Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge by Alan Lucas.  A Sydney-Newcastle V-Twin electric train pops out of a short tunnel and onto the southern end of the ‘new’ Hawkesbury River Bridge. Now 65 years old, it replaced its 1880s predecessor in 1946.

As a kid, if I wasn’t on the Lane Cove River trying to drown myself with corrugated iron canoes sealed with fresh road tar, kerosene-tin rafts and aeroplane belly tanks, I could be found at Central Railway Station transfixed by the comings and goings of steam trains.
And while sailing eventually captured my full attention, I still hold dear my memories of rail journeys, one in particular being with my mother from Sydney to Murwillumbah to stay a few days on a banana plantation. Strong within that memory is the crossing of the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge at five miles an hour.
Apparently there was a war on, but I was too young to associate it with the obligatory creep-speed over an aging bridge, although I do recall someone saying it had to be kept open for ‘troop movement’ – whatever that meant. There was also a terrible story at large about a worker being buried in concrete during a pour on one of the piers of a replacement bridge under construction 200 yards upstream. Whether the story was true or not I cannot say, but as an impressionable youngster it sure got my attention.
With a house sitting atop, this is the first bridge’s southern footing, built in the late 1880s. / Situated above Flat Rock Point, Brooklyn, the old anti-aircraft gun base reminds picnickers of the vital role played by a tired old bridge that had become a vital link during World War II.
The steel spans of the original bridge have long been removed, leaving behind six stone piers 416 feet apart (centres) that are in deceivingly good condition to this day. Their bedrock varies from 150 to 160 feet below high tide, a depth that was a world record in an era when the bridge was the largest project in colonial Australia. It was also one of Sir Henry Parkes’ symbols during his campaign for Federation.
Construction of the first bridge was by the Union Bridge Company of Brooklyn, USA, which leased nearby Dangar Island as the prefabrication site. A causeway was also built linking Hawkesbury River Railway Station (Brooklyn) with the bridge at Long Island then, ultimately, with Gosford.
In those days, northern rail was comprised of three sections these being Strathfield to Hawkesbury River, Gosford to Hamilton (Newcastle) then Gosford to Hawkesbury River. The bridge itself linked Long Island with Mullet Point.  
The completed spans were lifted onto barges at Dangar Island then towed to the bridge site where they were manoeuvred over their piers at high tide to be lowered into position by the natural hydraulics of a falling tide. It was perfect symbiosis between engineers and mother nature, but it must have been nerve-wracking knowing that nature would easily win if anyone miscalculated.
During WWII, with the old bridge barely functioning and the new one still being built close by, the area from Broken Bay to Brooklyn was heavily fortified with submarine nets, mines, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. After a remarkably short construction time of just three years the bridge opened on 1 May 1889, but was destined to serve its purpose for less than three decades, at the end of which, in 1927, bearing seizure, pier deterioration and increased loading demanded its strengthening. Ten more years, in 1937, complete replacement was considered vital.
With Hitler goose-stepping around Europe and Japan committing atrocities in China, only the most optimistic Australians believed war would not be appearing soon in a town near them, and realists must have been horrified by the vulnerability of our north coast with its dependence on one prematurely aged link across the Hawkesbury.
A new bridge was urgently needed, yet construction did not begin until July 1940 – ten months after the war in Europe started, and did not finish until 1 July 1946 – about the same period of time after the war ended with Japan.  
All things considered, it’s surprising that NSW Government Railways took so long to build the second bridge, but they first had to solve problems that had beset the first bridge then operate in an environment of skills and material shortages. There must also have been a very serious determination not to end up with another short-lived huge lemon, war or no war. Bridges, after all, should last for centuries, not decades.
Tests on the replacement bridge were carried out by driving six C38 Class locomotives across the river two abreast to concentrate their weight. They were followed soon after by a passenger train hauled by an un-streamlined C38.
