Story: Bridges and tunnels

Page 2. Building bridges and tunnels

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New Zealand conditions made building bridges and tunnels major engineering feats. Many were in isolated areas, where bringing in supplies was difficult. The heavy rainfall led to floods, which regularly washed away early bridges, and the humidity made wooden bridges rot. Wind could also be a problem. For tunnel builders there was a constant battle against water, and the unstable terrain and frequent earthquakes made the rock hard to work.

Wise old dog

The Waiau River bridge was awarded a prize at the 1865 Dunedin exhibition, but it was said that during a strong nor-wester a shepherd’s dog refused to cross. The dog obviously knew something because in a fierce north-west gale in November 1874 the bridge collapsed.

Overseas and local contractors

Overseas contractors were brought in for large projects such as the Lyttelton tunnel and the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Parts such as iron balustrades for bridges were often imported.

Increasingly, work was done by local companies. The tender for the bridges on the Otago Central Railway in the 1890s required the iron girders to be made in New Zealand. From the late 1870s the Christchurch firm of J. and A. Anderson’s had extensive work building bridges. In 1887 alone, Anderson’s was involved in constructing the Beaumont bridge over the Clutha, the Waiau Ferry bridge in North Canterbury, two bridges on the North Island main trunk railway, a suspension bridge over the Hope River, and eight bridges on the Taieri Gorge line. Usually they built temporary workshops close to the sites.

On some major projects, like the Remutaka rail tunnel in the early 1950s, a local firm, Downer and Co., combined with an overseas company (in this case American) to do the work.

Role of government

At first responsibility for organising bridges and tunnels lay with local communities, but from 1852 provincial governments were responsible and provincial engineers did the planning. In 1870 the Public Works Department (PWD) was set up. It appraised projects and supervised contracts. After the provinces were abolished in 1876 the PWD took on responsibility for their public works. Local projects became the responsibility of county councils, which often received loans or subsidies from the PWD.

At first the department did none of the construction, but in the 1890s they began to contract groups of workers to build smaller bridges. The Makōhine viaduct on the North Island main trunk railway line in 1902 was the first major project using contracted workers. In 1912 the department took over building the Ōtira tunnel through the Southern Alps after the private contractor, John McLean, withdrew.

The Main Highways Act 1922 set up the Main Highways Board, which took responsibility for the major highways (about one-seventh of all formed roads). The board funded many concrete bridges as road transport took off in the interwar years – in 1935, for example, it provided funds for 250 bridges. The board also initiated the Homer Tunnel, on the way to Milford Sound, in the late 1930s. From 1989 the state highway network’s roads, bridges and tunnels were managed by a new Crown entity, Transit New Zealand. In 2008 Transit merged with Land Transport New Zealand to become the NZ Transport Agency.

In the 2000s local authorities remained responsible for bridges on local roads, including many one-lane bridges in rural areas.

Party poopers

When work began on the Lyttelton tunnel in July 1861, 1,500 people assembled at the northern portal to celebrate. But the wet weather and poor-quality beer did not please the crowd, which attacked the marquee and tore it to shreds.


Bridges and tunnels required a large investment, they often took a long time to complete, and they usually promised exciting opportunities for local growth. So their progress was followed closely.

Most openings were happy, crowded community celebrations. Usually a dignitary such as a minister, or even the premier, would cut the ribbon. In 1896 the small Manawatū settlement of Āpiti celebrated the completion of a bridge over the Ōroua River which opened a direct route to Feilding. Four hundred people turned out to hear Premier Richard Seddon, followed by a banquet and music from the local brass band. The bridge over the Taieri River at Hyde was opened in 1879 by the engineer’s wife breaking a bottle of champagne against the bridge. The obligatory banquet followed.

Flat champagne?

When the Waiau River ferry bridge opened in 1887, replacing the ferry, there was a grand opening, with a huge marquee erected on the flat land near the bridge. It has been known ever since as ‘Champagne Flat’.

Bridge memorials

Bridges were sometimes seen as appropriate sites for memorials. At least three bridges recalled the dead of the First World War. The 1899 Clifden suspension bridge in Southland had memorial plaques added later; at Kaiparoro in northern Wairarapa a sturdy concrete bridge recalls the local dead; and in Christchurch the ostentatious Bridge of Remembrance was built at the spot where thousands of soldiers marched across the Avon en route from King Edward’s barracks to the railway station.

The Edith Cavell bridge on the Shotover River received its name when a local miner, miffed that his suggestion had been spurned, painted the name on the bridge and it stuck. In Central Otago, the bridge at Ophir was named after Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, probably in recognition of Irish gold miners.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Bridges and tunnels - Building bridges and tunnels', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 November 2021)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010