Taming Sydney Harbour: Celebrating an Icon’s 100th Birthday

An elated shriek pierces Sydney’s serene Royal Botanic Garden as the iconic Harbour Bridge comes into sight. The young woman tourist who released it rushes past me to secure a clearer view from the harbor’s edge. She merges with a throng of locals and foreigners, all standing and staring, in thrall of this architectural wonder.

They may not realize, but city planners did a similar thing throughout the 1800s. Except that these officials observed Sydney Harbour with corrugated brows. Because back then this huge body of water, which slices the city in two, was a sparkling impediment to its future.

A century ago this July, construction began on one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions. Embedded in the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s distinctive design are some extraordinary tales.

If Australia’s first and largest metropolis was to become a global city, authorities had to tame its harbor and connect Sydney’s southern and northern halves. Then in July 1923, more than a century after Sydney Harbour Bridge was first proposed, construction belatedly began on what remains the world’s longest single-span, steel arch bridge.

This problem was solved in simpler fashion many centuries before by Sydney’s traditional owners, the Eora Nation. As tourists approach Sydney’s renowned bridge and Opera House, many will now encounter a new, gleaming sculpture that explains this Indigenous history. Called bara, this nearly 20-foot-tall harborside monument depicts an ancient fish hook. Long before the British invaded Australia and seized Sydney, Eora Nation women dangled these hooks from their nawi canoes while traversing the harbor from side to side. No bridge required.

Sydney’s Harbour Bridge can be enjoyed from many angles./Ronan O’Connell

Of course, nowadays, Sydney couldn’t function without this famous structure. Home to 5.1 million people, it’s among the largest cities in the Western world, similar in size to Houston, Toronto and Berlin. Each day, about 160,000 vehicles cross the bridge. So, too, do about 5,000 pedestrians and cyclists.

No such figures are available for the number of tourists who ogle this structure each day. But based on my many visits, I would estimate it to be tens of thousands. When I last visited Sydney, its key harborside locations brimmed with camera-carrying visitors.

I understand the appeal. Even as a born-and-bred Australian, I don’t feel as though I have arrived in Sydney until I have seen the bridge. Of the 60-plus countries I’ve visited, only two other landmarks have affected me this way: the Colosseum in Rome, and the Acropolis in Athens. Considering those European icons are both more than 1,900 years old, Sydney Harbour Bridge punches above its historical weight.

From a tourism perspective, it anchors the city. A short distance away in every direction are fine attractions. South of the bridge lays the Museum of Contemporary Art, Pitt Street shopping district, Australian National Maritime Museum, and Darling Harbour entertainment precinct. To the north is Luna Park amusement complex. West is leafy, scenic Barangaroo Reserve and the hip suburb of Balmain. Head east of the bridge, meanwhile, and you’ll find the Opera House, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, St Mary’s Cathedral and the recently upgraded Australian Museum.

Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is not for the fainthearted/Shutterstock

Beyond its obvious value as a transport link, the bridge is itself a tourist attraction. Travelers can climb it in safety harnesses, float beneath it on scenic cruises, glide over it on helicopter flights, roll past it on cycling tours or enter its southern pylon tower to learn the bridge’s engaging history.

It was here that I educated myself about its past. I ascended 200 stairs to the Pylon Lookout, which offers memorable harbor and skyline views from its 87-meter perch. Along the way, I paused at a series of historical exhibits. They taught me it was 1815 when a harbor-spanning bridge was first suggested by convict-turned-architect Francis Greenway. Many more proposals emerged in the following decades, including plans for a cross-city tunnel. Eventually, in 1912, the bridge got the green light to start, only to be delayed by the outbreak of World War I.

Once Australia’s troops finally downed their guns, another army picked up its tools. More than 2,000 ironworkers, stone masons and laborers were involved in building Sydney Harbour Bridge. They constructed it from 53,000 tons of steel, 6 million hand-driven rivets, nearly 300-foot-tall stone pylons, and a pair of 28-panel arch trusses braced together laterally. Two crews each worked on one-half of the bridge. Gradually they got closer and closer together until they joined in the middle, and the 1,650-foot arch span was completed.

In 1932, the bridge was opened, and Sydney’s harbor was finally tamed.

Sydney Harbour Bridge has achieved iconic status, not just in Oz but also worldwide.

It is hard to fathom in retrospect, but both Sydney’s revered bridge and opera house were once unpopular.

Excitement rippled when work began on the latter in 1959. Soon, however, that was replaced by anger as the opera house cost 14 times more than budgeted and produced an idiosyncratic structure widely labeled an eyesore. The harbor bridge project was blighted by cost overruns, labor issues, dispossession of residents, and even a bizarre act of rebellion during its opening ceremony. Sixteen men died while building the bridge, prompting outrage at poor safety standards.

This built on widespread anger about the 800 families who lived on the bridge site being forcibly removed from their homes with no compensation. Meanwhile, the project went greatly over budget. This financial waste rankled Sydney residents, who were being pinched by the Great Depression.

By the time the bridge opened March 19, 1932, it seemed as though every mishap was now surely in the past. Almost a million people swarmed the harbor to absorb its unveiling. Then, just as the ribbon was to be cut by a local politician, it was slashed with a sword.

A fascist paramilitary leader named Francis de Groot stole the limelight. This sequence of controversies has long since blurred into the background. The bridge, meanwhile, only grows in fame and popularity with each fresh image a besotted tourist stares, just as with the Opera House.

A century since that giant team of workers were handed a monstrous challenge, Sydney remains connected, enlivened and beautified by its magnificent Harbour Bridge.