Home' Greymouth Star : August 8th 2015 Contents Saturday Afternoon
Saturday, August 8, 2015 - 7
6 - Saturday, August 8, 2015
Bridging the gap
Cobden bridge turns 40
PICTURES: History House
The Cobden Bridge construction team two weeks before the official opening: Peter Sinclair, back left, Lyn Robinson, Andrew Sinclair, Tom McGill, Pat Findlay, Neville Bellis, Ross Crisp, Billy Hill, Ginger Lee, Jim Foster, Russell Johns, Hec Sinclair, Graeme Wylde, Ben Van Meurs,
Tony Croft, relief worker (Peter Connelly), Johnny Blenkiron, Mike Shaw, Bruce Young, Errol Russ, Graham Edwards, Ian Manson, Allan Bristow, Russell Englefield, Peter Newey. Front row: Ted Pinn, Jimmy Broughton, Allan Fowler, Warren Parkin, Mike Dunn, Burt Blyth, Johnny
Logan, Terry Franklin and Albie Boyton.
The timber walkway across four spans of beams.
After the beams were placed a causeway was dug out.
A beam is transported to the causeway ready to place on the piers.
Lowering a bean on to hardened blocks on top of the piers.
Bridge were sunk just downstream of
the original bridge, solidly built of kauri
Firstly, a gravel causeway was laid across the river,
from which the large steel cylinders were sunk into
the river to allow the water level to be lowered. Piles
up to 24m long were then driven to the basement
Three piers in the main channel of the river, where
the limestone is 49m below the riverbed, were
founded on 49m-long pre-stressed concrete piles.
A total of 55 precast and pre-stressed concrete
beams, each weighing 25 tonnes, were manufactured
locally and then lifted by crane to span from pier to
The concrete bridge was designed to meet modern
standards of earthquake resistance by incorporating
hydraulic shock absorbers throughout the
In 1965, traffic counts on the old bridge showed
4000 vehicles a day and with a deck just 4.3m wide,
it had a deserved reputation as ‘the busiest and
narrowest one-and-a-half-way bridge in the world’.
Today, the new structure carries twice as much
Peter Kerr was the Greymouth Ministry of Works
resident engineer prior to and during construction.
He says a lot of preparation was undertaken before
“The present bridge was the third option due to the
location as there was a deep gully in the Grey River
below the bed level, which was 50m deep and filled
with gravel,” Peter said. “It was a reflection of the
sea level during the Ice Age. The first design was a
smaller version of the new viaduct with a long span
covering the 80m-wide gut.
“Tenders came in but it was the height of a big
building boom at the time and they were too high.
A decision was made to build a more conventional
bridge using the local MOW (Ministry of Works).”
Planning, finance arrangements and legalities were
all lined up beforehand, ensuring all the boxes were
“We had a very confident team and it was the
biggest bridge MOW had built for a long time. It
took us 20 months, and during that time we had a
good run of weather and we went for it - made use of
the weather and the conditions, as we knew we were
going to get floods.
“It was pretty much a West Coast project and the
majority of money was spent on the Coast. It was a
well-built bridge, better built than it was designed,
and it was built within a range of budget,” Peter said.
“It was a very difficult site, limestone rock sloping
and the gully area meant we had to use short piles
at the beginning and 48.8m longer piles in other
Peter credits those who worked on the construction
for producing a first-class product.
“The quality of work was first-class. The older
Kumara gang played a major part and brought a
lot of experience to the operation. They were a very
handy team of goldminers and timberworkers.”
Errol Russ was working for the Ministry of Works,
initially working in construction before taking up the
position of foreman-overseer on the bridge project.
“The MOW had an experienced bridge team and
we secured the contract and took on the job, which
was a big project. We completed it in 15 months and
within budget. I was initially working on the piles
and we had two shifts going, one in the day and one
through the night. It was pretty cold out on the Grey
River in the winter, especially with the Barber!
“We had a causeway out to each pier site and
Fergusons cranes would put the steel cylinders in.
We then de-watered using huge electric pumps from
Twizel, and like any bridge build once you get above
water level it is pretty plain sailing.”
Putting in the piles was not always straightforward
as mother nature often made its presence known.
“Being tidal, the pumps worked flat out and we
had to make use of the low tides, but we also had
a few floods which didn’t help matters either, with
causeways being washed away. In one flood we lost a
Bailey bridge and the island it was on.”
Construction work started on the Cobden side of
the river and once the bridge was nearing the three-
quarter mark, they then started from the Greymouth
“As well as the MOW there were a lot of private
contractors involved - Barrow Brothers supplied the
concrete, Dispatch did the reinforcing, among a lot
of local suppliers.
“After a big pour of concrete it was pretty social,
and Ron Thompson who had Kells Hotel looked
after us pretty good. Back then, concrete wasn’t
pumped, it was carted in wheelbarrows - there would
be 12 going back and forward at one time.”
At one time day and night there was a large crew
working on site, and MOW road gangs were also
brought in to help out.
“We had a number of our road gangs working,
doing extra jobs and assisting in the reinforcing
process,” Errol says. “The Kumara road gang was fully
involved, Pat Findlay was the foreman, Hec, Andrew
and Peter Sinclair and Ginger Leach were just some
of the workers in the gang. We also employed Labour
Department relief workers, eight at a time, we’d take
so many to help keep unemployment down.”
