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Glebe Island Bridge – going somewhere?

By ALEC SMART

Historic Glebe Island Bridge, abandoned and neglected for almost three decades, might be brought back into service (like its twin sister Pyrmont Bridge), as part of the Bays West Precinct project.

Glebe Island Bridge, the electric swing bridge spanning Johnstons Bay between Pyrmont and Rozelle, was built to replace the dysfunctional Blackbutts Bridge and opened on 28 June 1903.

It was constructed as part of the Five Bridges Route, to facilitate traffic flow between the city and its western and northern suburbs.

The other four bridges were Gladesville (1881), Iron Cove (1882), Fig Tree (1885) and Pyrmont, the latter constructed at the same time but opened a year earlier in 1902.


Glebe Island Bridge and its more fortunate twin sister, Pyrmont Bridge (still in service), were considered engineering marvels upon their opening and compared with the acclaimed Tower Bridge in London (a hydraulic suspension bridge opened in 1894).


Among the world’s first electrically-operated opening bridges, both featured a pivoting midsection that rotated 90 degrees in under a minute to facilitate maritime traffic below.

Vehicles were halted by traffic lights and a pair of timber swing-gates on either end of the approach ramps, which interlocked electronically. The bridges’ pivoting centre sections couldn’t open until the gates were closed.

They were both designed by esteemed civil engineer Percy Allan. Allan adapted an American truss design, introducing substantial improvements that were not only more cost-effective, they allowed for easier maintenance and repairs without the need for closure.

Named in his honour as Allan Truss bridges, 105 were constructed in NSW from 1894 - 1929 (less than 20 exist today, very few still functional).

Both bridges adjoined the Pyrmont peninsula, one a route to the city spanning Darling Harbour (known to Aboriginals as Tumbalong – ‘the place to find seafood’), the other crossing Johnstons Bay to Glebe Island.

Pyrmont peninsula was known to the Indigenous Aboriginal clans as ‘Pirrama’.

Pirrama was renowned for its steady supply of drinking water, a mineral spring that reportedly never ran dry, even in periods of drought.


Because of the guaranteed source of drinking water, along with abundant timber and the foundation of 15 quarries to extract the high quality, erosion-resistant sandstone in the region, Europeans were quick to colonise the Pirrama peninsula after their arrival in 1788, displacing the Indigenous occupants.

Glebe Island Bridge, having evolved from a route to take animals to their slaughter, was closed to traffic and pedestrians upon the 3 December 1995 opening of the massive cable-stayed Anzac Bridge, which runs parallel alongside. The central section was then pivoted 90 degrees on its access to permit the continuous passage of boats either side.


The bridge remains in a permanently open position, allowing free movement to an estimated 200 vessels a day, including dinghies, yachts, small ferries and fishing boats between Rozelle and Blackwattle bays and western Sydney Harbour.


Back from the dead?

After years of neglect and calls for its demolition, the prospect that Glebe Island Bridge may be renovated and reactivated as a pedestrian and cycle crossing was reprised again on 22 March 2021 when The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment (DPIE) released their new strategy for the Bays West Precinct construction.


DPIE’s strategy proposal “Big Move 2” recommends “a crossing from Bays West to Pyrmont to create more convenient and direct active transport connections.”

This will be achieved “either by [the] reinstated existing bridge or [a] newly constructed bridge … to ensure that walking, cycling and public transport are the primary travel modes.”

Action 14 specifies: “TfNSW [Transport for NSW] to undertake necessary maintenance and repair of the Glebe Island Bridge to ensure it remains safe and intact and its heritage features are preserved.”


The Bays West Precinct redevelopment involves 77 hectares of land adjoining Sydney Harbour, encompassing Glebe Island, the heritage-listed White Bay Power Station and Rozelle Rail Yards to the north-west, along with 76 hectares of adjacent harbour waterways including White and Rozelle bays.


Optimists speculate reactivating Glebe Island Bridge will also lead to an expansion of Sydney’s light rail routes linking Balmain to the Inner West network, with trams crossing the bridge itself.


Photos: Alec Smart


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