by Nathan McLeay*

About two kilometres across the Waitematā Harbour, from Point Chevalier on the south shore toward Kauri Point on the north, lies the Meola Reef, also known by its Māori name, Te Tokaroa (‘The Long Rock’). Geologists believe that the reef was formed when Mount Saint John erupted some 28,000 years ago, but according to Māori myth, Te Tokaroa is all that remains of the first attempt to construct a harbour bridge. In the story of Te Tokoroa, a tribe of pale-skinned, fairy-like creatures called patupaiarehe tried to build a stone causeway across the Waitematā. The patupaiarehe carried out their work at night, as their pale skin made them vulnerable to sunlight, but they were unable to complete the crossing before dawn and perished in the morning sun, leaving their unfinished bridge—the reef—behind.[1]

Like the Māori who wove into their legend a vision of a bridge spanning the Waitematā, early European settlers too recognised the possibility of such a link. Auckland had barely turned 20 when, in 1860, Ponsonby farmer Fred A. Bell produced plans for a pontoon bridge extending between Stokes Point (Northcote Point today) and Fanshawe Street. One section of the bridge was designed to retract, allowing ships to pass through. Bell estimated that his design would cost just under £16,000 to build, and suggested that a toll be levied on its use.[2] Had Bell been able to see the Auckland Harbour Bridge at the time of its completion in 1959, nearly a century later, he would no doubt have felt in some way vindicated: his 1860 plan anticipated both where the bridge would eventually be built, and the toll scheme that operated on it from its opening until 1984.

A sketch of the pontoon bridge designed by Fred A. Bell in 1860. ‘A sketch design of the telescopic bridge to span the Waitemata, proposed in 1860, at an estimated cost of £16,000’, Auckland Star, 30 June, 1931.

The far-sighted Bell was also aware of the dramatic effect a harbour bridge would have on the development of the North Shore. In a prospectus written to accompany his design, Bell predicted that a bridge would open up the North Shore and “convert its wildernesses into cultivated fields, gardens and towns”. The social state of those living on the North Shore, he claimed, would be greatly improved with the construction of a bridge, and their “conveniences and means of wealth and economy brought to par with the neighbouring city.”[3] Bell tried to float a company for the project, but investors viewed his proposal as ahead of its time, and no further progress was made.[4]

An illustration showing how the 1911 proposal might have looked. The caption reads “Bridging the Waitemata—A Dream of the Very Distant Future.” ‘Sketch of proposed Harbour Bridge from Ponsonby Wharf to Chelsea’, New Zealand Graphic, 1911, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A5640.

Public interest in a harbour bridge only intensified as Auckland grew, and from 1860 on, each successive decade saw at least one new major scheme.[5] Most of these proposals were serious and well-considered, although some were certainly more grandiose than others. In 1911, for example, the Waitematā Chamber of Commerce investigated the possibility of erecting a bridge between Chelsea and Ponsonby that would have catered mainly to trains and trams. The planned structure was to be suspended above the harbour on vast metal cylinders, with a large section devoted to rail and tramways and a smaller section for pedestrians.

An Auckland Star report on the scheme claimed that it had been drawn up and presented to the Auckland Harbour Board some year[s] prior, but the government, when approached on the question of financial assistance, had decided that “the time was not ripe for a work of such magnitude.” Although the Star saw “no immediate prospect of any practical step being taken” with regards to the revived proposal, the paper remained confident that a bridge would be built at some point, describing a bridge connecting the Waitematā’s north and south shores as a “certainty of the future.”[6]

The onset of World War One in 1914 put any prospect of a bridge on hold.  However after fighting ended in November 1918, interest was quickly renewed. In a meeting of the Birkenhead Borough Council in April 1919, Councillor E.G. Skeates sought to simultaneously address public desires for both a harbour crossing and a significant monument to the Great War. With regards to memorials, Skeates thought it wasteful to spend money on “some useless object.” He urged instead that an effort be made to convince the Auckland City Council and surrounding local bodies to combine resources or forces? in building a “permanent and useful monument.”[7] He suggested that such a  monument take the shape of a harbour bridge, the pillars of which would be named after major battles that had involved New Zealand troops. His fellow councillors agreed, unanimously approving a resolution stating that “a traffic bridge across the harbour would make a splendid and useful monument to the great peace which we all hope will soon be signed [referring to the Versailles Peace Conference]. The pillars of the bridge could be named after the great battles in which our men fought so well, shields containing the names and dates of these battles being attached to their respective pillars.”[8] Skeates’ proposal came to nothing, with the government deciding instead to build the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It would take another four decades of political manoeuvrings, planning negotiations, and construction before the dream of men such as Bell and Skeates would be realised in the opening of Auckland’s Harbour Bridge in 1959.

Read the next article by Nathan

 * Nathan McLeay was awarded a 2019 Summer Scholarship at The University of Auckland out of a highly competitive field and his award was funded by a Jonathan and Mary Mason Summer Scholarship in Auckland History. His research project explored the history of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. 

[1] James Cowan, Fairy Folk Tales of the Māori, Auckland, 1925, p.9.

[2] ‘Nothing New’, Auckland Star, 30 June 1931.

[3] ‘Nothing New’.

[4] Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority, The Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority, 1951-1961, Auckland, 1962, p.4.

[5] S.S. McGill, ‘The Bridges of the Waitemata: A History—Ancient and Modern’, Auckland-Waikato Historical Journal, No. 38, 1981, p.27.

[6] ‘Bridging the Waitemata: A Dream of the Future’, Auckland Star, 11 July, 1911.

[7] Auckland City Council Archives, Birkenhead Borough Council minute books, BCC 111, item 8, pg. 44.

[8] ‘Bridge Across the Waitemata’, Waihi Daily Telegraph, 30 April, 1919.