In 1880 Hutt County Council began construction work on a road up the Akatarawa Valley that could eventually be connected by a bridle path with Waikanae. This provided an alternative access to the coastal route north rather than having to go over the Paekakariki Hill Road.

As part of constructing this road two bridges were commissioned to cross the Hutt and Akatarawa Rivers. These bridges were both wooden truss bridges supported on concrete piers. Completed in 1881, they became known as the Black Bridges because of the colour of the treatment applied to their wooden supports.

These bridges were necessary because, as originally designed, Akatarawa Road did not adhere to the eastern bank of the Hutt and Akatarawa rivers but instead crossed over to the other side and then back again. I’m not sure why the road was designed with this deviation – possibly some road construction difficulty with the terrain on the eastern bank at this spot, or else a desire to avoid building a bridge at the bend in the Hutt River where Akatarawa Road now crosses it.

Anyway, the crucial point is that what is now Bridge Road did not come into existence as an isolated cul-de-sac off-shoot from Akatarawa Road, as it is at present, but rather was originally the western bank section of the main road up the valley. This can be clearly seen in Christopher Aubrey’s 1890 painting depicting the Black Bridges, with the bridge just visible in the distance being the one that recently collapsed and the road skirting the bush and connecting it with the lower bridge being what became Bridge Road.

Black Bridge

‘Black Bridges, Akatarawa Valley’’; 1890 watercolour painting by Christopher Aubrey, Upper Hutt City Library Collection, original in the Alexander Turnbull

During the 1890s a saw mill, Black Bridge Mill, was established between the two bridges. There were also likely other homesteads built in this area during the time it served as part of the main road north. Later, in the 1920s, when it was no longer part of this route, subdivisions occurred and the location became a popular site for building weekend and holiday homes.

Around 1915, concerned about the damage that heavy traffic loads were inflicting on these wooden bridges, Hutt County Council decided to realign Akatarawa Road so that it remained entirely on the right bank, and build a new concrete bridge across the Hutt River just above the juncture with the Akatarawa. However, in 1939 this bridge collapsed in a flood and, while waiting for it to be re-built, the two old wooden bridges were re-decked and again brought into service as the only access route up the valley. The re-built Akatarawa Road bridge was up and running again sometime in the 1940s but was eventually replaced in 1980 by a new concrete bridge built immediately upstream of it. The old bridge was dismantled but remains of its piers can still be seen.

The southern-most and larger of the two Black Bridges that once provided access to what is now Bridge Road crossed the river somewhere near the present intersection of Akatarawa Road with Birch Terrace and Rata Street. It connected to the opposite bank near to where 45 Bridge Road currently stands, at a point where the street makes a sharp turn. In 1913 a concrete bridge carrying water pipes was built next to this Black Bridge by the Upper Hutt Town Board (Hutt County Council refusing to let these pipes be carried by the older bridge because it didn’t believe it was strong enough).  In the picture below (looking downriver towards Cannon Point) the concrete bridge can be glimpsed running just behind and below the two-piered wooden truss bridge.

Black Bridge, Hutt River

‘Black Bridge, Hutt River’; photograph c.1930s by James Chapman Taylor, Upper Hutt City Library Collection http://uhcl.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/477

There were concerns about the ongoing stability of both Black Bridges from early decades of the 20th century and these were exacerbated after the deck of the larger, southernmost bridge was damaged in the 1939 flood that destroyed the Akatarawa Road bridge. Strict weight limits were imposed from the 1940s and use of the bridge was eventually restricted to pedestrians only. This created problems for Bridge Road residents, especially those engaged in building new homes. Hutt County Council eventually made the decision to only rebuild the smaller of the two Black Bridges, giving Bridge Road residents only one point of access rather than two. The decommissioned bridge had its deck removed but the structure remained until 1998, when it was so badly damaged in another flood that the decision was made to demolish it. Almost no physical evidence of this bridge now remains.

In 1954 Hutt County Council upgraded the smaller of the two Black Bridges (the one that crossed the Akatarawa River) in order to continue to provide Bridge Road residents with vehicle access. Two new pre-stressed concrete deck spans were built over top of the old wooden bridge but remained supported by the original 1881 pier. The old wooden trusses and the original decking were then removed. The picture below shows this bridge as it still was in the 1930s. This is the same pier that recently failed.

Birchville Bridge

‘Birchville Bridge’; photograph c.1930s by James Chapman Taylor, Upper Hutt City Library Collection
http://uhcl.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/488

This next picture shows the way this bridge was when it was re-opened after its 1954 upgrade. The wooden tresses at the side haven’t been removed yet but you can see that the concrete decking is riding much higher up on them. The upgraded bridge was supplied with a plaque naming it the ‘Andrews Bridge’ after a then recently deceased Hutt County Councillor.

Birchville Bridge’; photograph c.1930s by James Chapman Taylor, Upper Hutt City Library Collection http://uhcl.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/488

‘Birchville Bridge’; photograph c.1930s by James Chapman Taylor, Upper Hutt City Library Collection
http://uhcl.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/488

Local identity Vin Benge has recounted tragic family connections with the construction of both versions of this bridge. His great grandfather John Johnson was killed in 1881 while helping to build the original one. Long birch trees were used as scaffolding for the men to walk along but unfortunately one of these broke and John Johnson was thrown onto the riverbed below, dying instantly. During the 1954 upgrade  another family member, Ray ‘Unc’ Benge, who farmed nearby, was electrocuted when a crane working on the site that he was standing next to came into contact with overhead wires.

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Last updated on 17 Feb 2017