||The Nepean Bridge is known to the wider community as the Victoria Bridge. It carries the Great Western Highway over the Nepean River at Penrith. Until the 1850s, the Nepean River was crossed at Emu Ford or via the punt service to the south of the present bridge, which was often interrupted by flooding. A small village developed near Emu Ford, catering to the needs of people waiting to cross. With the discovery of gold to the west of the Great Dividing Range, the flow of people, produce and animals through Penrith and across the river increased dramatically. A confederacy of local businessmen gained government permission for the formation of a company to construct a bridge across the Nepean, and to take a toll for its use. The Penrith Nepean Bridge Company opened a timber bridge in January 1856. A celebratory ball was held on the bridge itself. The bridge foundations were not strong enough, however, and it was destroyed by flood in 1857, reconstructed, and again destroyed in 1860. By this time, planning was underway for the western rail line and a combined rail and road bridge was considered a good solution to the problem of crossing the Nepean. In the interval, road traffic was again carried by ferry. (Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d).
The Victoria Bridge was designed by Engineer in Chief of Railways, John Whitton, as part of the Penrith to Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls) railway line. Whitton looked to contemporary British bridge technology for the design of the bridge, which is similar to the Menangle rail bridge over the Nepean River, constructed in 1863, now the oldest surviving bridge on the State rail system. Whitton sent the design to England for checking, by engineer John Fowler. (C.C. Singleton, 1956, pp. 120-2; Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d). The design of the bridge, which uses half-through girders, which are actually tall boxes made of riveted wrought iron plates, was driven by the need to keep the underside of the bridge as shallow as possible to maximise headroom for flood clearance. The configuration of the boxes, with their tall web plates and upper box for lateral stability, reflected cutting edge design for the period. It utilised work done in the United Kingdom by Robert Stephenson and Thomas Telford and others who, by testing and theoretical work, developed techniques to prevent plate buckling (by providing frequent vertical stiffeners) and sideways buckling of the girders members (by adding torsionally stiff boxes at the top and bottom). The first deep box girder bridge was designed by Stephenson and built across the Menai Strait in 1850. It was provided with suspension towers in case the deck was insufficiently strong and stiff, but the suspension cables were never installed.
The contract for the construction of the bridge piers was let to William Tyler in November 1862. Tyler was forced to surrender his contract by a series of disastrous floods in 1863-4. The bridge designs were modified in response to the floods, the deck raised in level by 6 1/2 feet and supplied with ramped approaches as a result. William Watkins, who had also gained the contract for earthworks related to the rail line and the construction of the Knapsack Viaduct, took over the construction of the bridge piers. The superstructure was supplied by Peto, Brassey and Betts of Birkenhead, England, and erected by the same company utilising temporary timber staging across the river. The total cost of the bridge came to 110, 000 pounds. In June 1867, only a few weeks after the completion of the bridge, the greatest flood ever recorded in the district occurred, with the flood waters reaching within one metre of the main spans. The main spans of the bridge passed the test, but the western timber approaches were damaged and the bank was severely washed out. Temporary repair work made the bridge serviceable for rail traffic, but road traffic resorted to a ferry service once more until a permanent additional iron span replaced the timber section. (C.C. Singleton, 1956, pp. 120-2;Cardno MBK, 2001, pp. 33-6)
The construction of the bridge and the resulting progress of the rail line to the west from Penrith had a significant impact on the economy of Penrith. From 1863, when the rail line reached Penrith, the town became a busy rail depot and hotels and other businesses built around the platform prospered. The construction of the rail line across the river and up the difficult Lapstone Hill on the other side established Penrith as a centre for railway workers and tradesmen. However, once the work was completed, Penrith lost its status of the railhead at the end of the line. Once reliable road access across the river was in place Penrith also lost the business of travellers by road who, in flood times, had often been forced to stay in the town for several days or even weeks. (Stacker, n/d) On the other hand, the development of the Blue Mountains as a tourist destination and the growth of centres to the west of the range once the rail reached Bathurst in 1867, benefited from the construction of the bridge and railway.
