To Cross the Waitematā [Auckland Harbour Bridge Part 2]

 Opened in 1959, the Auckland Harbour Bridge is a distinctive and crucial piece of infrastructure. The incident in September 2020 when a truck was tipped over by a strong wind gust, causing damage to the bridge structure and creating traffic chaos, showed how reliant we are on our main harbour crossing. Currently, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport are looking at alternative harbour crossings. Some of the suggestions mentioned in the media, including a proposal for a tunnel under the harbour are not exactly new ideas. In fact, the first proposal for a harbour bridge dates to 1860, and the topic was raised many times in the century that followed. Auckland’s traffic woes and the debate about how efficiently to move people across the Waitematā Harbour is an age-old issue which can be seen in various documents held in the Archives.

Image: St Mary’s Bay looking towards Auckland Harbour Bridge, 1981 (Auckland Council Archives, Auckland City Council photographic department, ACC 497/1bl)

After the First World War, the idea of a harbour bridge was raised at a meeting of the Birkenhead Borough Council on 16 April 1919. Councillor Ernest Skeates mentioned many local authorities were discussing the idea of suitable memorials to commemorate World War I. He thought it would be wasteful spending money on building a useless object and suggested Birkenhead Borough Council should try to enlist the support of Auckland City Council and other local bodies in erecting a permanent and useful monument. Councillor Skeates thought a bridge across the Waitematā Harbour would be a fitting memorial as it would be both permanent and useful. He proposed the pillars of the bridge could be named after the principal battles of the Great War. It was resolved the Council would suggest a bridge as a peace memorial and other local bodies be asked to join in progressing the matter. [BCC 111/8/p.44]. This idea fell flat with Auckland City Council and other local authorities eventually committing to building a museum in Auckland Domain.

Image: Birkenhead Borough Council, 1915–1917, (Auckland Council Archives, Photographs of mayors, councillors and staff of Birkenhead Borough and City Council, BCC 485/8)

In early 1926, the Waitemata Bridge Committee was formed as a political action group with the expressed goal of seeing a bridge built across the Waitematā. This group incorporated as the Auckland Harbour Bridge Association—later the Waitemata Harbour Bridge Association—in November 1927. Over the following two decades, the group allied with any other organisation that desired the same goal, mostly notably North Auckland railway lobbyists who wished to extend a tramway or railway from Auckland City to the North Shore. The group began canvassing local borough councils, pleading for their support, and petitioned the Government, though the Prime Minister and Minister of Public Works, Joseph G Coates, felt the time inopportune.

Image: Jones & Adams, Plan of suggested bridge on site recommended by the Auckland Harbour Transit Facilities Commission, 1929. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections uncatalogued plan.

Compared to all other bridge campaigns, the 1926-1931 proposals produced the highest number of schemes. During this time, the Auckland Harbour Bridge Association hired the engineering firm of Jones & Adams to draft a plan for the bridge. At the same time, the Auckland Harbour Bridge Company was formed to solicit outside funding for a bridge.

Image: Auckland Harbour Bridge Company. North bridgehead approach at Northcote, 1931. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections uncatalogued plan.

They submitted their own plan to the Public Works Department in November 1930. Both organisations agreed that the bridge should stretch from St Mary’s Bay from the end of Fanshawe Street and then curve more tightly than today’s bridge to Northcote Point, where it would continue north via Queen Street. As the Great Depression set in, the Harbour Bridge Company alienated many of its allies and became the target of aggressive anti-bridge sentiment. Outside funding for a bridge was not forthcoming, but the company struggled on until June 1948.

Image: A Glimpse into the Future- The Waitemata Bridge. From the Sun, 11 November 1929.

This wave of proposals also led to the first serious suggestion of a traffic tunnel under the Waitematā. The plan below shows the cross section and longitudinal section of a tunnel and is traced from a plan submitted by Mr R D Stuart to the Waitemata Harbour Transit Facilities Commission which was established by the Government to investigate Waitematā Harbour transport requirements. The Commission considered various options for bridges and tunnels but eventually rejected a trans-harbour tunnel as being out of the question due to practical and financial reasons. [New Zealand Herald, 7 December 1929, p.15].

