Story Bridge has already featured as a Brismania adventure but since it’s Brisbane’s most recognisable site and the icon for Brismania’s banner as it comes up to its first 100 days, it’s worthy of another mention even if it doesn’t count towards the 365 days goal.
It seems to feature somewhere in the background of everywhere I go and I’ve just heard an interesting piece of trivia which led me to further investigation.
During its construction, a person was employed to sit in a little boat under the bridge to pick up rope and planking – and workers – that fell from the construction site.
It was a dangerous job for the boatman as he also had to avoid falling rivets – there are more than 1.5 million of them holding the bridge together – which had the potential to cause quite a bit of damage with a hit from that height.
Incredibly, some workers survived falling from the bridge, some landing on girders or planking at a lower level and at least one surviving a fall into the river.
One picked up by the boatman though, was part of the casualty list of construction.
In all, there were only four deaths, all by falling, during the five years of construction of Story Bridge and one of those was not a worker. Not bad considering there were 400 working on it at the height of construction, and at one stage labouring around the clock.
This compares with 16 fatally injured during the eight years of construction on Sydney Harbour Bridge not quite a decade earlier.
Construction companies Hornibrook and Evans Deakin started work on May 24, 1935. The gap between the two spans was closed on October 28, 1939 and Story Bridge officially opened on July 6, 1940.
First to die was German immigrant Hans Zimmermann, 46, a steel worker who slipped from a girder and fell 75ft in November 1937.
Second was English immigrant Alfred Jackson, 52, a carpenter who was putting up scaffolding when the plank he was standing on gave way and he fell 110ft into the river.
He was unconscious when the boatman pulled him from the water and died four hours later in hospital from internal injuries in February 1939.
The death was written as “fall from height” but the coroner added in pencil “fell from Story Bridge”.
The third was Arthur Wharton, 26, a boilermaker’s assistant from Ipswich who in December 1939, was riveting girders (his occupation was rivet heater. Rivets were almost molten when they were hammered into place) when he struck his own knee, staggered with pain and slipped and fell 120ft into the river. His body was recovered days later and his death listed as drowning.
Arthur had previously been hailed a hero when he twice clambered down the girders to grab workmen who had fallen and were hanging precariously. This time, his workmate tried to grab him but couldn’t hold on.
The fourth death was during the construction period but was not a worker. On the night of May 1938, he fell to the roadway from the gap between the two arms of the bridge which was yet to be closed.
The newspaper report didn’t spare feelings: “The man who jumped or fell from the northern arm of the new Story Bridge on Saturday evening has not yet been identified. He crashed 120ft to the roadway and was frightfully smashed about the head which was reduced to a pulp.”
It took four months to positively identify him as Albert Young, 29, from the Atherton Tableland who was fascinated by mechanics and engineering and apparently came to Brisbane and took himself on an unofficial tour of the construction site.
It’s also worth noting that Story Bridge has only one pier on the northern bank but two on the southern bank, one to bear the weight and a second anchor pier to prevent the bridge twisting. This wasn’t needed on the northern bank as it was anchored to the cliff face.
As the southern foundations dropped 40m below ground, workers were under up to four times normal air pressure and had to spend almost two hours after each shift in a decompression chamber to avoid getting the bends.
There were 65 cases of the bends successfully treated in an on-site air lock hospital.
While not wishing to harp on the subject of heritage-listed Yungaba being handed over for private ownership, it remains a pity that since a lot of the Story Bridge workers were accommodated there during construction, it wasn’t also used for a museum dedicated to the bridge and its workers as well as for the many immigrants who arrived.
For more about Story Bridge construction see Queensland’s Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages (RBDM) newsletter