Norma Schultz's life is intertwined with the Bertrand Road Bridge. Her grandfather helped build the original bridge across the Waitara River, she was born on the Tikorangi side, crossed the bridge every day to go to school, and even met her future husband on the boards that span the mighty river.
Bringing communities together
A few planks of wood across a river can bridge more than water. Before the first bridge over the Waitara River was built the little communities of Huirangi and Tikorangi were isolated. Anyone wanting to cross the fast flowing river had to negotiate a treacherous ford. Farmers wanting to get their produce safely to the port and markets had to travel the long way around to Waitara or New Plymouth along muddy roads. Then local farmer and Councillor Levi Sarten proposed a bridge be built.
Levi Sarten had received a Tikorangi farm next to the Waitara River as part of a settlement package given to volunteers who served in the Militia during the Taranaki Land Wars. As councillor he made it his mission to connect the back blocks of the district with the outside world.
The new bridge was a suspension bridge wrote the Taranaki Herald. ‘…the length of the decking is 210 feet; width of bridge 14 feet… The four cables, which consist of No.9 gauge, will stand a safe working strain of 66 tons. The contract price was £695 and the contractor, Mr H. George, has carried out the work in a thoroughly workmanlike manner.’
The suspension bridge was opened to great fanfare from the local communities in July 1897. Rain poured down and the river was high and muddy, but the weather couldn't dampen people's spirits. The bridge was officially opened by the Minister of Public Works christening the beams with a bottle of champagne. Settlers from both sides of the river strode across the arched planks and met in the middle - unofficially joining the two communities.
The Sarten family
Levi Sarten and wife Mary Ann had 16 children, the youngest, Norman, took over the family farm when Levi died in 1903. "Dad went away to World War I, he married Mum (Hilda) on his return," says Norma. "I was born in 1921."
In the 1920s the original bridge was dismantled to make way for the present suspension bridge. Local history tells of farmers using the old No.9 wire from the cables for their fences. Norma was five years old when the bridge was rebuilt. Although she lived on the Tikorangi side of the river it was less distance for her to walk to Huirangi School. She remembers travelling across the river on the flying fox set up by the bridge workers to transport people and materials across the water. "They had a cage with a bottom and sides but no front and back. You held on tight and didn't look down!"
Bridge No. 2
This second bridge, built with planks, and some steel work from its predecessor, was opened in 1927. It had been designed by Clifton County Council engineer Mr N.C Fookes. Mr Fookes designed a bridge with the hangers sloping inward from the transoms, not straight down like most suspension bridges. This gave the Bertrand Road Bridge greater stability in the wind, as well as a more dramatic appearance.
Norma's father suffered from kidney problems and eventually had to have a kidney removed. He couldn't work the farm any more, so the family sold up and moved across the river, carting their household goods across the bridge to a two hectare block. Norman got work as a roadman, clearing drains, grading roads and laying metal.
Tales from the boards
The six Sarten children played on the suspension bridge, jumping up and down to make it sway and dropping stones off its sides. They would cross the bridge with towel and togs in hand to go downstream to their swimming hole, a popular place for summer picnics. "Sometimes there would be 50 people down there," recalls Norma. "Dad dug some steps down to the swimming hole and dug a plank into the sand for a diving board. It was a great place."
In 1935 a large flood swept down the river, badly damaging the Waitara town bridge. The Bertrand Road Bridge suddenly became the only link for traffic heading north or south.
Norma left school and went into service in the local community. She was 16 and living at home when one day she happened to look down at the bridge. Her cousin was standing on the planks with a man she hadn't met before. "My cousin had apparently brought him up to show him the bridge - I don't know why. My sister Royce and I went down. That's the first time I met Les." Les Schultz worked on the railway, building and repairing the line.
The pair was married in 1940 and Les left for World War II just two short weeks later. Norma wouldn't see her husband for three long years. "Somebody said to my Mum 'Why did you let her get married, she's only 18, what if he got maimed or killed?' I never thought he would be killed. What worried me was if he got taken prisoner."
It was during the war that the Bertrand Road Bridge was used for some flying fun. At that time Bell Block Airport was used as a training base for pilots. One pilot took a liking to the bridge and would fly his Tiger Moth under it on a regular basis, manoeuvring the aircraft through the narrow 10.6 metre gap between water and wood. "We would know he was going to fly under it because he circled around it a few times beforehand. We would run and watch." But one day her younger sister got a little too close. "She ran down and stood in the middle of the bridge and watched the plane going under - and did she get told off!"
Les returned from the war in 1944 with a Military Medal, and held his son Bryan for the first time. He joined the police force and the family moved away from Huirangi and the bridge up to the bright lights and bustle of Auckland. They stayed in the city 30 years and raised eight children.
But the bridge and farmlet on the edge of the Waitara River called them back. In 1971 Les and Norma returned to her parents' home above the Bertrand Road Bridge. They built a new house and settled in for retirement. Rural delivery didn't go to their gate so the pair would walk across the bridge to get their mail.
Time took its toll on the bridge and the old structure became dangerous to heavy traffic. Height restriction beams were erected and trucks banned. "So milk tankers and the like had to go around the long way, a 16 kilometre diversion. Some would try and get over the bridge and end up getting stuck under the beam," recalls Norma. "We could see it all from our house." One day a ute with a load of pigs in a cage on the back attempted the crossing. "He hit the beam, the cage flipped off, the pigs ran everywhere!"
In 1985, the year Les died, the bridge was declared unsafe and closed to vehicular traffic. A vital link between the communities of Huirangi and Tikorangi was lost. "It did affect the relationship a bit," says Norma. "Well, you couldn't get to the other side to see people could you?"
Norma stayed on in the home above the river, despite the isolation. She would watch the neighbour's children tearing down the hill from school and rushing across the bridge home, horse riders, bridge jumpers, cyclists and motorcyclists all used the planks across the river. She eventually moved off the farmlet into Bell Block, but her association with the bridge hadn't finished.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get the bridge re-opened the Bertrand Road Suspension Bridge Trust was set up to raise funds to restore the structure including a 'buy a plank' fundraising scheme. Tikorangi and Huirangi Schools held fundraising events and learned about the history of the bridge that had brought their communities together.
In 2004 the then 77 year-old suspension bridge was closed to pedestrians, causing an outcry from local residents.
But with community support the trust achieved its goal, raising a whopping $630,000 to enable the bridge to be restored. A conservation architect was commissioned to produce a plan utilising as much of the old bridge design and materials as possible. The cable anchor blocks and steelwork, which were still in good condition, were retained and some of the original Australian hardwood decking timber and running planks. The remaining deck is eucalypt hardwood which has been engraved with the names of people who made donations toward the restoration. The restoration project was managed by the New Plymouth District Council, which is responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the suspension bridge.
In June 2006 two communities stood on either side of the Waitara River. Walking to the middle of the bridge, Norma Schultz cut the ribbon and the Huirangi and Tikorangi communities were once again united.
First published 23 June 2006
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