Bridging the Waikato River
Cambridge's Victoria Bridge under construction, 1907
Initially a punt operated across the Waikato River but Cambridge citizens soon demanded a permanent bridge. In 1870 a site was chosen where the Fergusson Bridge is today. At the time the river was at a record low so it was not difficult to bore holes to insert foundation piles.
Sub-Inspector Newall and Sergeant Chitty of the Armed Constabulary supervised the job which was completed the following year.
During November 1874, the river rose eight metres within a few hours. The torrent lifted the timber bridge and swept it downstream to Hamilton, where it was rescued by the Armed Constabulary before it collided with the newly erected bridge at Ngāruawāhia. Apparently a constable bravely swam to intercept the bridge and secure it by rope to the shore. As a result of Cambridge losing its bridge, the old punt was brought back into service.
During 1876 a Howe Truss Girder bridge was constructed on the same site. It was 45 metres long, 3.5 metres wide, 4 metres higher than the demolished bridge, and cost 2,345, the Government promising half. It became known as the Red Bridge, as it was painted with red leadoxide paint. The bridge was finally dismantled in 1909. The kauri piles that were driven into the banks were found in 1962 while constructing the Fergusson Bridge.
Cambridge's Victoria Bridge, a high-level cantilever or steel arch bridge and a first for Australasia, was constructed in 1907. The bridge pieces, manufactured by the American Bridge Company of New York and shipped to Auckland as a kitset, were railed to Cambridge and Te Awamutu on each side of the river. The Governor, Lord Plunket, opened the bridge on 21 December 1907.
The bridge is 141 metres long including a 88 metre central arch and 5.2 metres wide. The decking was six inch thick heart totara which was tarred and coated with sand. The total steel weighed 330 tons, and about 20,000 rivets were driven by pneumatic hammers. The total cost was 14,305 4s 8d.
The first motor car to cross the bridge was driven by Miss Jeffries, while the mayor, W.F. Buckland, Robert Fisher and John Ferguson shared the first horse and buggy.
The present-day Fergusson Bridge, named after Governor-General Sir Bernard Fergusson, was constructed on the exact site of the Red Bridge, opening in 1964.
Edited excerpts from the book 'Waipa Home of Champions: Celebrating 150 Years'. Written and produced by historians Richard Stowers and Kingsley Field.