Russell Englefield was the on-site construction
engineer. He says the bridge was the second of two
“The first design was a very high tech bridge but
the second design was chosen and it was decided
it would be built by the local bridging staff of
Greymouth. They had built a lot of small bridges but
nothing to the scale of the Cobden Bridge, so it was
a big undertaking.
“Most of the on-site construction was done by
our local bridging team and supported by local
contractors, and all the materials came from local
The project began just before Christmas 1974,
and Russell says it took a couple of months getting
established before work actually began.
“The first job was to get in as many piles as we
could as we were concerned about flooding, but
we got right through to April without a flood and
had seven piers completed. We started from the
Cobden side as we had the railway to deal with
at the crossing, and there was a deep drop in the
Greymouth side of the river. It gave us a chance to
plan with roading, railways and with the council.
“We had done the seismic survey where the level of
rock was under the water, and from there we would
put in a test pile at every pier to confirm. A variety
of piles were put in - steel, concrete post and pre-
stressed, while the actual bridge beams were made at
the (Gladstone) pipe works, with five to a span. We
always made a couple of extra beams.”
Russell says it was a good job to work on and the
large crew made it a complete success.
“It wasn’t just the job it was the lot of people
involved. Our workers from Greymouth got right
behind the process well and truly. There was a lot
of good old West Coast ingenuity used and it paid
dividends. There was a lot of work in the river and
we built a gantry where the trucks would come out
from under it and keep the flow of work going. We
also built a concrete screen so we could screen the
concrete in one go - we finished a whole deck in one
day, which was unheard of back then.
“The completed project was something to be proud
of and the whole team made it possible, Peter (Kerr)
and the other engineers at the ministry had a great
deal of insight and foresight and ensured the bridge
was built in time and below budget,” Russell says.
While Frank McGuire worked on the bridge
construction his main role was servicing and
maintenance, ensuring all machinery on the job was
up and running.
Neville Bellis was an experienced bridge builder
and was involved from day one driving the test piles
of the bridge into the river floor, and then setting the
piers for the bridge.
“I was driving the test piles in from the Cobden
side first and headed out to the half-tide rockwall.
The rock bottom was short on the Cobden side but
then when we got to the half-tide wall it sloped
down 28m towards the Greymouth side. Once the
test piles were in we would pull them out using
manual clamps, an air wrench and hydraulic jacks.
We would then drive the bridge piles in using two
cranes. One crane would hold the pile and fit it into
a frame section, while another crane would have a
leader attached to the jib of the crane, which held a
large steel block and was guided by the leader. The
wire ropes would raise the block a metre, and then
drop on the pile.
“Occasionally we would hit a big boulder or floater,
as we called them, but we would overcome that by
tightening the guides. We had to get down into the
steel drums or cashins, as they were called, to do
work on the bottom of the leader. The test piles we
had previously put in to find where the bottom was
showed the Grey River was like a big ravine in the
main section right to the Greymouth wall,” Neville
Johnny Logan worked as a carpenter on the project
and had some memorable moments while straddling
the Grey River.
“I was working for the MOW doing general
carpentry work and did a lot of the walkways,
footpaths across the bridge plus general work on
the job in the early stages,” Johnny says. One day a
section of unsecured timber came adrift.
“I went across to the office, which was in the quarry,
making out I was going to the toilet, but actually I
had backed a horse and wanted to listen to a race.
I was on the bridge working with Bert Blyth at the
time and after hearing the race I was returning with
Pat Findlay and we stood talking for a while. My saw
was on a shutter on the bridge. Another carpenter,
I won’t mention his name, had moved the shutter,
which was 3m by 1.2m and supported by 4x2s and
heavy plywood. This unnamed carpenter had moved
the shutter to cut a little piece off as it wasn’t fitting
into the bracket properly, but he left it there to help
When I came to get my saw there was no one there,
I stepped on the shutter and next minute we were
both in the drink.
“I landed in a deep hole which was around the pile,
blew a few bubbles, but didn’t touch the bottom. I
had heavy gear on and decided to climb on to the
shutter, which ended up like a raft. They caught up
with me down across from where the ‘Big Rock’ was,
in the middle of the river across from Kings Hotel.
You would have heard me down at Hokitika - I
wasn’t too happy! My dog was running up and down
the bridge and I thought at the time he was going to
jump in after me. The other carpenter kept out of my
way after that!”
Johnny was working on the same bridge section
when fellow worker Peter Griffin had a brush with
death when a beam of the bridge went crashing into
“Peter was taking rust off the starter rods which
tie the beams to the floor of the bridge section. The
beam Peter was on, was on rubber at one end and a
jack at the other end.
“I believe it was that same unnamed carpenter who
had this large beam balancing on this little jack. The
beam tipped, with Peter on it, and he went down
with it -- he was very, very lucky. I saw it all happen
from where I was.
“There was a hell of a splash and somehow Peter’s
head appeared in the river, then he grabbed a rope
by the pier. He sustained a badly broken leg, and the
beam was stuffed.”
Ever since the Grey River was first bridged in 1886, consummating the
marriage between Cobden and Greymouth, the bridge has been a lifeline
for the town as people, traffic and goods have come and gone. With the
40th anniversary this weekend of the opening of the current bridge,
PAUL McBRIDE tracked down some of those who worked on the
biggest construction job on the Coast in 1974-75.
A pier takes shape.
A beam is transported from Gladstone.
The causeway leading from the Greymouth side.
This truck struck problems transporting one of the beams.
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