Unlikely crusaders, cattle farmer John Cousins and Western Bundjalung elder Poppy Harry Mundine Walker, are joining forces to save their historic timber bridge from demolition.

Key points:

  • The original Tabulam Bridge is the longest single-span, wooden truss bridge in the southern hemisphere and holds historical significance for its local Indigenous and non-Indigenous community
  • The bridge has been delisted from the State Heritage Register and will be demolished at the completion of the replacement bridge
  • 250 Indigenous and 600 non-Indigenous community members are calling Transport for NSW to consider maintaining the old bridge as a pedestrian bridge and historical display

The new bridge at Tabulam on the New South Wales north coast, scheduled to open at the end of September, is supported by the local community but they want to see their old bridge preserved.

Completed in 1903, it is the longest single-span, wooden truss bridge in the southern hemisphere as it stretches across the Clarence River to join the Bruxner Highway.

It was assessed as “historically rare” in a 201l report by the NSW Road and Maritime Services (RMS).

Many of the men who built the bridge worked on a nearby cattle station that was owned by Sir Harry Chauvel who went on to form the famous Australian Light Horse Brigade.

In 2017, 204 horsemen and women re-enact the 1st Light Horse Brigade leaving Tabulam to join WWI.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

“Some of them went to WWI and the Battle of Beersheba, which was an Australian led victory,” Mr Cousins said.

The bridge also holds historical significance for the local Indigenous people.

Poppy Harry Mundine Walker was born at a camp near the old Tabulam Bridge and, with his brother Lewis Walker, is asking the Government to keep the old bridge.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

Knowledge holder Lewis Walker spoke for his brother Poppy Harry, who said he was too emotional about the scheduled removal of the bridge to speak for himself.

“Some of the elders, my aunties and uncles, and my brother Harry, they were born here,” Mr Walker said.

“It’s his lore ground, his birthing place.”

Uniting a divided community

Tabulam Bridge is steeped in stories that are both inspiring and tragic.

“Even before this bridge was built we had people living here,” Mr Walker said.

“There are burial sites, just around the corner, a massacre site, unknown and untold to the non-Indigenous people of Tabulam.”

Western Bundjalung families camped in the Clarence Valley in northern NSW in the mid-to-late 1800s.(Supplied)

When the area was settled in the 1800s by colonial farmers the local Bundjalung families were moved from their homes along the river.

In what they call “the long march” they were forced to walk across the Tabulam Bridge to the Aboriginal mission 6 kilometres west of town, which today is the Bundjalung community of Jubullum.

Despite the fact the bridge played a part in the separation of the local Indigenous people from Tabulam, Mr Walker explained it was also a symbol of unity.

Western Bundjalung elder Poppy Harry Mundine Walker and cattle farmer John Cousins lead the campaign to save the bridge.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

In the old days, the bridge was used as a campground when people came to town for supplies, and, in recent years, generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children have grown up using the bridge to go to school together.

“For telling the history of our people and the history of the non-Indigenous people that our mob collaborated with and became a community, what we call Tabulam today.”

Delisting heritage status

The bridge was completed in 1903 and was designed by Ernest de Burgh.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

The bridge is one of 20 DeBurgh truss bridges that were built in NSW — a style of timber truss bridge named after Ernest de Burgh who designed it.

By 1998 the Tabulam Bridge was one of only 10 that had survived the passage of time.

Due to its historical significance in road building in Australia and “the technical significance” of its design, Tabulam’s bridge was listed in the NSW State Heritage Register in 2000 and the Roads and Maritime Heritage and Conservation Register.

The RMS five-year strategy for timber truss road bridges proposed in 2012 that the Tabulam Bridge be delisted from the heritage registers, be replaced with a new bridge and that the old bridge be removed.

Anna Zycki is the regional director north at Transport for NSW and says the old bridge does not meet modern standards.

“And the fact they don’t meet community needs anymore, keeping in mind the old bridge is a long bridge and expensive to maintain.”

Despite this assessment, 250 Indigenous and 600 non-Indigenous people in two petitions asked Transport for NSW to consider the old bridge meets their needs as a pedestrian bridge.

The total population of Tabulam is just under 500. The petitions had the support of local, state and federal representatives.

Mayor of Kyogle Danielle Mulholland is concerned that the local residents’ wishes are not being considered adequately.

“That it has been deregistered from the State Heritage Register just floors me,” she said.

“Given its significance to not only the broader Tabulam community and its first nation’s people, but to Australia at large.

“Tabulam was the birthplace of the Light Horse Brigade, we should be celebrating that fact.

“There are all these opportunities that are being missed.”

Tabulam was the birthplace of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, formed by Sir Harry Chauvel.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

Preserving history, drawing tourists

Transport for NSW is proposing to include a replica span on the new bridge and attach some of the old trusses to the sides.

It is also proposing plaques and a historical display.

“We’re very aware of the concerns of the community about heritage,” Ms Zycki said.

The old Tabulam Bridge will be removed when the new concrete bridge opens in late September.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

But the community says they want more.

They are proposing a pedestrian bridge that could double as a museum for the thousands of travellers who use the Bruxner Highway annually, which would also bring tourist dollars to the town.

Transport for NSW says safety and cost are prohibitive to this proposal.

“We can provide better facilities with the new bridge, in that respect.”

Local man John Wilkinson said his mother Isabel penned the history of Tabulam and celebrated when the bridge was listed in the State Heritage Register.

The Tabulam Bridge has been reinforced a number of times in the past 30 years.(ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)

He said she went to her grave believing the bridge would be preserved.

“The Government wants tourism, here’s the perfect opportunity.”

Mr Cousins believes there is still time for the town to put forward its case: “It’s not over until it’s over, and it’s not over yet”.

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