For forty years the bridge carried both road and rail across the river, aptly described by Nell Aston as 'the western life line'. (Nell Aston, Rails, Roads and Ridges. History of Lapstone Hill-Glenbrook, Glenbrook Public School Centenary Committee, 1988, p. 11) The Railway Guide of New South Wales, 1879 describes the journey across the Victoria Bridge thus, 'the train sweeps noisily over the Tubular Bridge'. (The Railway Guide of New South Wales, 1879, p. 34) Crossing the bridge by road was a distinctive experience. The road section of the bridge had a timber surface with inlaid wheel guides to keep the animal drawn traffic from diverging from a straight course. With only a single lane, vehicles had to make way and wait their turn. Horses were liable to be upset by the noisy passing of the train in the enclosed space and drivers tried to time their crossing to avoid trains. In 1883, in response to lobbying by the local Member, a galvanised iron fence was placed down the centre of the bridge to separate road and rail traffic and subsequently, a warning bell system was introduced to warn road traffic of the train's approach. Accidents still occurred, nevertheless. In the enclosed space between the girders the stench from horse manure and urine was often intensely unpleasant. (Stacker n/d; Nepean Times, 28th June 1884, p. 2 col. 1; 12th January 1884, p. 2, col. 2)
In the early 1900s the demand for rail freight transport increased across the State and more powerful and therefore heavier engines were employed. The increase in weight of engines and the proposed duplication of the rail line between Penrith and Glenbrook threatened to overstretch the capacity of the Victoria Bridge. The removal of road traffic from the bridge and the retention of the bridge for rail transport alone was considered, and may have necessitated strengthening of the bridge (the sister bridge at Menangle was strengthened by the construction of additional piers). Instead, the Victoria Bridge was retained for road traffic alone, with a new rail bridge constructed approximately sixty feet to the north, opened in June 1907. The new bridge consists of five iron trusses supported on concrete piers covered with bricks. The piers of the new bridge were aligned with the piers of the Victoria Bridge to minimise water turbulence. Subsequently, the Victoria Bridge was adapted to carry two lanes of road traffic and a footway. (Palmer, n/d; Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d, Stacker, unpublished, n/d)
In the mid-1930s the timber approach spans of the bridge had deteriorated through termite attack and the timber components were replaced with reinforced concrete trestle bents and a concrete pavement supported on rolled steel joists. (Department of Main Roads, Main Roads Magazine, Vol. V, No. 3, May 1934, p. 54) Extensive negotiations between Penrith Council and the Department of Main Roads on the topic of where the work crews might camp ensued. The Council did not want workers to get in the way of the all-important tourist activities which were centred around the bridge. (Roads and Maritime Services File 5/358.123;1)
Since its construction, the bridge has attracted much attention in the local media, and within the community. The Nepean Times issues of the 1880s contain many letters regarding management of traffic on the bridge. For example, a small fire on the bridge, as a result of a spark igniting horse manure was reported, with the potential catastrophic inflagration of the entire bridge deck predicted. In another letter the installation of lamps on the bridge is critiqued due to their non-operation, leaving this important bridge in a state of darkness. In another, the augmentation of the duties of caretaker on this bridge 'reckoned to be one of the grandest in the colony' was recommended (Nepean Times, 14th April 1883, p. 2, col. 3; 20th December 1884, p. 2, col. 3; 26th January 1884, p. 2, col. 2; 19th April 1884, p. 2, col. 1) The Department of Main Roads received a steady stream of correspondence through the 1920s-40s from individuals and institutions such as the Penrith and District Chamber of Commerce regarding the modification of the enclosing girders of the bridge to facilitate views of the river when crossing the bridge. Many suggestions of how this could be achieved were furnished, but none considered to be satisfactory from an engineering perspective. (Roads and Maritime Services file5/358.123;1) Many submissions have also been made since 1950 regarding the construction of a footway outside the girders and widening of the carriageway. (Roads and Maritime Services file5/358.123;1)
The history and form of the bridge have also been popular subjects in local historical narratives and in writing on the railways. A 1907 article described the Nepean Bridge as 'an interesting object lesson of the advances made during the last half century bridge construction, and as a record of the rapid growth of railways in . . . New South Wales' (Nepean Times, 4th May 1907; 25th September 1926, p. 7 col. 2; 20th August 1932, p. 6, col. 1,2) The distinctive form of the bridge gave rise to a widespread myth that the main spans of the bridge were constructed in England to be exported to the Crimea, their sturdy design intended to withstand a Russian winter. The bridge is supposed to have ended up in NSW because Britain could not sell the bridge to her enemy during the Crimean War. (Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d)
Boating for pleasure, picnicking, and swimming have all been important activities in Penrith from the 1880s, and have centred recreational activities around the river and the Victoria Bridge. Swimming was regarded as somewhat indecent in the 1880s, and was only permitted on one side of the Nepean River Bridge, out of sight of the ladies. Several Sydney boys were arrested in April 1882 for swimming unknowingly on the wrong side of the bridge. Competitive rowing has also been a significant activity on the Nepean at Penrith, with national and international races taking place there from the 1850s (Stacker, 2002 p. 50-4; Nepean Times, 14th April 1882, p. 3, col, 30-4) In the late 1920s the space underneath the bridge (probably on the western side) was utilised as a semi-permanent camp by itinerants, much to the concern of Council. (Roads and Maritime Services file5/358.123;1, correspondence 8th May 1929)