You might be surprised to discover that Horseshoe Bridge was controversial when it opened. Although an elegant design solution to the problem of restricted space, the new bridge meant people had to walk much further to get to the city centre than the old pedestrian bridge. And this made them quite cross.
Before the Horseshoe Bridge there had been manually operated crossing gates for traffic going along William Street. After the gold boom, the number of vehicles increased dramatically and so a new answer was required. Robert Howard, a draughtsman working for the Public Works Department, drew up plans for a horseshoe bridge. The estimated expense was originally £25,000, but it was delayed for a couple of years and eventually cost an enormous £40,000.
Work on the bridge commenced in March 1903, and it was opened for traffic in June of the following year. With the exception of having been closed for six months in 2009 it has provided the main way into and out of the CBD ever since.
The old footbridge was demolished on a Sunday morning in July 1904, since it blocked clear sight of the trains from the signal station. This was when the complaints started about how much longer it took to walk over the lines. But like any local controversy it quickly blew over and now the Horseshoe Bridge is considered one of Perth’s icons.
Perth’s Horseshoe Bridge, which is named for its unusual shape, continues to be a vital crossing for entering and leaving the CBD, even though the railway is now underground. Surprisingly, though, it was controversial from the start and continued to attract debate for many years after.
When the Guildford to Fremantle railway opened in 1881 there was a gated level crossing so vehicles and pedestrians could cross the line on William Street. Each time a train came through a gatekeeper would have to open and shut the gates by hand. As the population grew after the gold rush, there were more trains and more traffic. The result was gridlock. To help the pedestrians, a wooden footbridge was built nearby in 1896.
By 1903, the State Government realised it needed to build a traffic bridge across the railway line at William Street, but there was a problem. The Railway Department did not want to spend unnecessary money purchasing private land on Wellington and Roe Streets, and so required a bridge to be designed which would only use land the Government already owned.
Robert Howard, a draughtsman working for the Public Works Department (PWD), came up with the idea of a horseshoe bridge, which would allow shallower ramps to work in a restricted space. He drew up plans and offered to sell them to the Government for £1,000. They refused, since he was an employee, so Howard quit the PWD and then sold the plans to the Government anyway.
The estimated cost of the bridge was £25,000 but it was delayed for a couple of years because no one could build it for that amount. When finished, it finally cost around £40,000. Work on the bridge commenced in March 1903, and it was opened for traffic in June of the following year. With the exception of having been closed for six months in 2009 it has provided the main way into and out of the CBD ever since.
But the new Horseshoe Bridge was immediately controversial. Since it was proposed to pull down the older footbridge, people complained that it took much longer to cross the new bridge. Many angry letters were written to the newspapers and even the City of Perth Council complained that 22,000 people had to walk over the bridge every day, meaning an extra 3,600 miles daily, or 1,140,000 miles a year for all of the residents of the City.
More controversy broke out in 1924 when the Government decided to put a double line of tram rails over the Horseshoe Bridge. Protest meetings were called, with everyone concerned about the danger to pedestrians and other traffic from the restricted space on the bridge which would result. The Government responded to these concerns by constructing the tramlines anyway, and removed a large lamp on the north side of the bridge to make more room for vehicle turning onto it. Other structural alterations were also made at this time.
The surface of the Horseshoe Bridge required regular work, since it consisted of wooden blocks on concrete covered in bitumen. By the 1940s and into the 1950s, people complained that it was intolerable to drive over it as cars were shaken so much. Unfortunately, since the Railways Department was responsible for the road parts, and the Tramway Department for the rails, it often took a lot of negotiation before anything was done.
Today, Horseshoe Bridge continues to be used by a large number of vehicles, the trams being long gone, although pedestrians now have the option of walking across Yagan Square from Wellington Street to Roe Street since the railway line was recently sunk.
Daily News, 8 July 1904
‘William-Street Footbridge,’ West Australian, 26 July 1904
‘Horseshoe Bridge,’ West Australian, 25 September 1924: 9
‘Horseshoe Bridge Tramway,’ West Australian, 3 September 1924
‘Horseshoe Bridge,’ West Australian, 23 September 1924