Bridging the Wairau

22:30, Jan 22 2013
Wairau Bridge
A century old: the official opening of the Wairau Bridge near Renwick on january 24, 1913

The first bridge over the Wairau River near Renwick was officially opened 100 years ago tomorrow.

The old one-way wooden structure was built in less than a year at a cost of £11,000.

A toll for the half-mile long Wairau Bridge was considered but never imposed despite a toll already in place at the Wairau ford at Renwick - the ferryman charged to transport cyclists and pedestrians.

Wairau River Bridge
Progress: The old timber bridge on the left was replaced by a reinforced concrete structure built on steel girders in 1958

Those who opposed the bridge said it wouldn't be greatly used even though many people had drowned trying the cross the river.

The site was first surveyed in 1899 but it took more than 12 years for the Government to rubber stamp the project. Work finally started on March 4, 1912.

Over the years, the Wairau Bridge was damaged many times by flash floods.


Wairau River Bridge
Wairau River Bridge 2007

In 1938, some of the wooden piles, which held the structure up, were wiped out completely.

In 1955, the river swept away some of the spans creating a 150-feet gap in the bridge.

Plans were already in place, though, to replace the timber bridge with a reinforced concrete carriageway, 24-feet wide, built on steel girders immediately downstream.

Wairau Bridge
Construction in 1958

The new bridge cost £333,500 to build and officially opened on October 15, 1958.

Blenheim man Peter Thomson did surveying work on the project.

Mr Thomson and another man used a survey chain to map out the direction of the bridge, he said.

It was a summer job and they had to start before 3am before the wind got up, he said. "Over the length of the chain we had to measure the temperature at four different points because metal expands when it gets hot."

A crowd estimated at between 2000 and 2500 people from Marlborough, Nelson and Motueka attended the bridge opening ceremony.

It was officially opened by the chairman of the National Roads Board and Minister for Works, Hugh Watt.

A Marlborough Express report on the ceremony said: "While there was universal gratitude at the fact that the notorious Wairau River had been bridged by a structure that could stand up to its angry floodwaters, there was, nevertheless, a melancholy touch about the proceedings - an old and faithful structure which had served the travelling public to the best of its constructional ability for the past 45 years was passing."

John Bary, secretary of the committee responsible for having the bridge built, spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

He expressed the feelings of those who had crossed the old bridge many times, saying, "I take off my hat to what it has done for us. Goodbye old friend, goodbye."

In declaring the bridge open, Mr Watt praised those who worked on the new structure: "I would say that in 150 years time people will say that the men who worked on this bridge did a good job."

The Marlborough Express