Happy 50th birthday harbour bridge

Last updated 05:00 21/05/2009
Photo: BEN WATSON

ICONIC BRIDGE: North Shore man David Williams marvels at the harbour bridge where he worked as a “sinker” during its construction more than 50 years ago.

Photo: BEN WATSON
BRIDGE BOSS: Former Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority general manager Richard Wilks holding a model of the original command desk for the toll booths.
THERE THEY GO: Cars race across the harbour bridge for the first time in 1959.

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The harbour bridge turns 50 next week and here North Shore Times reporter Jodeal Cadacio talks to two men who helped build it.

A sense of pride and accomplishment fills 81-year-old David Williams every time he sees the harbour bridge.

Having worked on the bridge as one of the "sinkers" who built the six structural foundations, the Takapuna man feels very much a part of the iconic structure.

"It was the toughest and hardest job I’ve ever done," says Mr Williams.

Born in England, he came to New Zealand in 1952 and three years later at the age of 27 became one of the thousands of workers hired to build the bridge.

"I was one of those 'seagulling' or non-union workers sitting on the beach like seagulls and waiting to be called for a job.

"You sit there waiting to be plucked out," he says.

He got in as a sinker working inside a caisson, a watertight structure within which the bridge’s concrete foundations were built deep under the seabed.

"It was hard and tough but it paid real big money. I bought my first house in New Zealand after that," he says.

Mr Williams says they went through two airlocks and climbed down to the main compartments where compressed air was pumped in.

"The deepest that we worked in was about 36 metres below sea level. When I first went down it was quite a shock – you’re inside an environment with 50 pounds of air pressure.

"Your cigarette burns quickly because of the air pressure and when you speak you sounded like Donald Duck," he says.

They excavated deep down using jackhammers and drills, and shovelled mud and concrete.

They worked in shifts, each spending a maximum of four hours below. Back at the surface, they were locked in a decompression chamber for at least three hours.

"They kept a close eye on us every time we got up, looking for signs of decompression sickness, which could be fatal," he says.

Mr Williams says they started from the North Shore side and took eight to nine weeks to sink the first foundation level.

As with most bridge construction of this magnitude, it had its share of tragedies – four workers died during the four years of construction.

Mr Williams says he saw an accident that killed one of the workers.

"He was called Snowy, he was walking along one of the chords with a crane working on top of him. The crane dislodged a plank and knocked him off.

"I was in a gantry and saw him go down. He never came up. I heard he was to be married in a couple of weeks," he says.

It was officially opened on May 30, 1959 with a historic walk by thousands of Auckland residents.

Mr Williams says he is proud of his having worked on the bridge which he says is a monument to the Kiwi can do attitude.

Clerk enlisted to bridge gap

Meet the man who was "on top" of the harbour bridge.

As the former general manager of the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority, North Shore man Richard Wilks made it happen for the iconic structure.

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It has been 50 years since the bridge was opened and looking back, a feeling of great satisfaction fills the long-time Mairangi Bay resident.

"I was on top of the bridge since day one. I was married to that bridge and it was a great time in my life," says the 85-year-old who was also a World War Two combat pilot.

Working as a clerk at the Auckland City Council, he was plucked out by then city mayor Sir John Allum to work with the bridge authority.

On its inaugural meeting on March 8, 1951, he sat alongside Sir John as the acting secretary and went on to become its general manager in 1956 as bridge construction went full throttle.

Apart from securing loans to raise the £8.5 million needed to build the bridge, it was also Mr Wilks’ job to devise the toll registration system that came with the bridge opening on May 30, 1959.

"I was the one raising the money to keep the construction going and I remember doing it £500,000 at a time," he says.

Through an agreement with Prudential Assurance Company Ltd, the authority offered people "the right to lend us money" through debentures or bond flotations.

"That was the only way we could raise the money. Repayment was guaranteed by the New Zealand government," he says.

As work on the bridge progressed, Mr Wilks went overseas to study how toll systems worked in Australia, England, Canada and the United States.

The bridge toll was initially 25 cents a car in 1959 and it went down to 20 cents a car 15 months later. The toll system was in operation for 25 years until March 30, 1984.

Mr Wilks says when the big day for the opening came, a challenge was how to manage the legions of guests arriving for the ceremony and the multitudes of Aucklanders who made the historic walk on the bridge.

"Everything went smoothly. We were told there were 106,000 people who walked on the bridge that day. It is, I think, a never-to-be-
repeated opportunity for the public," he says.

Mr Wilks says the daunting challenge to him when the bridge opened was how to make it work.

"You have to be on top of everything from emergency services, telephones, liaising with police and the fire services and the tolling.

"Shortly after the opening growth started to occur and the numbers were in excess of forecast. Those were the challenges and I can say with all humility that it was a well-run and well-managed facility," Mr Wilks says.

"It has stood the test of time and nature and I’m proud to be a part of it."

- North Shore Times

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