The 1867 Flood and the Nepean Road and Rail Bridge
When the privately owned bridge disintegrated into floodwaters in May 1860, all notions of another private venture into bridge construction dissipated. The government ferry was again put into service and government plans for a bridge were temporarily halted pending requirements of the ongoing railway construction. Whitton amended his railway bridge plan to accommodate road traffic. The bridge, known as the Nepean Road and Rail Bridge was designed using British bridge construction technology, with three spans of continuous box girders resting on four piers. The bridge, six feet higher than was originally intended, was constructed to withstand floods much higher than had been previously experienced. As a result, the approaches on both sides today rise considerably to reach the level of the bridge. Construction of the piers was contracted to William Tyler but floods in 1863 and 1864 washed away his equipment. A new contractor, William Watkins began work in August 1864. Working his men day and night, Watkins had the piers completed by September 1865. Sandstone for the piers was quarried on Lapstone Hill using sixty men and ten cranes. The blocks were brought down on drays to the bridge site. On 10 February 1867, Watkins’ brother John fell to his death from one of the piers whilst working on the bridge.
The superstructure steelwork, supplied by Peto, Brassey and Betts of Birkenhead, England, was completed on 8 June 1867 and the bridge was opened to traffic two weeks before the greatest flood ever recorded in the district. On 22 June, the roaring floodwaters were unable to move the piers and although the bridge remained sturdy, its western approaches were damaged. The increased height was justified when the water came to within three feet of the spans. One hundred and thirty feet of the western side of the riverbank was washed away.
Repair was difficult, with eight beams, eighty feet long, being laid across from the closest pier. The temporary repair work took about ten days to complete and the bridge was reopened to trains on 11 July 1867. A punt for road traffic was again put in service until 1869 when a permanent additional iron span replaced the timber section allowing for the dual use of the bridge for road and rail transport.
The 1867 flood was by far the most devastating in Penrith’s history. The Sydney Morning Herald reported a telegraph message for Thursday 20 June,
‘The river is up bank high, and rising rapidly. A great flood is expected. The South Creek is also over the banks. There has been 24 hours incessant rain’.
Travelling at twelve to fourteen miles an hour, floodwaters reached a height of over forty feet above the normal level. The higher part of Penrith, its eastern side, became a refuge for stranded and homeless residents. By Saturday the flood had reached its highest point, three feet below the decking of the bridge. The people of Penrith, although devastated by the flood, were at least grateful that the new bridge had held firm. It was reported that the sound on the bridge ‘was terrific, but there was not the least vibration’. The flood nearly reached up to Fulton’s Store in High Street, opposite Woodriff Street. Over the region, 150 people were reported homeless with the hospital, hotels, schools and the railway station providing accommodation. The 1867 flood also had a great effect upon people living in the lower lying areas around St Marys. A new bridge over South Creek on the Western Road had been constructed at the same time as the bridge over the Nepean. The South Creek Bridge, like its counterpart across the river, was just finished when the flood struck, and was steady against the flood. There was however a great deal of damage to the four tanneries located near the creek. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday 24 June,
‘The boatmen and many young men of the district labored hard to save life and property; but it is yet feared, from the number of houses flooded at Castlereagh, that lives may be lost’.
Six died and a thousand horses drowned. Alluvial lands were covered with up to fifteen feet of sand and silt in some areas. The early mills along the river were also vulnerable to floods.
Mills at Castlereagh, like McHenry’s mill at Lambridge, which had been erected in 1831, were rendered useless when the river changed course as a result of the flood. The flood almost entirely submerged Llandilo, except for the school. The Herald correspondent reported on 28 June that, ‘Every farmer in this place is almost ruined; all their hay spoiled or swept away, their corn washed away, live stock drowned, and what remains will starve for want of food, as the flood has covered the ground with a thick scum’.
To follow up on the great event in Penrith’s history
- Visit Penrith Library’s Research Room to view files and reports on the floods in the district
- Search the Penrith Library’s catalogue for photos and research material
- Visit the National Library’s Trove site and view the digitised newspapers from 1867.
- Read Penrith: the makings of a City (Stacker: 2014)