The Story Bridge in Brisbane: a bridge that became a national monument

The Brisbane Story Bridge is a bridge in the capital of the Australian state of Queensland, and it spans the waters of the river that bears the same name as the city (named after Thomas Brisbane, the governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825). The third most populous city in Australia, Brisbane played a key role during the Second World War: it was here that the South West Pacific headquarters were set up under General Douglas MacArthur, a fact that was to have important consequences for the use of the Story Bridge, as we shall see later. Brisbane has been declared the 16th most liveable city in the world by The Economist, and the city is now preparing to host the 2032 Summer Olympics. It has several interesting structures from the architectural point of view. One is the skyscraper at no. 1 William Street, completed in 2016, which is 260 metres high; another is Brisbane City Hall, built a century ago and for many years the second largest construction in Australia after Sydney Harbour Bridge. But the feature that attracts most attention among architecture and engineering aficionados is without doubt the Brisbane Story Bridge. Let’s take a look at some of its characteristics.


The Brisbane Story Bridge: the numbers

The Brisbane Story Bridge crosses the Brisbane river, linking the northern and southern suburbs of the city: motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians all use the bridge, which provides a direct link between Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point.  In total, it is 777 metres long, 24 metres wide and 74 metres high, and it is famous as the longest cantilever bridge in the whole of Australia. We should point out that a cantilever bridge is a bridge whose structure rests on cantilevers, that is on girders that are only supported at one end: the result is one large span created from the joining of two spans extending from opposite sides. The name of the bridge is not actually a reference to a story, as one might expect: it is actually named after John Douglas Story, a prominent Brisbane civil servant.


The model for the Brisbane bridge: the Jacques Cartier Bridge

As we explain further in the following paragraph, it was decided in the 1930s to build a cantilever steel bridge to cross the Brisbane river. The model chosen as a reference was the Jacques Cartier Bridge completed in 1930, a cantilever bridge that spans the Saint Lawrence River between Montreal Island and Longueuil in Quebec, Canada. This bridge is considerably longer, reaching a length of 3,425 metres, although it is supported in the centre from Saint Helen’s Island.


The construction of the Brisbane Story Bridge

There had been a bridge over the river since 1865: the Victoria Bridge linking North and South Brisbane. However, even at the time that was built, hundreds of people were petitioning for the construction of a second bridge at Kangaroo Point. This was not acted upon until the 1920s, however, when Professor Roger Hawken of the University of Queensland was assigned the task of designing a series of bridges over the river, to reduce traffic congestion on the Victoria Bridge. A second bridge, the William Jolly Bridge, was then constructed between 1928 and 1932.

There was still no project for a bridge in the Kangaroo Point area, however. In 1933 the Queensland government finally took the decisive step, assigning the task of designing and building a third bridge over the river to John Bradfield (well-known as the chief engineer for the recently completed construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge): Bradfield proposed the design of a steel cantilever bridge, inspired by the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Canada as we mentioned earlier. The design was approved, and in 1935 the construction was awarded to a specially created consortium of two local companies: Evans Deakin and Hornibrook Constructions. Of course, one of the reasons driving the public financing of this project was the government’s desire to create new jobs during a dark period for international finance: the years of the Great Depression.

Construction began in May 1935, with the various components created in the nearby factory of Rocklea, which remained in operation 24 hours a day at times in order to complete the bridge. The first challenge facing the constructors was the creation of the southern foundations, located 40 metres below ground: to do this, pneumatic caissons were created, with the workers having to operate in an environment with pressures up to 4 times higher than normal, requiring long periods of decompression at the end of their shifts.

Little more than 4 years after the work started, the two sections met in the middle, thus completing the central span of 282 metres. Over 12,000 tons of steel were used in the construction, and over 400 people were employed on it during the busiest construction periods.


Inauguration and use

The bridge was inaugurated on 6 July 1940 by the governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Orme Wilson, and was initially given the name Jubilee Bridge, in honour of King George V; it was only later that it was given its current name, in gratitude for John Douglas Story’s dedication and commitment in the development of the city and the bridge itself. In order to recoup the costs of construction, a toll booth was constructed beside the bridge from the start, to collect a toll from every vehicle that crossed it. The bridge was only a toll bridge for a few years, however: with the heavy vehicle traffic as a consequence of American troop movements during the Second World War, the city’s coffers were soon in the black, and they were able to remove the toll booth in 1947.

The bridge is now one of Brisbane’s chief attractions; it is painted every 7 years, requiring about 17,500 litres of paint each time to cover approximately 105,000 square metres of steel surface.