Fourteen miles up the harbour from the ocean entrance at Sydney stand two bridges that are the access route over the Parramatta River from Concord to Ryde. One, a railway bridge, was opened in 1886 as part of the construction of the Main Northern railway line. It was a lattice truss bridge designed by John Whitton, the Chief Engineer of the New South Wales Government Railways., while the other, a road bridge, was opened in 1935.
The road bridge is six hundred yards downstream from the railway bridge and has a lift span which was occasionally opened to allow fairly large vessels with cargoes of timber to pass through to the timber mills on the Concord shore between the two bridges. However, the railway bridge has no moveable span; but its head room of 38 ft. above mean high-water was sufficient to enable the Parramatta River ferry steamers to pass beneath it. To any vessels with a top hamper higher than that the Ryde Railway Bridge was, and still is, an obstacle to further progress.
The Ryde Railway Bridge was built in 1886 as part of a grand plan that had been maturing thirty years, a plan to connect Sydney by rail with Newcastle and the Great North, which already had its independent railway system since the 1850’s. That joining of the two major systems required bridges across Sydney Harbour and across the Hawkesbury River, each being a major enterprise in terms of the engineering techniques of the period, and of the need not to impede navigation by vessels with high masts. As railway bridges could not be properly built with moveable spans, high-level bridges were required; but, for reasons of expense, a head room of 38 ft. was considered enough to permit up-river navigation, on both the Parramatta River and the Hawkesbury River, for vessels of restricted masthead height.
The building of that Great Northern Line, from its junction with the Great Western Line at Strathfield, to run through Concord and Ryde, and so to Hornsby and the Hawkesbury River Bridge, was a stretching out of a tentacle of the Octopus of Sydney to reach Newcastle, the Hunter River and all the Northern Rivers and Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.
Its effect was to destroy, gradually, most of the coastal shipping that had formerly carried passengers, mails and general cargos to and from northern “outports” – the sea route was too slow for people in a hurry.
Another effect was to add to the centralisation of trade and industry and so of population and political power, at Sydney. The Ryde Railway Bridge – which is nowadays also known as Meadowbank Bridge, that being the name of the immediate vicinity on shore at its northern end – is 10.5 miles by rail distance from Sydney Central Station to the Concord end of the bridge. The river is 300 yards wide where the bridge crosses it.
Another effect of building the bridge was to develop the western suburbs on the north side of the Harbour as residential areas. By that route the distance from Sydney Central to Hornsby is 21 miles. Suburbs, including those with “colonial” names such as Epping and Cheltenham, were developed between the Ryde Bridge and Hornsby as residential districts for people who travelled (and still travel) daily to and from work in Sydney by rail.
The Ryde Road Bridge was built in 1935, to replace a vehicular punt ferry that formerly crossed the river (400 yards wide at that part) from Uhr’s Point to Ryde. That route to the Great North is a continuation of Concord Road, which branches from the Great Western Highway at Strathfield, and the railway runs parallel with it and near to it all the way to the bridges.
Uhr’s Point was named in honour of George Richard Uhr, Sheriff of Sydney, who built a prominent house there in the 1840’s.
The two bridges have their southern abutments on the river-shore to the westward of Brays Bay, named in memory of John Bray, who lived there and built the first house in Concord. He was one of the original ten settlers who were granted land in 1793 by Major Grose.
As part of plans to quadruple the Main North line, construction commenced on a new bridge to the west of the existing structure. The concrete piers were completed in 1952, before the project was cancelled. Work resumed in the 1970’s, with a two-track box girder bridge opening in May 1980. The piers were extended to allow for a further two tracks to be built in the future. The new bridge was named after John Whitton. In 2000, the original rail bridge was refurbished and reopened for bike and pedestrian use.