IT'S strange how the past can come back to haunt you.
Looking at some old Lake Macquarie pictures of Speers Point Park, I suddenly realised it's almost 50 years since the famous Five Islands bridge there was demolished.
But the once familiar landmark at the park's edge has never been forgotten.
Built entirely of wood, it had an odd hump shape but served a crucial purpose. This ancient, iconic footbridge spanned the delta at the entrance to Cockle Creek, linking it with other smaller bridges to connect Boolaroo with Teralba.
A convenient shortcut between the suburbs, the steep footbridge consisted of four terrace levels on each side to make walking easier, leading up to the high, flat centre span. This height allowed the funnels of coal-burning steamers either entering or leaving Cockle Creek to pass safely beneath.
Built in the same era as the famous Watkins (road) bridge about a kilometre to the north, the terraced footbridge was believed to be the only remaining structure of its size and kind in NSW at the time of its demolition in the early 1970s.
Long regarded by then as a quaint relic of the past, the footbridge had once been a graceful and useful structure to get to the popular picnic ground of Speers (or Spiers) Point Park.
People regularly thronged to the park for leisure activities from May 1888, and the site became increasingly popular after a 26-room hotel (later Pippi's) opened nearby in 1901.
Originally, without new-fangled cars clogging the roads, it was a horse-drawn era. Some 10,000 people even attended the 1904 local regatta, which was also noteworthy because of hundreds of horses being present, along with the odd daring swimmer paddling in then fashionable neck to knee bathing suit.
Miners and their families from Newcastle flocked to the park for recreation, especially from 1912 onwards. Earlier, up to 600 people would camp in the park for up to six weeks each Christmas.
Wealthy Sydney businessman and alderman William Spiers had originally bought 1280 acres locally in the 1870s from an early settler. The Aboriginals had previously called the spot Milloba or Biddaba. It was here the tribes had once gathered.
The park land was finally obtained by Lake Macquarie Council in 1910 and it was used by the miners and their families for Eight-Hour Day picnics and regattas.
Then, according to Lake Macquarie Library, a start was made to build a footbridge to join the park to the five islands at the delta of Cockle Creek with Teralba. That was in 1916, but work soon ceased.
People were disappointed after having lobbied for four years to have a convenient footbridge to link the two suburbs of Boolaroo and Teralba. Canny local businessman "Fisho" Jack Richardson was not so easily dissuaded. The launch operator realised there was money to be made in bridges, but down the track.
So, in February 1927, it was announced that Mr J.H.Richardson had won a tender for the footbridge's erection for the sum of 1100 pounds. Pile driving began on March 25, but by April a storm caused many of the poles to be washed away.
Bridge building persisted, however, much to the delight of the residents who would most benefit until finally, the wooden terraced bridge was finished.
But alas, nothing lasts forever, especially a timber bridge. After more than 50 years, the Five Islands footbridge became a casualty of progress.
As today's dramatic photos show, the footbridge was demolished with a big splash in August 1973.
It followed the earlier destruction of the older road structure, the rickety Watkins bridge to the north in July 1973, after the official opening of two modern replacement concrete bridges in February 1973.
The wooden Watkins bridge had actually stood since 1899. It was named after Davey Watkins, the state MP for Wallsend. Long remembered for its planks rumbling and groaning under the weight of passing cars, trucks and buses, the bridge approach initially came from First Street, Boolaroo, before Main Road 217 was diverted via Second Street.
Many people had hoped that part of both, by then, historic timber bridges might be somehow preserved, but it was not to be.
Very little of any timber could be salvaged, but the footbridge at least did serve one final purpose - it was cut up for pensioners to use as winter fuel.
LIBERTY SHIP INSIGHTS
Remember the yarn a few weeks ago about the American merchant ships used in World War II?
These cargo vessels (usually hastily built in 42 days) were called the "ships which won the war". However, many of these "Liberty" ships developed severe hull and deck fractures, and some even broke in half in the freezing North Atlantic waters.
Little wonder maybe, as some prefabricated ships were even built in under five days.
Few of the almost 3000 wartime freighters survive today, but now here's a new, revealing insight from Hylton Hamilton, of Karuah.
"Back when I was an apprentice boilermaker in 1954 a Sydney tech teacher showed us some still secret photos of damaged Liberty ships brought into Garden Island in WWII to be repaired," he says.
"The whole bow of one ship was off. There was a big square hole. The plate was a half-inch (1.27cms) thick. This is not very well known, but during WWII our yard workers weren't allowed to tell anyone about such (horrific) ship damage, not even their wives.
"The biggest problem, I believe, about some ships breaking up was not with faulty hull metal, but with welding techniques."
Hamilton understands American welders were paid to weld ships quickly, but some cut corners to make more money.
Instead of properly welding plate seams together, some tradesmen decided to spot weld. This made the hull joins weaker, but outwardly appeared intact.
"Apparently a lot of welders went to jail over it. They were being paid to weld by the inch as a bonus. The faster they welded, the more money they made," Hamilton says.
"It all made sense to me about what happened. Many years later, in Newcastle harbour, when I was crewing on shark contractor Bob Grunsell's boat, we'd sail past two ex-Liberty tankers then still being used to deliver fuel into port on Wharf Road.
"I remember seeing one ship with extra steel plates 2ft (0.6m) wide and 1 1/2 inch (3.8cm) thick along either side, plus on deck and two plates beneath to hold the ship together. I think they were riveted on to make it stronger."
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