• Patrick McBride

The Forgotten Grey River Bridge

By Peter Ewen

The 1970s saw two new bridges built by the former Ministry of Works across the lower reaches of the Grey River - the Cobden Bridge, officially opened on August 9, 1975; and the Stillwater Bridge, officially opened on September 29, 1978.

View from Stillwater bank side, looking up at the impressive structure.

PHOTO: Supplied

However, in the earlier part of last century, a no less impressive structure was constructed some 60 metres upstream from today's Stillwater Bridge.

This was the bridge built by the North Brunner Coal Company in 1910.

The company had a lease high up on the slopes located at some 1200 feet above the Grey River.

At its height 110 were employed, both underground at the mine and on the surface so it was a valuable employer locally and it provided the early workforce for the later Dobson Mine that was developed after the First World War.

To get the North Brunner production to the rail-head at Stillwater, an expensive one- and-a-half mile incline tramway, with a dog-leg half-way down, was constructed through the heavy bush, as well as the significant bridge needed to get the coal across the Grey River to the loadout located roughly at the northern end of where today's Stillwater mill is located.

Looking across to the Stillwater railhead loadout in the distance, from the North Brunner Coal Company's incline tramline. Today's Blackball to Taylorville road is located about where the tub is near the bridge.

PHOTO: Supplied

Even today the incline is impressive to walk down and it is soon realised, it was no easy, quick job to construct.

At the actual mine site numerous buildings were located and some employees must have slept on site as the remains of a couple of old beds can be found in the bush.

Double tracked with an 'endless rope' on the incline, the full coal tubs going downhill, pulled back the empty ones, care of gravity, to the mine site for re-loading.

The bridge itself was built mainly of Australian hardwood.

It consisted of seven 25m spans and another three of 9m.

The width of the bridge was more than wide enough for two tracks so the mine tubs could easily pass each other with room to spare.

Looking across the bridge and uphill from the Stillwater bank, with the incline heading up through the bush towards the mine site located high up on the slopes.

PHOTO: Supplied

At 202m long, the North Brunner Bridge was the exact length as today's road bridge, and the same height above the river.

The North Brunner mine was in the main reached by foot via the Coolgardie Track from Brunner itself.

This track travelled all the way across Mt Davy and was the early way to get to Roa and Blackball. Today it reaches the road going to the TV translator at the 2200 feet mark, and the road from here to the Sewell Peak translators essentially follows the old line. Trampers use it today to get onto Mt Davy.

Some old road markers pegs care of throws outs from the old MOW, show the route. A keen pair backpacked them all up and placed them in the early 1990s ... and what a mission that was.

The North Brunner operations were relatively short-lived and only lasted until 1920.

The coal was not the best quality about, but some 124,955 tons was produced, with most going down to the Stillwater railhead.

By this time focus was on developing Dobson and the bridge itself slowly started to deteriorate through lack of maintenance.

Three families on the western side of it farmed the land immediately before the Brunner Gorge proper and they used it for many years to convey their milk and cream for deliveries from Stillwater. The children of the families in the area also used the bridge to get to the Stillwater school.

The big flood of 1926 causes some significant damage to the bridge, but it remained in use for foot-traffic and was part of the landscape until the Second World War.

It was dismantled during 1942 by a local sawmiller who salvaged the large, valuable beams and remaining timber.

Today those interested can walk the loop up from the Brunner mine site, and then down the incline to come out near today's Stillwater Bridge. It takes about two and half hours to complete, allowing some time to look around.

Today it is pretty easy going, and thanks to Alex Woods of Taylorville who has kept up and improved on the early clearance work done over many weekends some 25 odd years ago, it's essentially a straight forward and interesting work-out with no real difficulties.

All that remains of the once impressive North Brunner Bridge today are a couple of bridge pile stumps on the western side of the river. They that can be seen when exposed during low river flows.