The western Bundjalung Jubullum community is calling on the New South Wales government to shelve plans to demolish the historic Tabulam timber bridge, which overlooks a turtle hunting ground, and a traditional women’s birthing place.
NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall, Northern NSW Parliamentary Secretary Ben Franklin and Lismore MP Janelle Saffin officially opened the new $48-million Tabulam concrete bridge on Sunday and promised timber from the old bridge would be returned to the community to construct a memorial.
Jubullum man, Lewis Walker, said he felt let down by state and local government who are well-aware of broad community opposition to the demolition of the historic and culturally significant bridge.
Mr Walker said the eastern bank of the Clarence River directly under the bridge was once a wide sandy beach used as a birthing place for women and platypus.
“There was always platypus around there. It was in our Dreaming,” he told NITV News on Sunday.
Mr Walker also spoke of the bridge’s colonial history saying it would forever be linked to the beginnings of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, also known as the Upper Clarence Light Horse.
“This bridge is a story,” he said. “A story from when you grew up, about our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Our great-grandfathers taught the men of the Light Horses how to ride horses.”
Mr Walker said the campaign to save the bridge had become a unifying force in Tabulam, a village located around 65 kilometres west of Casino in northern NSW.
“I would call it, belogumuny – coming together as one, we are uniting,” said Mr Walker.
The historic bridge was listed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 2000, but it was delisted in 2011 after the NSW Roads and Maritime Service proposed replacing timber truss bridges in the state with new bridges.
But Jubullum local Arthur Williams says the bridge his grandfather helped build in 1903 must be left intact.
The bridge is the longest single-span, wooden truss bridge in the southern hemisphere and Mr Williams said it honoured both the Jubullum people and the World War I diggers, like his grandfather, who built it prior to serving in Gallipoli and France.
Mr Williams' grandfather, Walter ‘Tracker’ Williams, was one the earliest known Aboriginal soldiers to serve with the Upper Clarence Light Horse, a unit founded on the nearby Tabulam Station by military man Charles Henry Edward Chauvel in 1886.
"The Light Horse Brigade was just across the [Clarence] River there, where my grandfather helped break in the horses,” Mr Williams told NITV News.
He said many Jubullum people had been born under the bridge since it was constructed, including his own father.
“And we used to dive for turtles under here. It was our main food," he said.
“This bridge is so important – then and now – to our history and everything that happened around here. The bridge is magic.”
'Save Our Bridge'
Three hundred Indigenous and 900 non-Indigenous locals have petitioned the NSW government to save the historic timber bridge from demolition, with many calling for it to be converted instead into a scenic walkway and community venue.
John Cousins, a local cattle farmer, said he had learnt more about the significance of the bridge while campaigning to save it.
“It is a monument to men who went to Beersheba [Turkey] and what other monument in the world is built by the men it honours?” he said. “I want to save it for all Australians.”
Mr Cousins said that claims from state government that the bridge was too expensive to maintain and would cost $1 million a year in upkeep did not square up with maintenance quotes obtained by the local community.
“We’ve had an independent bridge-building company do an estimate on maintenance costs and it was 20-times less," he said. "I think the government is trying to pull it down on a lie.”