By May 30th, 1959 all of Auckland and in particular the North Shore had reached a peak of excitement after a week of celebrations to mark the long awaited opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Auckland was ready at last to bridge the gap between the city and southern suburbs and the steadily growing North Shore. Everyone from churches to schools, shops to businesses was keen to herald the official opening on the 30th and welcome the bridge as part of Auckland but the story of the Harbour Bridge had been years in the making.
Plans had been put forward for the building of a bridge across Auckland Harbour since 1860 when a floating bridge was suggested by a Ponsonby farmer. After that new ideas were raised nearly every ten years until in 1946 a Royal Commission recommended the building of a four lane bridge and the pressure mounted. Finally the Government passed the Auckland Harbour Bridge Act (1950) opening the way for the Harbour Bridge Authority to form the following year and plans to be realised. The first chairman and driving force behind the bridge was Auckland Mayor Sir John Allum.
Preparation work began immediately. In 1951 land was reclaimed at Westhaven to use as a construction site. There were financial challenges to be met. The Authority had to raise loans guaranteed by the Government which gave them financial control. A five lane plan with two six-foot footpaths and a railway crossing was rejected as too expensive and so a scaled down version of four lanes only was proposed. This design submitted in December 1953 by Messrs Freeman-Fox was accepted and in October 1954 construction deals were signed.
The foundation tablet was laid in January 1956 and work began in earnest. Most of the workers with bridge building experience were imported from England . The first task of construction firms Dorman Long and Cleveland Bridge Engineering Companies was to prepare the foundations on the harbour floor, a messy job done by teams working in compressed air dredging mud and slime. The bends was one of the many dangers faced by workers on the project. Three construction workers became the first fatalities of the Auckland Harbour Bridge . Tribute has been paid to them in a plaque at Stokes Point.
Northcote Point was chosen as the northern approach to the new bridge. Extensive changes were made to the area of Stokes Point and Sulphur Beach to accommodate motorway and toll booths. Sulphur Beach , used largely by boat builders and fishermen, was greatly changed. The new motorway completely overlaid what was once beach access to Shoal Bay . Around one hundred home owners were affected by the building of a bridge over their properties. Some were bought out but many stayed and learned to live with the constant noise of traffic overhead.
Huge piers built to support the bridge structure began to appear. Numbered one from the Stokes Point side they stretched across the harbour to Point Erin at St Mary's Bay. The base of the piers are 76ft by 46ft filled with 7,500 tons of concrete. Six piers rose up out of the harbour from September 1955 ready to support the superstructure which began in December 1956.
Prefabricated sections of the bridge were built on top of spans already in place and then floated into position in the harbour on barges. The technique became known as the 'pick-a-back' bridge. Aucklanders watched in awe as a massive bridge unfolded before their eyes. Nothing on this scale had ever happened in their harbour before.
By 30th May 1959 the bridge was ready to open. Public anticipation was intense and celebrations were planned on a huge scale. Retailers were welcoming the bridge in their advertising offering 'bridge specials' and competitions. There were parades, fashion shows and dances. Auckland was claiming ownership of its bridge.
Only a handful received official invites to the bridge opening but thousands turned up a week before to take part in the mass foot crossing before it was opened to vehicles. The official ceremony at the Toll Plaza was carried out by the Governor-General Lord Cobham and the bridge came to life.
The expansion that took place in Auckland and the North Shore as a result of improved access was vastly underestimated. The 4.9 million vehicles crossing the bridge in the first year had increased to 10.6 million by 1966. Experts calculated that the bridge would reach capacity by 1970. A second bridge was reluctantly planned but a proposal came through to attach two new lanes on either side of the bridge using the existing pier supports.
The contract was given to a Japanese company (IHI) to build and fit the extensions. It was a bold move for the time just twenty years after the end of WWII when anti-Japanese feeling was still strong in New Zealand . However as the locals watched the precision process of transporting the prefabricated units across the harbour on barges and lifting them into place using two huge cranes their admiration for the engineers grew. When they were complete the extensions became fondly known as the 'Nippon Clippons'.
When it opened the Auckland Harbour Bridge was a toll road. Tolls were collected from booths outside the Bridge Authority building at Sulphur Beach and in 1959 it cost 25 cents to take a car across the bridge. The tolls were always controversial. Designed to make the bridge pay for itself and recover the loans taken out for building but disliked by many and the cause of major traffic jams in rush hour they became a political platform for many years. Finally on 31 March 1984 the Government abolished the charges and the toll booths were pulled down.
By 1984 the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority had completed its aim. The bridge had been built and was running smoothly and so the Authority was therefore wound up. The operation and maintenance of the bridge was handed over to the Ministry of Works now Transit NZ. In 1987 cracks were discovered in the clippon welds triggering a major repair job with teams on men working nightly for a year. Traffic control became the responsibility of the NZ Police who made the decision in the early 1990s to build a moveable barrier designed to prevent deaths from head on collisions in the middle lanes. The 2kms of barrier is moved four times day to accommodate the flow of traffic.
On 1st December 2001 the Auckland Bridge Climb was launched and people were able to walk over the bridge for the first time since it opened. Authorisation from bridge managers Transit NZ, the construction of walkways and safety equipment cost the company $7 million dollars to set up. The trip takes walkers under the bridge from Westhaven along to pier 2 at the Northcote end before emerging up between the bridge and clippons, over the arch and back again crossing 1.6km of bridge. The AJ Hackett company also operates a bungy from the bridge.