It was originally the Wanganui Bridge and is also called the Town Bridge, but its official title is the Whanganui City Bridge - and despite being demolished and replaced 50 years ago, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the laying of its foundation stone.

Murray Crawford begins a five-part series on our bridge.

With three road bridges to choose from we think nothing of crossing the Whanganui River these days and consider ourselves seriously inconvenienced if one of them is closed temporarily for maintenance.

Spare a thought, then, for our early settlers who, before reclamation works on the town side, had a much wider section of river to contend with.

Their only means of "crossing over" was to rely on obliging Maori to convey them.

The situation improved with the introduction of ferry services, one of which operated from Market Place to Purua Creek and another from the foot of Victoria Ave to Campbelltown, the eventual site of the Wanganui Bridge (the epithet "Town" added to distinguish it from later usurpers).

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But so erratic and unreliable was the ferry service that a small commercial hub which served Campbelltown residents was necessary.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the laying of the Wanganui Bridge foundation stone, an occasion which promised a great leap forward for the emerging settlement.

The bridge was designed specifically for the Wanganui River by British civil engineer George Robert Stephenson, also known in New Zealand as the designer of the Lyttleton Rail Tunnel. Its metal components were constructed by Kennards of London and shipped out for assembly in Wanganui.

The idea of a bridge was first proposed in the 1850s when surveying and roadbuilding throughout the colony began in earnest.

In 1856 a delegation of prominent citizens petitioned the Superintendent of Wellington Province, Dr Isaac Featherston, on the matter and received a favourable reply. Visiting Wanganui the following year the superintendent not only promised a bridge, but expressed the hope that he would personally open it within 18 months.

Featherston was a little optimistic, although he was back here in 1859 to drive in the first pile. Thirty more went in before work stopped - firstly due to contractual problems, but later due to a massive flood which washed away the Whangaehu Bridge, preventing transport of the necessary timber.

Rumblings of discontent followed, such as this letter to the Chronicle in February 1866: "Sir, Cannot anything be done to facilitate the crossings of passengers, horses, etc., over the river?

"There is little chance of us getting a bridge for many a year and are we to put up with the same style of ferry we had years ago? It is a common thing to wait for an hour for the punt to take a horse across. Trusting you will agitate the matter. I am: - A Sufferer."

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Meanwhile disagreements over the best site, concerns over upriver access, worries of earthquake risks as well as the viability of the township itself due to the Hau Hau uprising delayed the project. But among all the gloom came this snippet of cheering news from abroad: "The Queen is still in Balmoral, but her health is much improved."
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Superintendent of Wellington, Dr Isaac Featherston.
Superintendent of Wellington, Dr Isaac Featherston.

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Even more cheerful was another little snippet which appeared in the local press, advising residents that the lowest tender for the construction of the bridge, that of Mr McNeill for £12,850, had been accepted and that he had two years to do the job. "We shall shortly be hearing the ring of hammers and seeing in reality the long talked of bridge rising before our eyes."

However, further objections were made on the grounds that the proposed swing span would seriously impede wharf operations, particularly in view of the expectation of a greatly increased volume of trade, "if the reported discovery of a rich gold field in this neighbourhood should prove correct".

But by this time the project was gathering momentum. Public notices advised residents that: "The bridge is an iron truss bridge supported with iron cylinders. The length of the bridge is about 600ft with a swing span. The iron material of the bridge is supplied and now lies at Wanganui," although some were eager to see the materials put to a more immediate and practical use.

"Cannot the bridge material, lying uselessly on the beach [Taupo Quay], be turned to some account in the shape of blockhouses, which could be erected in the suburbs of the town," suggested one (Herald, December 8, 1868), an idea that was echoed by others.

Next episode: The foundation stone is laid.

NB: The name "Wanganui" reflects the spelling in use at the time.
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An artist s impression of Wanganui before the bridge.
An artist s impression of Wanganui before the bridge.

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Murray Crawford is a Whanganui author with an interest in local history Newspaper references sourced from Papers Past: National Library of New Zealand