Tuesday, September 18, 2012

More Than a Coat Hanger

By Alli Sinclair

As we’re writing about bridges this week, it would be remiss of me not to blog about one of Australia’s greatest icons—the Sydney Harbour Bridge. No matter where you fly in from, if you’re lucky enough to be on the side of the plane that allows you views of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera house as you come in to land, it’s an unforgettable experience.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is more than a means of getting cars, trains, and bicycles across the harbour—this bridge contributes to this city’s rich personality and helps bring millions of tourists to Australia’s fair shores.

Affectionately known as “the coat hanger”, the bridge was opened in 1932. The design was loosely based on the Hell Gate Bridge in New York and is the world’s fifth longest spanning arch-bridge. At a height of 134 metres (440 feet), the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the tallest steel arch bridge in the world.

In 1815, Francis Greenway originally conceived the idea for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, however, invitations for people to submit a design weren’t requested until 1900. Authorities didn’t find a suitable design so the idea was shelved until after the First World War. In 1922, English firm Dorman Long and Co won the contract and construction finally started in 1924. It took eight years to complete and needed 1,400 men, six million hand driven rivets, and 53,000 tonnes of steel to build the bridge.

As with any great piece of architecture, it’s not without drama. On March 19, 1932, the Premier of New South Wales, John Lang, prepared to cut through the ribbon to declare the bridge officially open. But Captain Francis De Groot of The New Guard political party raced forward on his horse and slashed the ribbon with his sword. He believed only a member of the royal family should open the bridge and after he was detained and the ribbon tied together, the Premier cut the ribbon.

It takes 485,000 square metres (5,220,496 square feet) of paint to coat the bridge. If that makes the mind boggle, think of it this way—the bridge requires 30,000 litres (7,925 US gallons) of paint.

Since 1998, it’s been possible to scale the bridge with a registered company. Secured to the bridge by safety wires, participants climb from the eastern side of the bridge to the summit, and over the arch to descend on the western side. On average the experience takes three-and-a-half hours and offers some of the most spectacular views in Sydney. The trip is for the fit, but if you can muster the strength and energy required, it is well worth the effort.

Sydney Harbour Bridge's most famous rigger, Paul Hogan, was interviewed in in the 70's by an Australian television show about his work on the bridge. Because of his comical behavior and charm as an "everyday Aussie bloke" during the interview, he became a hit with the audience and went on to host his own television shows and eventually star in the international hit, Crocodile Dundee. 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an integral part of Sydney’s landscape and has been involved in many celebrations of the city. In 2000, one million people walked across the closed bridge for the Walk for Reconciliation, to represent crossing the divide in response to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations inquiry.

For anyone near a television, they will also remember the wonderful fireworks and lighting of the bridge for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. And every year on the 31st December, the bridge comes alive with fireworks in celebration of ringing in a new year. The bridge has also been closed for picnics with live music and there is a view to making this a yearly event.
It’s hard to imagine Sydney without the Harbour Bridge as much as it is difficult to picture the city without the Opera House. The landscape of Sydney, both manmade and natural, gives this city a unique personality that once people have experienced, find hard to forget.

Sure, I come from Melbourne and if you talk to anyone from Australia, you’ll know Sydney and Melbourne have a rivalry second to none. But I have to concede and say as far as architecture goes, the Sydney Harbour Bridge holds a special place in most Australian’s hearts, and I’m proud to have such a wonderful icon in our country.


  1. Very nice, Alli. Glad you mentioned the paint.

    And who was the most famous Sydney Bridge painter of them all?

    — jules

    1. Ah, yes and how could I leave him out of this piece? Thank you for the reminder Jules (and I've added in a paragraph and photo thanks to you!).

  2. Alli, want to know if you--inveterate explorer that your are--have climbed the bridge. Thanks for telling us about it.

    1. Patricia, I am sad to say I haven't done the climb--yet! Stay tuned!

  3. Lovely bridge, Alli. And of course, I'm curious about the drama surrounding it. So was Captain De Groot close enough to the royal family that he felt he could cut the ribbon instead of the Premier? His name sounds, um, Dutch...

    1. As far as I understand Captain De Groot was affiliated with a political party who strong believed in the monarchy, hence his wish to have a royal cutting the official ribbon. After he was arrested he got off on the charges by being declared clinically insane. They tried to charge him with carrying an illegal weapon but because he was in the military, he was allowed to. Then they tried to charge him with offensive behaviour but at the time the law only applied to public property. The court had to decide if the bridge was public or private, because it hadn't been officially opened.

      Here's an article from an Aussie newspaper with the original story in 1932:


  4. Hi Alli,
    You should do a bridge climb - it's amazing. I've done it a few times (taking others along for the trek) and it's always different. That view never grows old and looks fabulous even on the ycky days :)

    Thanks for the post.


    1. Cath, I would love to do it one day! And how cool you've had the chance to do it a few times. Sydney is gorgeous no matter the weather, huh?