The Nowra bridge over the Shoalhaven River is 136 years old.
It has witnessed large parts of the city’s history.
Its construction in 1881 provided a permanent, easier crossing between what would eventually become Bomaderry and North Nowra and the Nowra township to the south.
It was the focal point of the World War I Waratah recruiting march in 1915 and again for the re-enactment 100 years later, survived numerous floods in which along with the now lost Nowra Sailing Club were often used as historical height markers.
As the main connection between north and south, it has had horses, cattle, buggies and later cars and trucks travel over it.
It has seen the arrival of various items being delivered to town - in one instance when navy Wessex helicopters passed through enroute to HMAS Albatross on the back of a semi-trailer, the truck’s tyres apparently had to be deflated to allow its cargo to squeeze under bridge beams.
Of course there was also the time in May 1914 when one of Wirth's Circus elephants when returning to Bomaderry Railway Station, took it into his head to lay down on the Nowra bridge, either through sickness or taking the sulks, as they frequently do. Legend has it [whether it is true or not] the elephant was given a quantity of beer to encourage it to move on, which it eventually did but not before holding up traffic for a considerable time.
The bridge even survived being struck by a piece of heavy machinery when a Shoalhaven City Council owned roller slipped off the back of a truck in the late 1990s and damaged one of the side support trusses.
Read More: Is this the future of the old Nowra bridge?
It’s walk way has been used as a fishing location, it has at times been a popular [but not suggested] platform for youngsters to jump into the river, people have had to be rescued from on top after climbing it. It has also been the site of at least one tragic accident.
And as traffic volumes continue to grow it has slowly become part of the now regular traffic snarl each morning as motorists travelling south try to get to Nowra and beyond.
The bridge over the Shoalhaven River is the only American pin-jointed Whipple truss bridge in service in NSW.
Designed by famous American civil engineer and specialist bridge engineer, C Shaler Smith, for the Edge Moor Iron Co, a well-known bridge fabricator and builder in the USA, the crossing was completed in 1881.
It is listed on a number of different heritage registers as having both local and state significance including the Roads and Maritime Services Section 170 Heritage and Conservation Register.
The overall length of the bridge is 342m.
1914 – Trouble with an elephant on Nowra bridge
One of Wirth's circus elephants when returning to Bomaderry Railway Station with a big load of tent fittings etc, took it into his head to lay down on the Nowra bridge, either through sickness or taking the sulks, as they frequently do. And there it remained from midnight until the afternoon next day, blocking traffic the meanwhile or, at least, considerable of it; some horses were induced to pass it, while most of them had to be blindfolded. A number of people who had to travel to the station would not risk coaching it and requisitioned the motor car.
Although the elephant was ill or stubborn and refused to get up it made “breakfast” of seven loaves of bread and several gallons of colonial beer, spiced with hot ginger. By the assistance of another elephant, in the afternoon, it was lifted up and then it proceeded leisurely to Bomaderry little the worse for its lengthy stay on the bridge. It was really wonderful to see how the one elephant would put its trunk, at the direction of its keeper, under the other in assisting it to rise or, on a number of occasions during the day, lifting it on to the side of the bridge.
A number of snap shots were taken by local amateur photographers.
- The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal 23rd May 1914
The eight trusses of the bridge follow the American practice of being tall through trusses with overhead bracing above the traffic and the use of large pins at the joints significantly reduced assembly and erection times. The end truss has a span of of 56m, seven trusses of 38.5m and an approach span of 15m.
There is a 1.3m wide footway and the bridge is 5.8m wide between kerbs.
This bridge was intended for a double track railway use but schemes for a South Coast Railway to Bega never eventuated.
When the government railway was completed in June 1893 it stopped at Bomaderry, never to cross into Nowra on the existing bridge, which has been used for two-lane road traffic for over 120 years.
The bridge had a timber deck for 100 years until in 1981 reinforced concrete was laid over steel Armco decking.
The pairs of cast iron piers are original and were supplied locally by the Atlas Foundry, Sydney.
At the time it was the largest bridge project in the state prior to the 1889 Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge.
Also unique was the use of steel, imported from the USA, some 14 years ahead of its general use in NSW.
At the time popular contemporary metal NSW bridges were wrought iron, half-through, lattice truss, essentially a British bridge of riveted construction.
A newer, northbound concrete bridge built to support increased traffic flows in the area was opened in 1980.
Debate still rages as to what the future holds for the bridge, if it will stay or be removed.
Bridge of historical significance
The Shoalhaven Historical Society’s submission to Roads and Maritime Services noted the high historic significance and heritage values of the old Nowra bridge.
The society’s submission identified the bridge as not only of heritage significance but an important Nowra icon.
The submission detailed the demand for heritage and cultural tourism in NSW and identified an area for economic growth within this sector in the Shoalhaven area.
It stated the closure of the old Nowra bridge to traffic presented a unique opportunity for the planning and development of a sustainable Heritage and Cultural precinct for the Shoalhaven.
The submission supported any endeavour that would enable a sustainable and vibrant future for the bridge in its current location, fully intact, undamaged and with its unique profile preserved. It provided a list of possible uses as a starting point.
- We would love to hear your thoughts or memories of the Nowra bridge. Send a letter to the editor by scrolling to the bottom of our homepage and clicking on Letter to the editor under the heading Submit.