The Story Bridge – built as part of the State Government’s response to the Great Depression – remains one of Queensland’s most iconic landmarks. Ground was broken for the project in 1935, and the cantilever bridge was officially opened on 6 July 1940 by Governor Sir Leslie Orme Wilson.
Public meetings calling for a bridge between northern Brisbane and Kangaroo Point began as early as November 1888. By the 1920s, Brisbane had grown vast but the Victoria Bridge remained the sole inner-city river crossing. Suburbanites claimed that this bridge was ‘congested and unable to carry the traffic’ and that more direct access to the districts of Woolloongabba and Coorparoo was necessary. A 1926 report by the Cross River Commission, chaired by engineer Roger Hawken, recommended the creation of several new bridges. The William Jolly Bridge (at the time known as the Grey Street Bridge) opened to traffic in March 1932, but the construction of a bridge at Kangaroo Point would not begin for several more years.
The new Queensland Labor Government permitted the establishment of a Bridge Board in 1933 to plan a government-constructed toll bridge at Kangaroo Point, promoted as an employment-generating scheme during the Great Depression. The design for the bridge was completed by Dr John Bradfield, a Brisbane-born engineer who had spent much of his life working in New South Wales. Bradfield had played key roles in the construction of Sydney’s electric railway system and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In early 1935 Evans Deakin-Hornibrook Constructions Pty Ltd won the contract to build the proposed six-lane bridge with a bid of £1.15 million.
Construction of the bridge officially began on 24 May 1935. Premier Forgan Smith laid the first stone of the bridge, in commemoration of King George V’s 25th anniversary of acceding to the English throne. During the build, the bridge had first been called the Brisbane River Bridge and later the Jubilee Bridge, in honour of the King. In 1937, Cabinet decided to name the bridge after John Douglas Story, a public servant and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland.
To get the bridge completed as quickly as possible, work sometimes continued 24 hours a day. In 1938, at the peak of construction, 400 people were employed on the build, making it one of the largest employers in Brisbane at the time.
The construction site was a dangerous place. The deepest foundation at the south pier, more than 30 metres below ground level, required men to work in conditions up to four times normal air pressure. Safety equipment was rarely used by the men working high above the river and accidents were inevitable. Three workers and one citizen climber lost their lives on the bridge during construction and many other near misses occurred.
Arthur McKay Wharton was one of the workers who fell to his death from the decking of the Story Bridge. During construction, Wharton had saved workmates from death on two occasions – once jumping 10 feet down to grab Ernest Boyle as he rolled from a girder. ‘I only did what any of the other workmen would have done in the same circumstances; it was nothing,’ Wharton told The Courier-Mail. Tragically, no-one was able to save Wharton from his 34-metre fall on 6 December 1939. Wharton’s fellow workers each pledged half a day’s wages to support his widow and child.
Finally, after five years and at a cost of £1.6 million, the bridge was completed. The Story Bridge opened on 6 July 1940 to a crowd of 37,000 people. When it first opened, a toll booth was established to assist the State Government with loan repayments. The toll charge for a motor car was sixpence. The presence of American troops in Brisbane during the Second World War helped to pay off the bridge’s costs, and the toll was removed by 1947. The Story Bridge remains an iconic emblem of Brisbane. More than 30 million vehicles now cross the bridge each year.