How Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge could have looked very different

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The Sydney Harbour Bridge almost looked very different to the iconic landmark we all know and love today.  

The Australian government ran four separate community competitions between 1900 to 1924 to find the perfect design for a connecting bridge between the city’s north and south.

Prior to the bridge’s construction, the ferry system held a monopoly on the waters, offering the only means to travel between the two sides of the ever-expanding New South Wales capital. 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge almost looked very different to the iconic landmark we all know and love today (pictured) 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge almost looked very different to the iconic landmark we all know and love today (pictured) 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge almost looked very different to the iconic landmark we all know and love today (pictured) 

The Australian government ran four separate community competitions between 1900 to 1924 to find the perfect design for a connecting bridge between the city's north and south (pictured is a proposed design) 

The Australian government ran four separate community competitions between 1900 to 1924 to find the perfect design for a connecting bridge between the city's north and south (pictured is a proposed design) 

The Australian government ran four separate community competitions between 1900 to 1924 to find the perfect design for a connecting bridge between the city’s north and south (pictured is a proposed design) 

Dozens of designs were submitted for the bridge across the years (pictured is a proposed design)

Dozens of designs were submitted for the bridge across the years (pictured is a proposed design)

Dozens of designs were submitted for the bridge across the years (pictured is a proposed design)

With more than 5 million people using the ferry service annually by the 1890’s, the government began seriously considering the prospect of alternative travel.

Suggestions varied widely from a three pronged bridge to filling in the harbour entirely, and even a very early and forward-thinking sketch of a harbour tunnel.

Ultimately, it was John Bradford’s cavernous arc bridge that won over politicians.

State Library of NSW curator Anni Turnbull told the Sydney Morning Herald is it ‘remarkable that it actually got built’.

Prior to the bridge's construction, the ferry system held a monopoly on the waters, offering the only means to travel between the two sides of the ever-expanding city (people catching a ferry in 1900)

Prior to the bridge's construction, the ferry system held a monopoly on the waters, offering the only means to travel between the two sides of the ever-expanding city (people catching a ferry in 1900)

Prior to the bridge’s construction, the ferry system held a monopoly on the waters, offering the only means to travel between the two sides of the ever-expanding city (people catching a ferry in 1900)


Other designs included cantilevered bridges and flat iron bridges, which would have halted shipping in and out of the harbour

Other designs included cantilevered bridges and flat iron bridges, which would have halted shipping in and out of the harbour

Other designs included cantilevered bridges and flat iron bridges, which would have halted shipping in and out of the harbour

The bridge enthusiast has spent her career pouring over the designs that were shortlisted or submitted over the years, and acknowledges that while some were conservative and well thought out, others bordered on fantastical. 

‘Then there was an idea for a pontoon bridge that would swing around, and then the other one that we’ve got is the 1840 design for a floating bridge, and I don’t know how that would have worked frankly,’ she said.

Other designs included cantilevered bridges, a stiffened suspension bridge and flat iron bridges, which would have halted shipping in and out of the harbour, and an underwater tunnel; the latter of which was posed in a pill to parliament in the 1890’s. 

‘I don’t know how they would have dug the tunnels then,’ she said. 

Norman Selfe tendered multiple drafts to be considered throughout the years, one of which was the winner of the competition run to find the perfect design. Despite this, he couldn't win over parliament with his plans (pictured is one of his early submissions)

Norman Selfe tendered multiple drafts to be considered throughout the years, one of which was the winner of the competition run to find the perfect design. Despite this, he couldn't win over parliament with his plans (pictured is one of his early submissions)

Norman Selfe tendered multiple drafts to be considered throughout the years, one of which was the winner of the competition run to find the perfect design. Despite this, he couldn’t win over parliament with his plans (pictured is one of his early submissions)

Suggestions varied widely from a three pronged bridge (pictured) to a very early and forward-thinking sketch of a harbour tunnel

Suggestions varied widely from a three pronged bridge (pictured) to a very early and forward-thinking sketch of a harbour tunnel

Suggestions varied widely from a three pronged bridge (pictured) to a very early and forward-thinking sketch of a harbour tunnel

The three span bridge was proposed by Ernest Stowe, an architect of the era. He suggested a central tower linking Sydney to the North Shore and Balmain

The three span bridge was proposed by Ernest Stowe, an architect of the era. He suggested a central tower linking Sydney to the North Shore and Balmain

The three span bridge was proposed by Ernest Stowe, an architect of the era. He suggested a central tower linking Sydney to the North Shore and Balmain

The three span bridge was proposed by Ernest Stowe, an architect of the era. He suggested a central tower linking Sydney’s inner city to the North Shore and suburb of Balmain.

Norman Selfe tendered multiple drafts to be considered throughout the years, one of which won the competition for perfect design. Despite this, he couldn’t win over parliament with his plans.

The monument itself did not begin construction until 1923 and was not complete until March 1932 – nine years later.

The bridge, which is the world’s tallest single span bridge, cost 16 men their lives during the construction period. 


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