ALB22-026.  

A long time ago, there was a war on the Waitematā between two iwi of the night-dwelling, fairy-like patuapaiarehe. One iwi made the bold decision to bridge the harbour with a stone causeway in a bid to escape their pursuers. They worked through the early morning hours, paying no heed to the waking dawn. Alas, the sun crested Rangitoto before the patuapaiarehe were done and they perished in the sun’s light. Their skeletons fell onto the rocks, creating jagged ridges, and their incomplete causeway became Meola Reef, which stretches from Point Chevalier toward Kauri Point. Thus, even the earliest Māori wanted to bridge the Waitematā.

Image: A sketch design of the telescopic bridge to span the Waitemata, proposed in 1860, at an estimated cost of £16,000. From the Auckland Star, 30 June 1931.

It only took 15 years from the foundation of Auckland for European colonists to begin clamouring for a bridge linking the North Shore to New Zealand’s capital. Fred A Bell, a would-be politician from Newton, began petitioning the Government for a bridge around 1856. Four years later, he helped found the North Shore Bridge Company, which hired as its architect M C Tomlinson. On a budget of £16,000, Tomlinson designed a floating pontoon bridge that would be attached to the seabed by anchored barges placed at regular intervals. The bridge would include a drawbridge in the centre to allow the passage of vessels, and would connect Stokes Point and Point Erin, just as the actual bridge a century later did.

Image: Paddle steamer 'Takapuna' at the Queen Street Wharf, 1870s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections T7185.

The 1860s and 1870s saw the start of regular steam ferry service from Auckland to Birkenhead, Northcote, Barry’s Point (Takapuna), and Devonport. Rival firms arose, ensuring the prices for passenger and goods transportation remained competitive. Because the population of the North Shore was so sparce, this was considered good enough for most people—a floating bridge to connect the Waitematā. The Government certainly had no desire to spend thousands of pounds on a bridge few people would use, and entrepreneurs largely felt their money was better invested elsewhere. Yet agitation for a bridge remained an undercurrent in local politics and the murmur never completely quieted.

Image: Nautical chart of Auckland, 1884. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Map 6320.

The first serious proposal for a bridge across the Waitematā came in August 1881, when a motion was filed in the House of Representatives for a span that would join Stokes Point and Shelly Beach with a structure held aloft by concrete and stone piers with a drawbridge at the centre. The bill’s champions requested £62,000 to fund the project, reduced to £47,000 in negotiations. After only two weeks, the committee went silent and nothing more was heard on the matter until the following June, when it was revealed that the project had been shelved after an engineer had quoted a cost of up to £120,000 to fund the structure.

Image: The opening of the North: Tahekeroa Station, the furthest point to which the train now runs. From The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal, 25 May 1901. 

Regardless the Government’s decision, public desire for a bridge remained strong. The Auckland Star in 1884 stated unambiguously: 'the necessity for a bridge across the Waitemata is daily becoming more obvious.' Yet no bridge would come for another 75 years. Plans to mine for coal in Birkenhead in 1887 sparked renewed hope for a bridge, while the dreams of the Railway Reform League to extend a railroad to Northland were second only to their desire for a bridge across the Waitematā. As time went on, the extension of the North Auckland Railway, various tramway projects, and the expansion of utility services all ensured that interest in a harbour bridge would not go quietly.

Image: John Logan Campbell and  James D. Richardson. Looking northwest across the Waitemata Harbour toward the North Shore, 1887. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-5566.

The next brave soul to push for a Waitematā Harbour bridge was William J Napier, a man behind several major Auckland entrepreneurial endeavours and a major North Shore property owner. Napier submitted a renewed petition for a bridge to the Waitemata County Council in January 1891. While the council declined the proposal, Napier was unfazed and began soliciting subscriptions. He hoped to appeal to farmers wishing to sell their crops and animals more easily and affordably in Auckland markets, and real estate agents who were struggling to sell property in North Auckland. Fears of a high price tag led to the group investigating a simple wooden pontoon bridge without railway tracks similar in design to the bridge proposed 31 years earlier. 

