George Robinson has fond memories of the existing Manawatū River Bridge. He was about four when the bridge opened and remembers walking over it with his father. But his favourite memory is when the middle span fell into the Manawatū River.

It was 1943. One of the US Marines who was stationed at Foxton hit the bridge with his jeep, causing the centre span to collapse. The jeep ended up in the water as did another car and two cyclists. Fortunately, no one was killed.

While cars then had to take the long route through Shannon, a swing bridge was connected so people could walk between Foxton and Levin.

"We'd walk across it and it'd swing like anything in the middle. So, we'd wait and when the older ladies got on it, we'd swing it more and give them quite a fright,' he laughs. "Our parents soon put a stop to it."

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For his wife June, the swing bridge wasn't quite so much fun.

George and June Robinson in the house where they have lived for the past 60 years, about 10kms North of the Manawatu River Bridge and Whirokino Trestle Bridge.
George and June Robinson in the house where they have lived for the past 60 years, about 10kms North of the Manawatu River Bridge and Whirokino Trestle Bridge.

"I'm a bit younger than George but I remember the bridge well. Walking across it and it was swinging with every step, it was terrifying."

Stan Cull also remembers the Marines. They had a camp not far from his place at Foxton Racecourse, another at Paraparaumu, and as part of the training they had to run from one to the other.

"I would see them straggling over the bridge. They were pretty tired by the time they arrived. Once they got over the bridge, they'd fall into line and smarten up again as they came through the town.

"I remember driving my cows over the bridge too. I think I'm the only person to do that. Imagine cows being driven down State Highway1 now, with all the traffic."

The trestle bridge is something of a miracle. In the Robinson's and Cull's early days there wasn't anything to help the regular flooding, so a flood channel was built and eventually a bridge stretched over it.

Stan and Alison Cull with the 1957 map from the Drainage Board which shows the district when planning for flood mitigation was still in the planning stations.
Stan and Alison Cull with the 1957 map from the Drainage Board which shows the district when planning for flood mitigation was still in the planning stations.

Stan still has a 1957 map from his time at the Drainage Board, where he served many years, which shows the flood channels being planned.

Stan and his wife Alison have spent most of their lives in Foxton. It was a different place after the war, and much has changed since those days.

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Flax mills were the biggest industry in Foxton and harakeke (native flax) covered most of the paddocks around Stan's place south of the town and all the way down to the river. The largest mills in the country were built there in the 1890s.

The nearby Moutoa swamps were a rich source of harakeke, and at its peak, there were 11 mills in operation, exporting flax fibre to Australia, Britain and North America. The other industry for Foxton was the production of bale bags, which were sent around the country to hold the nation's wool.

Flax production has since given way to newer industries. The paddocks around Stan and Alison's grow grass, which is mowed every 10 days or so, baled and fed to milk goats housed in sheds in places like Shannon.

And soon, the old bridge that holds so many memories will give way to a brand new Manawatū River Bridge and the Whirikino Trestle Bridge.

Both of the bridges have made it much easier for people in the Manawatū and Horowhenua to do business and go about their daily lives, so there is some sadness that the old bridges are going.

But with the Whirikino Trestle approaching the end of its structural and economic life, there is also a sense of excitement and anticipation about the new bridges, and a whole new set of memories.

Construction details
Work began on the new bridges in January 2017, which initially comprised key enabling works including relocation of the north island gas main. Because construction was taking place in a flood plain there were some difficult logistics to overcome, including the flood gates needing to be opened three times, which required the contractor to clear plant and equipment from the Moutoa floodway.

At one stage New Zealand's largest crawler crane was sitting on the banks of the Manawatu River, helping lay 30 beams on the new Manawatū River Bridge. A further 85 beams were placed on the Whirikino Trestle.

The new bridges will have a major impact on productivity by allowing the heavier HPMVs (High Productivity Motor Vehicles) to use the new trestle bridge on State Highway 1 instead of having to detour inland. Other improvements for the local community will be wider traffic lanes and shoulders, improved walking and cycling facilities, and reduced maintenance costs.

A blessing of the bridges will take place at dawn on Saturday December 14 followed by a Public Open Day, starting at 9:45am. Traffic will be switched from the old road to the new alignment in early 2020.