Raleigh Bridge reopens after $3.3 million facelift

Bridges are a crucial connection between the communities on either side of a river, so it is no wonder that 94-year-old Joan Prater still vividly recalls the celebrations when Raleigh Bridge opened in 1935.

With her parents Len and Mary Wheaton, she watched her great-aunt Kate Pritchard officially open the bridge on the Great Pacific Highway joining Raleigh and Repton.

"I remember it very clearly," Joan said. "There were lots of people. We all rocked up in our open tourer cars and thought it was a wonderful day. A real get-together."

Nine year old Joan with her parents Mary and Len Wheaton at the opening of the Raleigh Bridge on 2nd March 1935

Nine year old Joan with her parents Mary and Len Wheaton at the opening of the Raleigh Bridge on 2nd March 1935

Joan was nine years old at the time, and her great-grandparents were among the first settlers at Urunga.

She said that because Granny Atherton was 93 and unwell, her daughter Kate, one of the first white children born on the Bellinger River, was asked to do the honours.

A report in Brisbane's Telegraph on Monday March 4, two days later, highlights the significance of the event:

"Thousands of people assembled from every part of Bellinger River and the adjoining districts to celebrate one of the most important advances in road development, not only of the Bellinger Shire area, but of the whole of the North Coast."

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Nowadays the bridge is off the main highway, but it remains an important link in the road infrastructure of the area, joining Raleigh, Urunga, Bellingen, Repton and Mylestom, so its reopening on Saturday after extensive rehabilitation was cause for celebration.

Urunga Lions Club were there handing out sausage sandwiches and drinks, people were invited to bring their families to walk or cycle across, and Joan Prater came along to cut the ribbon.

Roads and Maritime Services Director for the Northern Region, Vicky Sisson, and Oxley MP Melinda Pavey both thanked the community for their patience during the 10 months that the bridge has been closed to traffic.

The $3.3 million facelift, originally supposed to take a year, finished two months ahead of schedule and involved removing lead-based paint, repairing corroded sections and repainting.

In her speech, Melinda Pavey pointed out three families present with special connections to Raleigh Bridge.

As well as Joan Prater and her family, there was also Janette Sutton, whose family owned the nearby farm and organised a party with dancing on the bridge when it opened in 1935.

Cousins Helen Millan and Susan Habgood, whose grandfather died while building the bridge, also came to the reopening.

Cousins Susan Habgood and Helen Millan, whose grandfather William David Hooker died during the building of the bridge

Cousins Susan Habgood and Helen Millan, whose grandfather William David Hooker died during the building of the bridge

"He was underneath the bridge in a boat doing something to the pylon when they released a jack above him that had been supported with some pieces of wood," Helen said. "The wood fell, and one of the pieces hit him on the head and he was critically injured. He never regained consciousness."

William David Hooker had 12 children and was 58 years old when he died.

He was a veteran of the First World War who had been gassed on the Western Front.

"If there's a positive to that story, I think it's that only 12 to 18 months before, a compensation scheme came in for workers on state government projects," Melinda Pavey said.

"So his wife was able to buy a house in Briner St Bellingen, the block of land next door, and a milking cow. She still had seven of the children at home."

Raleigh Bridge is now open for business and RMS say it will be used by more than 1500 vehicles each day.

Raleigh Bridge, 11 May 2019. Photo by Peter Lister

Raleigh Bridge, 11 May 2019. Photo by Peter Lister

The Telegraph, Brisbane

ANOTHER BRIDGE OPENED

Improving Great Pacific Highway Activity in N.S.W.

GRAFTON. March 4, 1935

The new steel and concrete traffic bridge spanning the river at Raleigh, on the Great Pacific Highway, was officially opened on Saturday afternoon by Mr. H. H. Newell (Commissioner of Main Roads).

Thousands of people assembled from every part of Bellinger River and the adjoining districts to celebrate one of the most important advances in road development, not only of the Bellinger Shire area, but of the whole of the North Coast.

The Acting Prime Minister (Dr. Earle Page) said that Australia was sixth in the list of the countries with the greatest number of cars, and thus marched in the vanguard of progress. Since 1923 the number of vehicles increased from 175,000 to 617,000, and the number of vehicles per 1,000 from 36 to 93. Dr. Page said that 10 years ago the North Coast was practically bridgeless, and the highways were in a shocking condition.