The long and winding history of Bells Line of Road

The current North Richmond bridge, soon after it was built, with the first bridge to the right, built 1860. Pictures: courtesy KCHS
The current North Richmond bridge, soon after it was built, with the first bridge to the right, built 1860. Pictures: courtesy KCHS
Kurrajong Road looking towards North Richmond Bridge. Pughs Lagoon is in the mid-ground.

Kurrajong Road looking towards North Richmond Bridge. Pughs Lagoon is in the mid-ground.

BELLS Line of Road was marked in 1823 by Archibald Bell who, with the help of Aboriginal guides, found an alternative road to Bathurst. For many years Bells Line was little more than a stock route, rarely used in comparison to the Great Western Highway, which from the 1860s onwards also had the railway line running parallel to it.

Bells Line of Road begins at North Richmond Bridge over the Hawkesbury River, 3km west of Richmond. The first bridge was planned in 1857 and completed by 1860, partly in response to an increase in traffic along Bells Line caused by several gold rushes in central western NSW. This timber structure was battered by floods time and time again, and its abutments severely damaged in the 1867 and 1870 floods.

In April 1871, residents and other road users requested the restoration of this privately built bridge. In 1876 the Government bought the timber bridge and restored, raised and extended it to cope with the flooding. However, in 1900 the deck of the bridge was again severely damaged in flood, with silt also rendering it impassable.

At the turn of the century, interest in the Bells Line route increased and the Department of Public Works undertook some limited construction to enable traffic to use the route from Richmond to Lithgow. Bells Line of Road was officially opened in September 1905, in conjunction with the opening of the current North Richmond Bridge. Constructed Between January 1904 and September 1905, the bridge is a 13-span Monier concrete arch structure.

A change to the bridge structure came in 1926 as part of the construction of the Richmond-Kurrajong railway line. A third column was added to each pier to support two steel girders which carried the railway line to the north-western side of the river.

The Kurrajong rail line opened in November 1926 and continued from the Blacktown-Richmond Line at Richmond Station, west through Richmond Park and along Kurrajong Road to North Richmond Bridge, before crossing Bells Line of Road at North Richmond and then up to Kurrajong.

Up until 1933 the bridge was allocated a caretaker who was responsible for general maintenance, and lowering and raising of the handrail as needed to ensure flood debris passed under the bridge.

Despite being declared part of Main Road No. 184 on May 22, 1928 (North Parramatta-Windsor-Richmond-Bell-Mt Victoria), the route fell into disrepair. Its steep grades, winding nature and the sealing of the Great Western Highway across the Blue Mountains during the Depression, meant Bells Line was never the preferred route.

In 1942 the Australian Government began preparing for the possibility of war on our own shores and Bells Line of Road was one of a number of important defence routes selected for upgrading, along with the Putty Road (Windsor to Singleton).

In February 1942 an inspection was made to assess work needed to make the road trafficable. The military authorities desired sections of the road be immediately improved, including the provision of stopping and overtaking lanes on the sections that were only wide enough for one-way traffic.

Priority was given to two major sections that would create serious bottlenecks in an emergency: firstly from Kurrajong Village to Cut Rock west of the escarpment, a 4.5 mile section with poor alignment and grades of up to 13 per cent; and secondly the east and west sides of Mount Tomah, both requiring extensive works.

Work on reconstructing the road had progressed well, as far as 25 miles east of Bell by March, 1942, before serious labour depletion with the recruitment of soldiers began. In September 1942 work was halted indefinitely. Then in December 1945, after the war, work was recommenced by the Department of Main Roads and a large cutting on the west side of Mount Tomah was begun in November 1946.

During 1947 construction of a major deviation around Kurrajong Village was completed. During reconstruction of Bells Line through Cut Rock, Kurrajong Heights, an abandoned alignment was used as a traffic detour. The DMR program was finally completed in June 1949.

Since then, the DMR, RTA and RMS have made a number of safety improvements, including overtaking lanes on the steepest sections, safety ramps at Bellbird and Scenic Hills, and the heavy vehicle checking station at Bell. In the late 1990s sections between Mt Tomah and Bell were widened and a median barrier installed to prevent head-on collisions.

Heavy rain in June and July of 1952 caused land subsidence in the rail cuttings near Kurrajong, extensively damaging the rail tracks. Though there was much protest, the then Commissioner of Railways, Reginald Winsor, notified the State Member for Hawkesbury in September 1952, that the line would not reopen.

The railway tracks were all gone by 1956 and the DMR began plans to use the disused railway portion of North Richmond bridge for vehicular traffic and the railway’s eastern approach (Kurrajong Road), to straighten out four right-angle bends on the Richmond approach to the bridge (Old Kurrajong Road). Today, the eastbound traffic lane occupies what was once the Kurrajong railway line.

This article was first published in the July edition of the society’s newsletter The Millstone.