Apart from the spans’ curved tops, instead of the old bridges’ three-facet tops, the main difference between the old and the new structures were the approaches, the first being straight off the land the second via a short tunnel at each end.
The importance of the ailing first bridge during World War II could never be understated because without it troops and war materials could not easily be delivered to potential frontline cities such as Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin. Peats Ferry Road Bridge, soon to carry the Pacific Highway across the river one and a half miles upstream, was not an alternative because it, too, was under construction and would not be finished until 1945. Like it or not, the old Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge was a fragile, potentially fatal link for the entire six-year period of World War II.
The replacement bridge, built during World War II, was tested by driving six C38s, two abreast, across the river. / Looking north into Mullet Creek (top right), the seriously weakened first bridge continues to carry traffic while its replacement is built alongside.
With ever-heavier war trains presenting perfect targets as they crawled across the Hawkesbury, and a replacement bridge being built nearby, the Japanese fully understood their vulnerability and importance as a target.
Of this there was no doubt, their site being outlined in red on a chart found aboard one of the midget subs that ended their life in Sydney Harbour during 1942.
To protect the vital crossing, defensive gun emplacements were built on Broken Bay’s West Head and submarine nets were stretched across the river from Dangar Island to Little Wobby (Patonga side) in one direction and Brooklyn in the other.
The river was also patrolled by boats of the RAN Reserve armed with depth charges and anti-aircraft guns were established at each end of the bridge. At Federation Park, on Flat Rock Point, Brooklyn, there was an army encampment with anti-aircraft guns and searchlights on the headland. And if all of the above were not enough, mines were laid across the river from Juno Point to Hungry Beach.
After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Australia’s Naval Control Board set in motion Operation Little Boat, an order for all private craft in the Hawkesbury region to be taken to Berowra Waters for destruction, if it became necessary to keep them out of enemy hands. As things turned out a flood did the job for them, sweeping much of the collected fleet downriver, turning it into widely scattered boat-bits along the way.
In the foreground is one of the six stone piers used by the first Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge built by the Union Bridge Company of Brooklyn, USA. Its successor, close behind, was built during World War II by the Department of Railways and was opened on 1 July 1946. / This dedication plaque by The Institute of Engineers says it all for the two railway bridges across the lower Hawkesbury River.
Prior to bridging the Hawkesbury in 1889, northbound train passengers were obliged to disembark at Brooklyn (Hawkesbury River Railway Station), just an hour from Sydney, then travel downriver to Broken Bay and up to Gosford aboard the paddle steamer General Gordon. Built by Tom Davis at Terrigal in 1886 and owned and operated by Captain Murray, she also ran tourist excursions up to Windsor and Cowan Creek.
Today, travelling by train down into the Hawkesbury valley and across the now 65-year-old ‘new’ bridge, then winding your way along the banks of Mullet Creek, is one of Australia’s most scenic train rides, being almost entirely within national parks.
The author’s motor sailer, Soleares, anchored in Mullet Creek with the latest in trains – an Oscar – running along the bank. The creek can be a noisy place for sailors, but it is a delight for train travellers who spend nearly half an hour quietly passing through national parks.Daily commuters between the Central Coast and Sydney may have become indifferent to its beauty, but for first-timers it is a refreshing reconnect with nature from the comfort of a quiet, air-conditioned carriage. And bursting forth from the pristine parks through one of New South Wales’s longest tunnels into Woy Woy is an interesting culture shock for its sudden change from serenity to urbanity.
Woy Woy was made famous by the late Goon Spike Milligan, when he shipped his parents out from England in the early 1950s to escape the Cold War’s nuclear threat.
The fact that Woy Woy was then very much a frame-and-fibro older persons’ retirement area inspired Spike to call it ‘the world’s largest above-ground cemetery’. The town has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t, and that is its suitability as a terminus for Sydneysiders riding the rails for the scenic pleasures of the lower Hawkesbury region.