THE WHANGANUI River was a significant obstacle for early travellers journeying north from Wellington along the coast.

It still took, however, more than 30 years from the founding of the town of Wanganui in 1840, and 14 years from when the project was first proposed, before the river was finally bridged.

Attempts to build a bridge began in 1857 with influential citizens petitioning the Provincial Superintendent. Soon after, arguments began as to where a bridge should be sited, as ships needed access to the sheltered basin beneath Shakespeare Bluff and to commercial wharves as far up river as Aramoho.

Tenders for construction were called in December 1857, but none were received because the 5000 offered was too low. Wanganui businessmen raised a further 522 and a tender from William Hales was subsequently accepted.


The Whangaehu Bridge opened in 1858, and for a short time facilitated delivery of totara planks from the Rangitikei. But within months, floodwaters roiling with ice, sulphurous rock, timber and debris had swept that bridge away. This was almost certainly a lahar as it lasted only two hours, but the main reason for the disaster was that the bridge had not been properly piled.

Superintendent for the Wellington Province, Dr Featherstone, drove the first pile for the Wanganui Bridge in January 1859 and the contractor then drove a further 30 piles. But once again work stopped, this time due to contractual issues. By 1861 the contractor had departed. Attempts in 1862 to commission an engineer to prepare new plans came to nothing.

A new Act in 1863 authorised the levying of tolls and in 1865 engineer James Balfour re-surveyed the river and proposed a new site near Plymouth Street. This was not carried through.

Finally, in 1866 the government contracted Kennard Brothers of England to supply materials and erect a bridge for 25,347. Unfortunately this contract also failed. Later that same year, civil engineer John Tiffin Stewart met with Provincial Engineer James Hogg, and by 1868 new bridge plans were being prepared.

In July, Mr McNeil's tender to construct a bridge for 12,850 was accepted.

In late 1868 a newspaper article opined that the sounds of bridge construction would soon commence. And finally, it was true. A public holiday was declared when Superintendent Featherston came to lay the foundation stone.

"I am almost ashamed to admit that this is the second occasion that I have officiated at a ceremony at the Wanganui Bridge," he told those gathered.

The bridge was finally opened by Governor Bowen in November 1871, but it still had to be paid for. The toll was a penny for pedestrians and sixpence if on horseback. Two-wheeled carriages with springs were charged nine pence and one shilling for those without springs. Four-wheeled carriages with springs were two shillings.

Putiki Chief Mete Kingi claimed free passage in consideration of his rank and services rendered to the Provincial Government. Boys were also known to escape charge by dodging the toll-keeper. Tolls were abolished in 1883.

The bridge was made from fancy-form wrought iron girders and was designed in England by engineer George Stephenson. The stringers were totara and the hardwood deck was double-skinned with planking in two directions.

A special feature was the swing-span near the city end which allowed ships to pass upriver. Swing-span bridges were common at this time of heavy shipping movements and relatively slow methods of land transport. These bridges are designed to pivot on a central pivot-pier, and before 1900, were operated either hydraulically (using water mechanics) or by hand.

New Zealand's first swing-span bridge, the Tamaki River Bridge, had opened in 1865 and is now integrated into the Panmure Bridge Marine building in Auckland. Gas and water pipes were fitted to the Wanganui Town Bridge in 1900 and telephone wires soon followed. These services were designed to be disconnected when the swing span opened, which meant at least half an hour's delay for people wanting to cross. The last occasion when the bridge was opened was in 1902 when the Huia brought materials to repair the railway bridge. The bridge was declared a closed (non-swinging) structure in 1914 and was demolished in 1969.

-Karen Wrigglesworth is a Whanganui engineer and writer, and a research volunteer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.