A short history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
The bridge connects almost a quarter of a million people a day to the northern and southern shores of Sydney Harbour.
Where it all started
Before the arrival of Europeans in 1788, both sides of Sydney Harbour, where the Sydney Harbour Bridge would later be built, were the home of the Eora people.
Throughout the nineteenth century, proposals had been raised for the construction of a bridge to link the northern and southern shores of Sydney Harbour. As early as 1815, Francis Greenway had suggested to Governor Macquarie the construction of a bridge across the harbour, and while this had never formed into anything beyond an idea, it was the first plan of many to come.
The first known plan of any proposal dates from 1857 when the engineer Peter Henderson proposed the construction of a vast cast iron bridge, spanning from Dawes Point to Milsons Point. The bridge was to be supported by two pylons, one on either side of the harbour.
This was followed in 1878 by a proposal for a floating bridge by Commissioner WC Bennett, and in 1879 by a high level bridge designed by TS Parrott. Parrott's plan included a series of piers on either side of the harbour and two larger piers positioned in the harbour supporting the roadway above. A plan by JE Garbett was actually accepted by the government in 1881 but never implemented.
John Fowler, who had been involved in the building of the Firth of Forth Bridge in Scotland, proposed a suspension bridge to cross the harbour. A tunnel was also suggested around the same period.
Enough public interest had been raised by 1890 for a Royal Commission. The hearing examined eight schemes, including a tunnel, and set out a list of criteria for any future proposed harbour crossing. These included a requirement for a high level bridge with one clear span over the waterway. Nothing further came of the ideas until 1900, when a design competition was called by the Minister for Works, EW O'Sullivan. At this point, JJC Bradfield became involved for the first time.
The erection of the steelwork commenced in September 1926. The bridge was opened to traffic six years later on 19 March 1932. The completion of the entire work, including the bridge and approaches, took eight years.
In 1988, the bridge was declared an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark during an official visit by a delegation from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
At the same time, the bridge was declared a National Engineering Landmark under the Australian Historic Engineering Plaquing Program managed by Engineering Heritage Australia.
Conservation Management Plan
The information on this page was sourced from the Sydney Harbour Bridge Conservation Management Plan (PDF, 5.8 MB).
The Conservation Management Plan for the Sydney Harbour Bridge has been prepared to provide a framework for its ongoing care and management, including decisions about its conservation, use and development, and to provide a reference for future applications for works to the bridge.
- A short history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (PDF, 1.64 MB)
- Conservation Management Plan (PDF, 5.8 MB)
A number of films, including documentaries on the opening of the bridge in 1932 and the 50th anniversary in 1982 are available on the Transport for NSW channel.
Oral history program
Transport for NSW maintains an oral history program to capture the life-long experience and knowledge of our staff, past and present.
- Sydney Harbour Bridge - celebrating 75 years
- Sydney Harbour Bridge tolling
- Sydney Harbour Bridge maintenance cranes