Image: Plan of proposed traffic tunnel under Auckland Harbour, traced from a plan submitted by Mr R D Stuart and signed by J R Marks, 1929 (Auckland Council Archives, Auckland City Council Town Planning maps, ACC 005/63)

Renewed interest for the bridge surged again in 1937 and saw more proposal plans. Auckland Council Archives has a drawing produced by Dr J J C Bradfield and Son that includes lanes for trams. Dr J J C Bradfield was the chief engineer who prepared the design and supervised the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Dr Bradfield visited Auckland in 1937 to speak at the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. He brought with him plans and specifications that he intended to use to illustrate his address. [Auckland Star, 12 January 1937, p.3].

Image: Proposed layout for bridge over Waitematā Harbour by Dr J J C Bradfield & Son, Sydney, 18 May 1937 (Auckland Council Archives, Auckland City Council Engineer's Department plans, ACC 015/7853-2)

In 1939, the Auckland Provincial Centennial Committee was receiving and considering various proposals for centennial memorials. Some of the suggestions received were a Waitākere Ranges Park, an art gallery, a municipal theatre, a statue of Governor Hobson, a trans-harbour tunnel, a traffic bridge over Wyndham Street and a maternity hospital. The trans-harbour tunnel suggestion was put forward by Mr R D Stewart, however the Committee eliminated both the Wyndham Street bridge and harbour tunnel on the grounds of financial impracticality. [Minutes of the Auckland Provincial Centennial Council special sub-committee, 17 February 1939, ACC 275/174-38 pt 1].

Image: Auckland Trans-Harbour Facilities Commission. Site plan of suggested bridge, 1946. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1946 Session 1, D-06, page 36.

While a trans-harbour centennial memorial tunnel may have been discounted in 1939, tunnels continued to pop up in discussions regarding harbour crossings. For example, a tunnel appears on a locality plan produced by the Auckland Trans-Harbour Facilities Commission Board in 1946. The plan shows the proposed bridge site, former proposed bridge site, suggested waterfront road, suggested northern highway outlet and a tunnel route. The Commission Board considered 1,271 pages of evidence and concluded that a bridge would be needed within 15 years. They also investigated whether a tunnel under the Waitematā Harbour would be feasible, but again it was rejected on the basis of cost. [Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1946 Wātū I, D-06].

Image: Locality plan showing site of Auckland harbour bridge, 1946, (Auckland Council Archives, Auckland City Council Town Planning map, ACC 005/697)

The Waitemata Harbour Bridge Association had been active throughout the campaigns of the 1930s and resumed their work following World War II. The Auckland Trans-Harbour Facilities Commission Board was the direct result of the committee's petitions to the Government for a more dedicated plan regarding a Waitematā crossing. The culmination of their campaign was a feasibility study in 1949 that led to the formation of the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority on 1 December 1950. This governmental organisation was created to 'construct, maintain, manage and control a bridge across the Waitemata harbour from Point Erin to Stokes Point.'

Image: Freeman, Fox and Partners. Auckland Harbour Bridge, proposed design, 1951. Auckland Libraries Special Collections 924.2 AUC.

The engineering firm of Freeman, Fox and Partners designed a five-lane structure with footpaths along either side and a price tag of around £8 million. The absence of railway tracks, the uninspired designs, the high cost during a time of austerity, and a general lack of enthusiasm almost led to the project’s cancellation, as had been the case with every such scheme in the past. The resulting structure, approved in December 1953, was a compromise that removed the fifth lane and the pathways, as well as important approaches on either end, to bring the cost down to under £5 million. Contracts for construction were led in October 1954 and construction began late the following year. The Waitematā would be bridged at last after a century of proposals, petitions, campaigns, studies, and disappointments.

Author: Vicky Spalding, Senior Archivist, (Auckland Council Archives) and Derek R Whaley, Senior Librarian (Research & Heritage Services)

For other entries in this series, check out:
Part I: A Bridge Too Far?, by Derek R. Whaley
Part III: Portal to a Brighter Day, by Nathan McLeay

Selected sources:

Nathan McLeay, ‘Part 2: From Distant Dream to Reality: The Fight for the Auckland Harbour Bridge, 1926-1951’, Auckland History Initiative (University of Auckland), 2019.

Selected articles from the Auckland Star and New Zealand Herald, 1919–1945.