Image: George Valentine. Lake Takapuna, N.Z., circa 1905. Te Papa Tongarewa PS.000656/02.

The 1891 proposal led to disagreements that would continue for decades over the nature and scope of a bridge. Some argued for a large structure that could support two railway tracks, two lanes for vehicles, and pedestrian paths. Others saw the bridge as a utilitarian structure that could deliver drinking water from Lake Pupuke to the city and natural gas from the city to northern settlements. Still others felt that the best option was improved steam ferry services, with one letter to the editor of the Star suggesting a chain-driven ferry between Freemans Bay and Northcote Point. Letters recommended pontoon bridges, stone bridges, trusses, and suspension bridges. The Auckland Harbour Board supported any scheme but offered no money. Like the two proposals before it, nothing happened and enthusiasm waned.

Image: Looking over the Watchman and Ponsonby Wharf, Mount Albert in the background. From The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal, 29 July 1905.

Napier, William F Hammond, and others continued throughout the 1890s to push the Government to act. New endpoints were proposed. On the south, Point Chevalier and Meola Reef, as well as The Watchman, were suggested. On the north, various sites in Birkenhead were offered as alternatives to Northcote. The issue of drinking water in the city helped keep the bridge project in the minds of many, since Lake Pupuke was widely considered to be a near inexhaustible source of freshwater at the time. Any bridge could support water pipes and such pipes needed a bridge. 

Image: Spanning the Waitemata: how the suggested bridge across Auckland Harbour would look. From The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal, 29 September 1900.

The third major bridge initiative arose from the Birkenhead and Northcote communities in June 1900. The mayor of Birkenhead, C E Button, invited the mayors of Auckland City, Parnell, Grey Lynn, Newmarket, and Devonport, as well as the Auckland City MP and several prominent businessmen, to form a committee with the goal of building a bridge across the Waitematā. With funding once more the largest obstacle, the promoters turned to London investors, stock subscriptions, Government bonds, and bridge tolls as a means to pay for the structure. This plan was also the first to seriously investigate steel bridge designs and include tramway and railway tracks. The New Zealand Graphic published a lithographic sketch of Auckland Harbour with the bridge a fait accompli. Yet, as with all the previous proposals, the project died not long after it was announced.

Image: Bridging the Waitemata-A dream of a very distant future. From The Weekly Graphic and New Zealand Mail, 12 July 1911. 

A final attempt before the First World War came in 1911 when the Waitemata Chamber of Commerce and the Waitemata Railway League joined forces to petition the Government for a survey of a bridge between Ponsonby and Chelsea, a location that would not disrupt shipping traffic to the sugar works. This was part of a larger proposal to extend a railway line east from Kaukapakapa to the North Shore and then across a bridge, creating an early iteration of today’s Ring Route. After some convincing, Waitemata MP Alexander Harris joined the project. As the war overtook New Zealand politics, though, it distracted the populous and Government and the harbour bridge project was quietly shelved. It awaited a time when finances and politicians aligned with the hopes and dreams of the people of Tāmaki Makaurau.

Author: Derek R. Whaley, Senior Librarian (Research & Heritage Services)

For other entries in this series, check out:
Part II: To Cross the Waitematā, by Vicky Spalding and Derek R. Whaley
Part III: Portal to a Brighter Day, by Nathan McLeay

Selected sources:

James Cowan, Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori, 3rd edition (Whitcombe & Tombs, 1939).

Nathan McLeay, ‘Part 1: “A Dream of the Very Distant Future”: Early Visions of a Bridge across the Waitematā’, Auckland History Initiative (University of Auckland), 2019.

‘Proposed North Shore Bridge’, New Zealander, 11 April 1860.

Selected articles from the Auckland Star, New Zealand Herald, and New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, 1866–1917.