• Terrence Robinson from the Jana Ngalee Land Council looks out over the bridge as crews and machinery arrive for the demolition. (Christine Tondorf)Source: Christine Tondorf
Demolition on an historic and culturally significant bridge in northern NSW commenced on Tuesday, only weeks after concerned locals sought reassurances from state government ministers about its preservation.
Christine Tondorf

22 Oct 2020 - 11:47 AM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2020 - 11:47 AM

Members of the western Bundjalung Jubullum community say they are devastated to lose a legal bid to save the historic Tabulam bridge, built by Aboriginal and non-Indigenous diggers who fought with the 4th Light Horse Division in the World War I.

Wrecking equipment and a crew of around 20 workmen, including security, arrived on site at the base of the old bridge, with gates and temporary fencing erected to keep out the locals whose forefathers built the bridge.

Bundjalung Elder Lewis Walker, a descendent of Walter ‘Tracker’ Williams, one the earliest known Aboriginal soldiers to serve with the Upper Clarence Light Horse, said it was wrong to pull down the bridge

“They say ‘Lest we forget’ but we are never going to forget this bridge and the stories that were given to us by Elders past and present,” he told NITV News.

The bridge was completed in 1903 by men of the Upper Clarence Light Horse, a unit founded on nearby Tabulam Station by Boer War veteran Captain Charles Chauvel.

Mr Walker said as a child, stories were told to him about family who sat at a campfire with Chauvel, and also how they helped him teach his troops to ride.

Mr Walker fears that these stories will disappear if the bridge is demolished.

Local cattle farmer John Cousins had applied to the NSW Land and Environment Court for an injunction to save the 120-year-old bridge on behalf of the Tabulam and Jubullum communities.

The court ruled on Wednesday that an injunction can only be issued to prevent "a legal wrong" and the judge said that he was not satisfied there was a reasonably arguable case to prove the bridge warranted protection under the Heritage Act.

Mr Cousins considers the bridge a living monument to the men of the 4th Light Horse Division who fought in the legendary 1917 battle of Beersheba, and also an engineering feat of its time.

“This bridge was built prior to mechanisation when there were no chainsaws or electric drills. It was all done by hand. It’s something that future generations are going to want to see,” said Mr Cousins.

Mr Cousins also rejects government claims that maintaining the bridge will cost $1 million a year, saying a Brisbane engineering firm instead put the cost at closer to $50,000 a year.

Lismore MP Janelle Saffin, whose seat encompasses Tabulam, asked the Berejiklian government to save the bridge and commended the community for its combined efforts to save the structure. 

“I see this as a true act of reconciliation and it’s quite remarkable” Ms Saffin said.

The Tabulam bridge is the longest single-span, wooden truss bridge in the southern hemisphere and a petition to save it has been signed by 900 non-Indigenous locals, and 300 people from the Jubullum community.

Terrence Robinson from the Jana Ngalee LandCouncil described the court’s ruling as "the worst possible outcome", but he says the campaign to save the bridge has helped reconcile the area’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“It has bought black and white people together. This bridge is history and its loss will be heart breaking,” he said.

Mr Robinson said many Elders were born under the bridge and are inconsolable to learn it will be destroyed.

The Tabulam bridge was listed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 2000, then delisted in 2011 after the NSW Roads and Maritime Service proposed replacing timber truss bridges in the state with new bridges.

Jubullum community calls on government to spare Tabulam’s historic bridge from demolition
Three hundred Indigenous and 900 non-Indigenous locals have petitioned the NSW government to save an historic and culturally significant timber bridge from demolition in western Bundjalung Country.