The “first” Sydney Harbour tunnel built about a century ago has been largely forgotten.
The tunnel, dug under Sydney’s harbour at its narrowest point between Greenwich in the north and Birchgrove in the inner west, was a technical feat involving the sort of hard physical labour almost impossible to contemplate today.
It was built for cables to supply the northern suburbs tram system from Pyrmont. Is only around two metres high. Two men could walk side by side along it. It was allowed to flood in 1930, and ceased to be used in 1969. Owned and managed by RailCorp.
In those days it was just muscles, just men. They decided that blasting in this tunnel was too dangerous, so the whole thing was done by men, with jackhammers and shovelling and wheeling.
As Sydney expanded at the turn of the century, so did its transport system of trams on the north side of the city.
Massive cables were required to run electricity to the north from the Pyrmont Power Station on the south side, and before the tunnel was built, the cables were run across the floor of the harbour.
It wasn’t long before the cables were damaged and sometimes severed, as the anchors of passing ships caught in gales dragged them along the harbour floor, cutting power to the North Shore.
Historians say it’s impressive that when NSW Railways decided to build the tunnel, they did so without the help of international consultants.
They didn’t appreciate how deep the Harbour is, so when they tunnelled down presuming they’d be in rock, they were still in the silt of the valley, [and the] tunnel flooded.
It must have been dangerous because vast amounts of water flowing in all the time and the pumps were going flat out to try and keep up with the leaking of the water.
A Sydney Morning Herald article from 1992 quoted 87-year-old worker Ted Gregory, who recalled working as an apprentice electrician and surviving two cave-ins of the tunnel. “God it was dangerous and I can’t say I relished the thought of working there. We all knew if the tunnel caved in we’d be goners,” he said.
Mr Gregory was paid several shillings a week plus sixpence in danger money.
A spokesman from Transport for NSW said authorities stopped using the tunnel because technological advances in the power grid meant the under-harbour cables were no longer required.
It is also only two metres high so it’s not high enough for any current form of rail transport, he said.
The tunnel is heritage listed and is described as “a major technological and engineering achievement & although flooded is an important element of the development of public transport in Sydney.
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