On a picturesque section of Australia’s Mitchell Highway, travellers often stop at an unusual roadside sculpture made largely of twisted metal beams.
The ‘Gateway’ sculpture is a rare reminder of a tumultuous day – almost three decades ago – that cut a key rural road link in New South Wales, the most populous State in Australia,
On January 6, in 1989, a truck carrying machinery for digging trenches was travelling along the Mitchell highway when it approached the town of Wellington, in the State’s central-west.
As it crossed the Macquarie River on the town’s fringe, the truck and the 70-year-old highway bridge collided – sending the roadway plunging into the water below.
The truck also dropped into the river, but miraculously no one was killed.
In a few moments and a gigantic cloud of dust, Wellington was cut almost in two – and a major traffic artery to the State’s north west was severed.
Politicians quickly converged on the site to determine what could be done to reopen the major thoroughfare.
Lengthy diversions were soon set up around the area and Wellington residents used the adjoining railway bridge to get between the town proper and the area of Montefiores, across the river.
After some emergency work, cars were eventually able to drive across the rail bridge.
We were far away when the bridge dropped – but Wellington is our hometown, so we travelled there in the weeks after the incident and experienced at first hand the isolation and frustration caused by the closure of such a vital road link.
Although Wellington’s commercial sector suffered from the loss of passing traffic and isolated rural areas, wily entrepreneurs were able to tap into widespread publicity by producing T-shirts to mark the bridge collapse.
Meanwhile, a low-level pontoon bridge was installed about 500 metres downstream by engineers from the Australian Army, thus re-opening the highway link.
Vehicles continued using the low-level crossing until the Macquarie bridge was replaced in December 1991.
Wellington is located 354 kilometres north-west of Sydney via the Great Western and Mitchell Highways. The ‘Gateway’ sculpture can be found about eight kilometres south of the town.
As a direct result of the collapse, authorities undertook a comprehensive safety audit of similar bridges throughout the State of New South Wales.
Photos of the collapsed Macquarie Bridge and the temporary rail crossing are courtesy of The Wellington Times and Marie Hoffman