Few people know just how close the Auckland Harbour Bridge came to being lost in the very body of water it was designed to span.
It happened as the bridge was being constructed in December 1958. The large centre portion, weighing about 1200 tonnes, was being floated into place on barges, a delicate operation. What no one had counted on was Auckland's changeable weather. A nasty front brought gale force winds into play and the centre section began floating out of control up the harbour.
That led to 36 hours of struggle as tugboats fought to restrain the runaway section of bridge in a marine drama that could have badly altered the face of Auckland's development. The attending tugs couldn't restrain the centre section until another Auckland landmark - the tug William C. Daldy - arrived and lent its considerable weight to the battle.
The tugboat, built in 1935 and a remakably powerful vessel with its steam engine, took up the vital tug-of-war; it pulled against the bridge section for 36 hours straight - consuming over 40 tonnes of coal in doing so, an eye-watering amount. It won the day and the centre section was eventually manoeuvred into position and fixed - where it has, thankfully, remained for the past 56 years.
If there were genuine fears the bridge could have been damaged or sunk, such comments have been lost in the sands of time but it seems the giant structure originally risked having more in common with the submarine tunnel now mooted as the second crossing.
The William C. Daldy, itself an institution on Auckland's waterfront (named after William Crush Daldy, a sea captain and MP in the 1850s), was retired in 1977 and was due to be scrapped before a preservation society saved it, using the old tug for heritage tours of the waterfront.
That inauspicious start - the Bridge That Nearly Sailed Away - heralded an ongoing era of controversy. Small wonder, as the bridge had taken nearly 100 years to move from concept to reality.
In 1860, farmer and engineer Fred Bell, heading a group of North Shore farmers wanting to get their pigs and cattle to market, designed a drawbridge on floating pontoons along approximately the same route as today's crossing. In another visionary proposal, Bell's group said it would be paid for from tolls (a concept which came to reality about 100 years later). However, the plans were dropped after government, not for the first time, took fright at an estimate of 16,000. It doesn't sound much but, in today's inflation-adjusted terms, would be worth about $2 million.
In the 1920s, vision again crossed swords with caution. Auckland had only 33 streets at the time and there was a grand total of 324 cars on the North Shore but the Waitemata Transit Commission knew a bridge would be required and the Auckland Harbour Bridge Empowering Act was passed. Empowering it may have been but nothing happened until a royal commission in 1946 recommended a four-lane bridge. Fears grew that Auckland's population growth had been underestimated; calls went up for six lanes, not four, and a compromise of five was agreed.
Only about 50,000 people lived on the Shore then, its growth rate was less than half of the city side, retarded by the watery divide; other than ferries, the only way to get to Auckland was a 50km car journey through Riverhead. But Auckland's growth was beginning to eat into agricultural South Auckland and the sleeping giant of a metropolis began to look elsewhere for development space. The Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority (now defunct) was established in 1951 to raise public loans and call tenders for the plan, which included two footpaths and a network of approach roads. But the bridge nearly sailed away again.
Prime Minister Sidney Holland baulked at a project price of just over 8 million (over $400 million in today's money) and shelved it in 1953. After a bitter public debate, the government agreed a bridge would be built - but wanted a cap of 5 million. The Authority tried to keep the plans of approach streets which would deliver a more integrated traffic flow to the bridge but that pushed the budget beyond 7.5 million; the approach roads and the fifth lane were sacrificed, producing what became known as the "austerity" bridge.
Not even the persuasive gifts of Auckland mayor and Authority head Sir John Allum could preserve the fifth traffic lane; pedestrians and cyclists have been battling to this day for cycle and pedestrian access.
The loss of the fifth lane meant the government's thinking was exposed as faulty almost from opening day on May 30, 1959. Over 8000 cars a day were expected to use the new bridge. It was a shock when an average of 14,000 a day used it in the first year.
On that first day, the 1000 invited guests at the buffet luncheon for the grand opening required 3600 oysters, 25 large hams and 100 crayfish to feed them. By the end of that first day, over 34,000 vehicles had crossed the bridge, in spite of congestion and breakdowns that caused traffic jams stretching back to King's Wharf on the city side and Hall's Corner in Takapuna. The bridge had its first accident that day - a nose-to-tail - and its first jam. A pattern had been set.
The royal commission had predicted the bridge would carry 3 million vehicles annually by 1965; the volume exceeded 10 million that year and was approaching 15 million when the four clip-on lanes (the famed "Nippon clip-ons") were added in 1969 - at an extra cost of $7 million, more than the cost of building the extra lanes initially.
Traffic chaos on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. December, 2014. Photo / Daniel Hines
In 2007, the Herald on Sunday reported the bridge had been at risk of "catastrophic failure", according to an official report that undermined earlier assurances that the bridge's wear and tear posed no major safety problems. That report led to massive repairs - $45 million of maintenance on the "clip-ons" - during which trucks were banned from the outside lanes (restrictions since lifted) while strengthening work went on.
