Kirwans Bridge still standing, 128 years on

By Shepparton News

When noted Shepparton bridge builders James Dainton and James Hesford constructed Kirwans Bridge across the Goulburn River near Nagambie in 1890, it is a fair bet they would not have thought it would still be serving the community 128 years later.

A new information board, located near the timber crossover, explains the highlights of its life and near-death during the years.

Visitors have always admired the unique bridge, with its unusual bend, and can now read the fascinating story of its long and colourful life.

At 310m, the longest timber bridge in Victoria is significant for its strutted-corbel design in the section across the main river channel.

Remnants remain visible, together with original red gum beams.

One of four surviving timber bridges (two are closed) across the Goulburn between Seymour and Murchison, it is protected under the Heritage Victoria Protection Act 1995.

The construction of Goulburn Weir in the late 1880s meant water was no longer confined to the Goulburn river channel.

New wetlands and backwaters were created upstream of the weir.

The wider river meant the almost-new Kettels Bridge, built to replace Kettels punt, no longer served its cross-river purpose.

Waranga Shire, on the west bank, led construction of a new bridge, named after the Kirwan family, which held land along the river.

Kirwans Bridge was opened late in 1890, linking mining, farming and forestry activities near Waranga Shire’s Bailieston and Whroo, to Nagambie, headquarters of the east bank’s Goulburn Shire.

The 291 piles and indeed the whole of the bridge were positioned during 1890, a fine achievement.

Construction was hampered by the failing search for bedrock near the deepest part of the river.

The planned alignment had to be altered during construction, creating the unique bend and it is understood to have cost £9000.

Folklore attributed the bend to a dispute between engineers from the two shires; a colourful yarn lacking in fact.

However, the minutes of council meetings of both shires show decades of disputes and spirited claims that bridge maintenance was being neglected by the other shire.

Both had agreed to share responsibility.

Decking, railing and surfacing (asphalt and gravel on occasions) all required regular attention.

The most serious repairs last century followed major flood damage in 1916, after water flowed over the decking.

Several piles were replaced, each of length 55feet (16.7m).

In 1955, the second traffic lane was abandoned, retaining space for the two vital passing bays.

Goulburn Shire requested private donors to contribute to the Country Roads Board works to retain the bridge.

More than 50 subscribers gave almost £1300 to help keep the bridge open in 1956.

This was to be the first of three community campaigns.

Strathbogie Shire closed the bridge for several months in 2000, amid safety concerns.

The local community lobbied for more than two years for restoration works and repairs to be funded jointly by the federal and Victorian governments, Strathbogie Shire and Heritage Victoria.

The works were finally completed in 2004, prompting local celebrations at the reopening on September 11.

A load limit raised to 13tonnes allowed the local fire truck to cross when full of water.

These repairs cost $790000.

In 2010, the contractors who did the repairs six years earlier inspected the bridge.

They recommended further works estimated to exceed $1.2million.

Fearing the worst, a Kirwans Bridge Action Group campaigned statewide to raise awareness and to obtain priority combined government attention, as Strathbogie Shire Council voted unanimously for closure in June, 2010.

The action group then raised funds to pay for a second opinion, finding respected bridge engineer Peter Yttrup from Geelong, who proposed a treatment for the critical timbers with expected 30-year efficacy, costing less than $100000.

The bridge was unavailable for more than 12 months, but was reopened in 2011, amid renewed community celebrations as local resident Alice Thomas, 86, cut the ribbon from her motorised scooter.

The bridge has been and remains a vital link for residents, travellers, farmers, tourists and emergency service vehicles.

For all Victorians, it stands as a magnificent tribute to the original engineers, and all construction and maintenance workers since 1890.

The new information board was initiated and funded by local residents, the timber shelter being the work of Rushworth timber workers Ted and Wally Jones, and the artwork completed by Stanhope’s Karl Devlin.

The board invites its travelling readers to enjoy the view of the wetlands and respect the vehicle speed limit, for their own safety and to help preserve this wonderful piece of Goulburn river history.