Story Bridge – 80 years connecting Brisbane

Story Bridge – 80 years connecting Brisbane

Its 12,000 tonnes of steel has been the centrepiece of Brisbane's skyline for eight decades, proudly standing as a testament to the vision and capacity of the people who believed in it and built it.

When the Story Bridge was officially opened by Queensland Governor Sir Leslie Orme Wilson on July 6, 1940 the Depression had already devastated the local economy for a number of years and Australia had entered World War II.

More than 37,000 people turned out to celebrate the opening – a 10th of Brisbane's total population at the time. The arching span across the Brisbane River was rightly hailed as the most ambitious construction project the city had ever seen and a marvel of modern engineering.

As we celebrate the Story Bridge's 80th birthday, it has become so much a part of our city's story, a Brisbane icon, coming through changing times, yet contemporary and fulfilling its original purpose -  connecting people, families and communities.   Its charm is to be functional and strong, carrying today's volume of traffic (more than 30 million vehicles a year), with imagination and the timeless cantilever style intended by design engineer, John Bradfield with its "bold towers and broad shoulders, linking the river and shore arms, whether viewed nearby or afar off, expressing simplicity, strength, grace", so eloquently described by Michael Moy in his 2005 book Story Bridge, Idea to Icon.

My deep connection to the bridge is that my grandfather, Sir Manuel Richard Hornibrook, won the contract to build the bridge in 1935, in a consortium with Evans-Deakin. The Hornibrook Highway was almost completed and MR, as he was known, had a trained, skilled and loyal workforce, keen to work on another big project that would offer ongoing employment. The impact of the tough years of the Depression was still felt, and income security or safety nets were unknown.  The project linked the skills and minds of the best builder, steel provider and shipbuilder, engineers and architects of the time. Bradfield, who had been Chief Engineer on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, returned to Queensland for the project. Together they all took on the challenge of building the biggest construction work in Queensland and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia.

MR had a track record of building bridges and an indomitable spirit in taking on challenges. He had already built the William Jolly Bridge, opened in 1932 (known as Grey St Bridge then). It is also a bridge that has stood the test of time and crosses the river with its graceful curves that resonate with the surrounding hills. It opened just 11 days after the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to great fanfare and excitement. MR then maintained his workforce through the Depression with his enterprise of building the Hornibrook Highway, crossing Bramble Bay to connect Sandgate and Redcliffe. With new legislation in place to enable a private company to charge tolls, he undertook a huge risk, and ultimately the benefit, in building the longest bridge in Australia at a time when the government couldn't afford to invest in infrastructure. These projects developed Queensland skills, workforce, confidence and capacity to tackle even bigger projects.

The Story Bridge was a bold, visionary project with belief in the city and, coupled with renewed capacity by government to invest, showed confidence in the future. It employed hard working, local people coming out of the Depression, the builders and engineers were Queensland trained and educated and the steel was made in Australia. This became a source of great pride. Even the toll, which was set when it opened, was lifted by 1947. The state sold the bridge to the Brisbane City Council and the toll was never reintroduced, so it really became one with the people.

These historic stories and projects show us not only how individuals with vision can shape the present and future but how collaboration, building local skills and expertise can really influence a larger direction. Brisbane continues to think big with multiple grand scale projects to be delivered by 2025. The biggest modern-day infrastructure initiative now is the $5.4 billion Cross River Rail project which continues to create a connected Brisbane for the future and will bring its own stories of human aspirations for generations ahead, just as we reflect now on the visionary approach of 80 years ago. Enterprise, innovation, courage and belief in the future that pepper the big construction stories continue to resonate as values and strengths of today and will guide us through the 21st Century.