In 2009, when the bridge turned 50, a New Zealand Herald editorial, in praising the unifying nature of the bridge and its effect on Auckland said: "The bridge itself serves as a ringing testament to another recurring Auckland theme - the perils of short-term thinking and penny-pinching."
Before the bridge was opened, more than 100,000 people walked over it, marvelling at the new addition to the city. Typically for Auckland, not all comment was positive; the design was questioned with some saying it looked like a coathanger or a poor copy of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Most Auckland icons have copped their share of criticism before Aucklanders settle into comfortable acceptance and bestowal of icon status - like the bridge, the Sky Tower, Eden Park and others.
In 2009, at the 50th anniversary celebrations, things got ugly when thousands of people crossed the bridge as a part of a protest for what the protestors felt was the authorities' unreasonable denial of such access on the day and on an ongoing basis.
People dodged or burst through the police cordon even though walking over on the anniversary had been ruled out by NZTA because of costs and traffic difficulties. Police closed the northbound lanes to traffic, bringing State Highway 1 to a stop. No accidents, violence or arrests were reported and protesters left the bridge shortly afterwards - but the incident provoked a wide range of debate about lawlessness and heated feeling over pedestrian and cycle access.
What is now clear is the bridge, in spite of its overall success, will be the only major Waitemata harbour crossing above the water. In June 2013, a $5 billion, six-lane tunnel (including rail as well as car links) was announced by Prime Minister John Key. It will be part of a $10 billion infrastructure package to improve Auckland's transport but, even though the land needed has been safeguarded, the political and funding decisions to make it happen have not yet been taken.
It is not hard for Aucklanders to wonder: will this too be "a testament to the perils of short-term thinking and penny-pinching?"
For more information: www.aucklandmuseum.com/auckland-stories
Sir John Allum. Photo / Supplied
Sir John Allum - The energy force behind the harbour bridge, he battled prime ministers, obstructive bureaucracy and apathy for years before winning the right to proceed. "Auckland must have the bridge," he once said, "It is unthinkable that two growing communities should be denied permanent access." His stand cost him the Auckland mayoralty, defeated by a candidate who claimed the bridge would financially cripple Auckland ratepayers - but he continued the fight as chairman of the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority.
Adrian Thomas - Known as "Mr Smiley", he was probably the best known toll booth officer of the 60s and 70s. Unfailingly cheerful, he greeted each and every motorist with a smile and a chat. One motorist, after his first meeting with Mr Thomas, said: "I thought he was going to get in the car, take the money out of my pocket for me, give me a hug and offer to come home and cook the dinner." The toll booth operators became well known; one said that people would "hold up their babies for you and over the years, you'd watch the babies grow up". The art of conversation was lost as the crush of cars became greater, the toll booth officers had to take one hour "fumes breaks" and, in a low point, one cruel prankster was said to have dropped a red-hot 20c coin into an unsuspecting palm.
D. G. McPherson - When he retired as bridge superintendent in 1978, McPherson ended a rich career which had seen him swap gunfire with bank robbers and pirates in Hong Kong; he had earlier led volunteer raids behind Japanese lines in World War II to help civilians escape the Japanese advance; he was entangled in gun battles during China's communist struggles; he became director of criminal intelligence in Hong Kong and then transferred to Kenya where he helped check the Mau Mau uprising. His abiding memory of the bridge was the car that skidded and rolled on to its roof as it approached the toll plaza. As it came to a rest, a hand emerged from the upturned vehicle, holding a 20c piece.
Richard Goode - In 1974, he became that rare thing, a survivor of a fall from the bridge. Feeling sick, he stopped to vomit over the rail but lost his balance and fell. When he was rescued unconscious from the water, his thick woollen shirt and denim jeans were in shreds, his false teeth and gold watch were on the bottom of the harbour and the soles of his shoes had grooves in them from the impact. "Mud was on my shoes," said the 28-year-old fork hoist driver, "so I probably hit the bottom."
Unknown teenagers - In 1962, a group of Milford teenagers set up a card table and chairs on the bridge in the dead of night and had a photographer friend capture them playing, smoking and drinking nearly 50 metres above the Waitemata Harbour. A local newspaper published the shot. Flushed with success, they organised a second trip on a moonlit night, with towels and bathing suits. They spread the towels out on one of the lanes, lay down and had the photographer take a picture, which was also published. Police investigated but could never find the culprits.
By the numbers
60 million vehicles crossed the bridge.
164,000 vehicles use the bridge, on average, every day.
In 1960, it was 13,460 each day (4.9 million for the year)
In 1980, 74,960 (27.4m)
In 1990, 120,000 (43.8m)
In 2000, 155,157 a day (56.7m)
In 2010, 157,488 each day (57.4m).There was a moment of anxiety in December 1958 as the rising wind slewed the floating spans.