The Roads to the Spit

From 1850 a punt service, operated by Peter Ellery, transported passengers across the harbour at The Spit. Rough tracks enabled pedestrian and mounted travellers to reach the area, but not until 1880 was a more serviceable road built by the Government, enabling vehicular traffic. This route followed Spit Road to Medusa Street, over Parriwi Headland on the current Upper Spit Road, then down a precipitous slope at the western side of the escarpment to The Spit. Visitors describe wildflowers, beautiful views across the harbour to the Heads, and Middle Harbour to the west. Having built this road however, the government was reluctant to maintain it, nor provide funds for its upkeep, so it soon fell into disrepair.

By 1890 a new road had been constructed, following the Rosherville track and running around the eastern side of the Parriwi Headland. Having a much gentler gradient than the old road, it was better for vehicular traffic. It was known firstly as the New Spit Road, and Pariwa then Parriwi Road. This became the preferred route to The Spit, with even adventurous cyclists favouring it over the dangerously steep, increasingly rutted and pot-holed Old Spit Road. When the tram service from Spit Junction was extended to The Spit in 1900, Parriwi Road was the route it followed.

For some 10 years this seemed to be the solution to accessing The Spit. Apart from the punt, this area had become a popular picnic and recreation destination for Sydneysiders, and Parriwi Road was busy with tram, horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic. With its harbour views, it became known as the prettiest tram route in Sydney. Problems began with the advent and increase in motor cars, trying to share the narrow winding road with other vehicles and pedestrians. This was greatly exacerbated when the tram track was duplicated in 1911, leaving little room for cars and resulting in collisions and narrow misses. As there were no footpaths, pedestrians risked their lives dodging traffic. A speed limit of 6 mph was imposed on cars, with police along the route to enforce it. The narrow road is bounded by a high rock cliff on one side and steep drop to the harbour on the other, leaving little possibility for widening. Constant articles and letters about the dangerous situation appeared in the press, with appeals for the virtually abandoned Old Spit Road to be made serviceable again, then each road made one-way.

Mosman Council could not afford to do this, and requests to the government for funds to restore the Old Spit Road to a condition suitable for traffic were continually rejected. Meanwhile congestion grew – on holidays vehicles were often queued back for a mile up Parriwi Road awaiting the punt. The situation came to crisis point when, in winter 1922, a section of the east side of Parriwi Road collapsed. Repairs were made but the Council engineer found that “a considerable portion of the side of this road ... was on the move and could be expected to leave at almost any minute”. The cost of building a retaining wall was prohibitive and would not provide any extra capacity. A new route to The Spit had to be found. Fortunately for Mosman a solution was finally at hand - the government began providing funds for projects on which ex-servicemen could be employed.

As reported in Council’s 1922-23 Annual Report, ... “In June 1922 the State Government made a Special Grant available for the employment of necessitous returned soldiers in approved work which provided a maximum of labour and minimum of materials. Under this grant, Mosman Council secured £17,000 for the construction of Spit Road”.

Engineer J.H. Tonkin, realising the steep grade of the old road was unviable, sought a new route to the Spit. His road was to run along the western side of the Parriwi Headland, below the original road and with a much gentler gradient of 1 in 12. From the top of Spit Hill, this descent to a lower level was achieved by the construction of two sweeping curves (now known as the Spit Bends), requiring property resumptions in order to eliminate an inconvenient T-junction and sharp dog-leg at Medusa Street.

Construction began in 1922. A huge amount of rock needed to be removed by cutting away the cliff on the eastern side, and retaining walls built on the western side. Despite most of the 150 workmen having no experience at rock work, with the aid of 2 jackhammers and compressed air provided by the nearby sewer works, the heavy construction was almost finished by December 1922. After much disagreement in Council, it was decided that rather than macadam, the new road should be of concrete, one of the first in Australia. Although more expensive, this would be more resilient to automobile tyres.

Council Minutes of 4th December 1923 recorded that the new Spit Road was now complete, with a surplus of £950. This would be spent on associated works such as additional lighting, and garden alcoves with seating on the western side. Plans for a planted strip down the centre of the road were abandoned in favour of additional width. The Spit Road immediately took the majority of motor cars off Parriwi Road, and was deemed a great success. One year later in December 1924, the first Spit Bridge opened, resulting in ever increasing traffic on this route.

The Spit Road served Mosman and northern beaches commuters well for over forty years until, on Sunday morning, 26th Feb 1967 after days of rain, a 50 yard section between Ida and Pearl Bay Avenues collapsed. Two houses were damaged and later demolished and phone cables snapped. The two northbound lanes were closed and traffic diversions put in place while repairs were carried out. The Main Roads Dept. had already planned to widen that part of Spit Road to six lanes and had been negotiating with affected home owners, so took the opportunity to carry out that work. Several properties on the high side of the road were resumed, and others lost their garages and gardens in the process. By 16th May the two damaged lanes were back in use and the new lanes opened soon after. Since then Spit Road has become increasingly busy, and despite widening and various traffic flow strategies, it remains a seemingly insurmountable problem for peak hour Mosman.

P. Morris, Mosman Historical Society References available on request.
Image: Building Spit Road 1922 (Mosman Local Studies Collection).

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