‘Portal to a Brighter Day’: Narratives of Progress and the Opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge
by Nathan McLeay*
From 1955 to 1959, Aucklanders watched as a bridge gradually began to take shape across their harbour. The Waitematā, beautiful and usually so serene, was transformed into a stage for one of the largest and most complex construction projects in New Zealand’s history. Those on the quiet North Shore were particularly affected. Where residents of Northcote Point might once have looked over a tranquil harbour scene to the city on the opposite shore, their view now bustled with building activity. For those who lived in close proximity, excitement about the construction might quickly have worn off, but for plenty of Aucklanders, the project’s progress was a matter of ongoing fascination. In 1957, a watchman at the Northcote building site reported that as many as 50 sightseers would clamour to the area during weekends. Much larger numbers visited on the city side.
The most widely observed episode in the bridge’s construction came in November 1958. This was the famous “pick-a-back” operation, devised as a means to install the large span between the bridge’s second and third piers. The so-called pick-a-back span was first built astride three smaller spans already in place at the city end of the bridge. One of the small spans was then disconnected from its neighbours and using pontoons on a rising tide, was floated off its piers, carrying the larger span on its ‘back’. The precarious-looking assemblage was then towed out to mid-harbour, where it was moored until calm weather and a falling tide permitted the larger span to be lowered into place. The smaller span was subsequently returned to its original position. (Footage of the operation can be viewed here, courtesy of Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). The operation, one of the largest “float-ins” ever undertaken, attracted significant local and international interest, and images of the pick-a-back span floating into place are among the most iconic of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
As the bridge neared completion, the question of an opening celebration became increasingly urgent. Less than four weeks before the bridge’s scheduled opening date of May 31, 1959, the Auckland Provincial Public Relations Office decided that the occasion would be marked with a “cavalcade of progress,” featuring floats decorated to symbolise Auckland’s development over the past century. The procession was set for June 1, and a 28-kilometre route was plotted, starting at the Auckland Domain and ending at King Edward Parade, Devonport. In addition, several smaller events were planned for the week leading up to opening day. These included a week-long contest to crown a Takapuna Bridge Queen, a century ball on May 26–with patrons asked to dress in early colonial costume–and a pie-eating contest on May 29 (prizes were awarded for both speed of eating and most pies consumed in one sitting). Seeing a marketing opportunity in all the bridge hype, a number of Auckland stores offered bridge specials. After considerable build up, the bridge was opened on May 24 for the public to cross on foot. More than 106,000 people made the bridge “pilgrimage,” as the Auckland Star described it, over a tenth of Auckland’s population at the time.
The bridge was officially opened to traffic a week later, at 3pm on May 31, 1959. Within an hour, more than 3500 vehicles had made the crossing. By 8pm, that figure had risen to almost 14,000, despite a raft of breakdowns and empty petrol tanks that caused an almost 10 kilometre traffic jam stretching across the bridge from the King’s Wharf power station, through the Fanshawe Street approach and all the way to Halls Corner, Takapuna.
The opening of the bridge was celebrated in Auckland as a triumph of planning and progress, though the traffic delays on its first day of operation offered some hint as to what was to come. In a piece that appeared in the Auckland Star two days before the bridge opened, Prime Minister Walter Nash made the expansive claim that projects such as the bridge were integral to the upkeep and advancement of civilisation:
“Auckland’s harbour bridge, a magnificent engineering achievement, is an impressive adornment to a beautiful harbour, and an effective transport channel. It is all these things, but above all, it is a stirring symbol of the spirit of development that is moving New Zealand today. Civilisation and all its benefits—in both the economic and social fields—is based on smooth, rapid transport: transport of people, whether for work or pleasure; transport of freight, whether of raw materials or finished goods; and transport of culture and information. If those movements broke down so would civilisation and our whole way of life. Any vehicle or thoroughfare that improves our transport facilities helps in the development of New Zealand, economically, socially and culturally.”
Coverage of the bridge opening was saturated with the theme of progress. The Auckland Star hailed the opening of the harbour bridge as the beginning of a new era of unity between Auckland’s two shores, an era which the paper anticipated would see the “release of new forces to consolidate Auckland’s present progress and stimulate further advancement.” On the cover of a souvenir supplement published to commemorate the opening of the bridge, the New Zealand Herald printed an excerpt from David B. Steinman’s poem The Bridge at Mackinac:
Generations dreamed the crossing;
Doubters shook their head in scorn.
Brave men vowed that they would build it—
From their faith a bridge was born.
There it spans the miles of water,
Speeding millions on their way—
Bridge of vision, hope, and courage,
Portal to a brighter day.
The poem would have resonated with how many in Auckland felt about their bridge. More than just another piece of public infrastructure, the bridge was seen as a powerful symbol of the city’s vitality and enterprise, and a significant step toward a better Auckland—a “portal to a brighter day.”
Aucklanders were in high spirits as they prepared for the “cavalcade of progress” that formed the centrepiece of their bridge-opening celebrations. The parade was wildly popular, attracting what was estimated to be the city’s largest-ever crowd. (Footage of the Auckland Harbour Bridge opening and ‘cavalcade of progress’ can be viewed here, courtesy of Archives New Zealand).
The completion of the harbour bridge was for many Aucklanders a cause for optimism. The bridge was pointed to as an example of the vision and enterprise of the city’s planners and public officials. “In the short period of the post-war years,” remarked one journalist in the May 29 issue of the Auckland Star, “Auckland has seen more realistic and positive planning than in the whole previous 119 years of its history.” As Aucklanders would soon find out, the progress that the bridge offered came with limits, and at a cost.
*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
 Renée Lang, Auckland Harbour Bridge: 50 Years of a City Icon, Auckland, 2009, p.24.
 “The Building of an Icon,” E.nz Magazine: The Magazine of Technical Enterprise, 9, No. 1, 2009, pp.18-19.
 Auckland Provincial Public Relations Office, Cavalcade of Progress Official Programme, Auckland, 1959.
 “More than 106,000 have long trudge in bridge ‘pilgrimage,’” Auckland Star, May 25, 1959, p.3.
 “Empty petrol tanks cause hold-ups,” New Zealand Herald, June 1, 1959, p.10; Lang, p.47.
 Walter Nash, “An event of nation-wide significance,” Auckland Star, May 29, 1959, p.5.
 “A new era of city progress,” Auckland Star, May 29, 1959, p.2.
 “The Harbour Bridged,” supplement to the New Zealand Herald, May 29, 1959, p.1.
 Lang, p.47.
 Auckland Star, May 29, 1959.