AS a young man living by the Hunter River at Fern Bay, Gordon Hyde realised that great concrete arch taking shape near his home would not only transport him across the water, it could carry him to a more financially secure future.
Being part of a well-known Hunter fishing and prawning family, Gordon Hyde had drawn his living from the river. But as the winter of 1970 approached, and with the returns from the water looking bleak, young Gordon decided to try his luck high above the river.
"My father and I caught 1300 pound of mullet and we got $13 for them in the co-op - before they took their commission out, I think," Mr Hyde said. "So before we got paid, I went and got a job there."
Gordon Hyde became a labourer on the Stockton Bridge construction project. Then aged in his late 20s, he worked a six-day week for three months as part of a crew tightening bolts and bars that helped secure the bridge's outside lanes. He cleared $99 a week.
"I enjoyed it," he said. "It was a bit hard on the back, bent over all the time, but it was good. The money was good, anyway, and it was so close to home, and it was terrific to see the bridge actually getting built."
Memories of the Stockton Bridge being built are bobbing up, for the arch that reaches across the Hunter's north arm is about to turn 50. More than linking one side of the river with the other, the bridge helps connect people with who they are, and where they live.
It is a bridge to a region's identity.
"For me, it's one of those signs of Newcastle," said Anna Zycki, who, as Transport for NSW's Regional Manager North, helps maintain the bridge. "It speaks to the Hunter Valley for me."
Ms Zycki remembers seeing the bridge for the first time in the late 1980s, having arriving from the NSW north coast to attend university, and being impressed by not just its size but its sheer presence.
"It's become an iconic bridge," she said. "This is one of those bridges that people recognise, and you can see it from anywhere in the city."
For Gordon Hyde, along with many of those who lived in the string of coastal communities to the north of Newcastle, from Stockton to Port Stephens, the building of the bridge held the promise of a quicker connection with the rest of the world.
Before the Stockton Bridge came into being, crossing the Hunter River to reach Newcastle meant either circling around to Hexham, a drive of about 45 minutes from Fern Bay, according to Mr Hyde. Or it meant lining up along the peninsula at Stockton and waiting to board one of the three steam-powered vehicular ferries, or punts, that chugged across the harbour.
And sometimes, particularly on weekends, those lines were long, stretching travellers' patience.
"I've seen at different times the line to catch the punts from Stockton reach all the way to the Boatrowers Hotel, which is about a kilometre up the road," recalled Doug Conway, a Stockton resident who worked on the vehicular ferries. "A lot of the drivers didn't mind stopping there; it was only their wives having trouble getting them out of the pub."
By the late 1960s, it wasn't just local motorists tiring of waiting for the punts. A rapidly growing city, with the Kooragang industrial precinct being developed just across the river from Stockton, demanded better access and quicker travel times than the punt service could offer.
In 1968, construction began on the bridge. It was to be just over a kilometre long - 1,024 metres, to be precise - comprising 23 spans.
"When it was built, it was the second longest bridge in NSW after the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so it was incredibly important at the time," Anna Zycki said.
While Gordon Hyde recalled some Stockton residents grumbled that the bridge was being built too far north along the peninsula, the position was chosen because it aligned with major routes and there was sufficient space to construct the long approaches required for the bridge.
For the Stockton Bridge was built high, with a clearance of about 30 metres. Gordon Hyde explained that was to allow the coal ships, or the "Sixty-Milers", under the bridge, as they voyaged between Sydney and a loading facility upstream at Hexham.
While some sections of the bridge were pre-made and brought in, other components were manufactured on the banks. What was also constructed by the project was employment for locals.
Reg Inglis is a Stockton man who had made his living at sea, working on ships. But for family reasons, he returned to shore and secured a job on the bridge project, skippering a small tug that towed equipment and materials to the construction site in the middle of the river. He was also at the wheel of a barge carrying concrete to the bridge. All the while he negotiated the wilful moods and turns of a river he knew so well.
"You can imagine you had a barge on a small tug, with the tides belting out and a southerly, you could have a bit of a problem," Mr Inglis recalled. "But we got away with it."
Barry Bradley was a final year engineering student at the University of Newcastle when he and his classmates were taken on an excursion across the bridge not long before it opened. He marvelled at the views of the city and the sea from the top, and at the technology involved in building it.
"It was a significant project in the day, and it still stands out today," said Mr Bradley, a consulting civil engineer. "I still think it's a proud achievement for the Newcastle fraternity and Newcastle in general."
The bridge was built for $6.5 million, or about $76 million in today's money. As Anna Zycki said, $6.5 million then "got you a lot of bridge".
When it was officially opened on November 1, 1971, the then premier Robert Askin declared, "It will be the pleasure of each and everyone of us here today, in the times ahead, to be able to say that we were associated with the opening of this great public facility here, the Stockton Bridge."
While the premier cut the ceremonial ribbon, Reg Inglis thought about gate crashing the event: "I was going to try a de Groot [who famously upstaged the politicians and cut the ribbon with a sword at the Sydney Harbour Bridge's opening], but I thought better of it."
Doug Conway revealed there had already been an unofficial opening. His father, who worked at the Stockton hospital, and a group of colleagues had gone onto the bridge, draped a section in toilet paper and ran through it.
"They opened up the bridge unceremoniously," he chuckled.
On the day of the opening, one of the old punts, the Koondooloo, carrying crew members, undertook a symbolic voyage under the bridge that had sealed her fate. What marked a new beginning for motorists was the end of an era for the three punts. They were retired.
It may have taken away his job on the punts, but Doug Conway thought the bridge was a leap forward for his community. For one thing, it meant quicker access to hospitals, as he recalled how a school friend died from an asthma attack while waiting for a punt at night.
Over the bridge flowed many more changes. Doug Conway said some businesses in Stockton closed, as customers could cross the bridge to larger retail centres. The coastal strip up to Port Stephens would be further opened up to more residents, and to the growth of industries and businesses, including the nearby airport.
"After I built that bridge, I kicked myself for letting all these strangers into my territory," said Reg Inglis.
About 19,000 vehicles cross the Stockton Bridge daily. Being such a key piece of infrastructure, maintenance crews regularly work on the bridge, including a recent $6 million project to strengthen its joints. Transport for NSW's Anna Zycki predicted the bridge would continue to service the community for many years and, for a 50-year-old, it was in fine shape.
"It's still a very modern, sleek looking bridge," Ms Zycki said of the 1960s design.
She added that owing to COVID restrictions, there would be no official 50th birthday celebrations.
But locals planned to honour the bridge in their own quiet way, for it remains a point of pride.
As he stood under the structure he helped build, gazing up at the mass of concrete and steel, Gordon Hyde smiled.
"It is massive; you don't realise until you stand here now, after 50 years, and see the extent of it," he said. "It's good to celebrate things like this."
Doug Conway thought he would walk onto the bridge and "have a couple of cans", while admiring the view down the river towards Newcastle, so near, yet so far.
"You've Christ Church Cathedral," Mr Conway said. "We've got Stockton Bridge."
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