Great Western Highway - History and Development

 

The Great Western Highway from Sydney across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst is Australia’s most historic road. Across it flowed a stream of settlers to the vast areas of the slopers and plains in the western inland. Soldiers, convicts and gold diggers have all trudged and driven along it across the harsh and rocky ridge of the mountain barrier. In the early days of the colony of New South Wales it was probably the construction of this road over the Blue Mountains that saved the small settlement from abandonment.

Since those early days the Highway has remained largely unchanged from its original route, with the exception of a lengthy deviation between Mount Victoria and Bathurst, constructed in the 1830s. Various local deviations have also been constructed to improve the alignment and across much of the Sydney Basin the Highway is no longer the major road, having been superseded by the M4 – Western Motorway.

Today the Great Western Highway begins as the Railway Square intersection in Sydney, then heads west via Broadway, Parramatta Road, Church St, Wentworthville, Prospect, St Mary's to Penrith, where it uses Henry Street, North Street, Belmore St and Jane Street to Castlereagh Road. From Castlereagh Road the Highway thence passes over Victoria Bridge, through Emu Plains and along Russell Street to the M4 – Western Motorway at Leonay. The Highway then recommences at the end of the Western Motorway (at Governors Drive) and heads to Bathurst via Springwood, Leura, Katoomba, Mt Victoria, Lithgow and Kelso. In Bathurst the Great Western Highway follows Durham and Stewart Streets before terminating at the junction with the Mitchell and Mid Western Highways in Bathurst.

The length of the highway from Harris St, Ultimo, via Broadway, Parramatta Rd, Church St, Prospect, St Mary's, Penrith (via High Street), Emu Plains, Mitchell’s Pass, Springwood, Katoomba, Old Bowenfels, Tarana, Brewongle, Glanmire to the Mitchell and Mid Western Highways in Bathurst was proclaimed State Highway No. 5 on 7 August 1928. There have been a number of deviations constructed which realigned the highway and they will be discussed further in latter stages of this article. Major re-alignments worth a mention here include between Emu Plains and Blaxland in October 1928 (replaced Mitchell’s Pass), at Penrith in February 1991 (replaced High Street with Henry St, North St, Belmore St, Jane St route) and at Emu Plains in February 2003 where the legal definition of the Great Western Highway was finally modified to incorporate the Western Motorway extension to Lapstone. Also, on 23 January 1993 the Great Western Highway was extended one block east, from Harris Street, Ultimo to Railway Square.

Today the Great Western Highway carries the State Route 31 shield between Harris St, Ultimo and the Hume Hwy (Liverpool Rd) at Summer Hill, the Metroad 4 shield between Wattle St, Haberfield and the Western Motorway at North Strathfield, the State Route 44 shield between North Strathfield and the Western Motorway at Emu Plains and the National Route 32 shield from the end of the Western Motorway at Lapstone to its terminus at Bathurst. The remaining sections of highway are currently unnumbered. It also worth noting that on the Church St, Parramatta Rd and Broadway sections of the Great Western Highway signposting of the local names is preferred.

The remainder of this article will be split into geographical sections in order to present the history and development of the Highway as clearly as possible.

Sydney to Parramatta

The Sydney to Parramatta section of the Great Western Highway was the first ever main road constructed in the colony of New South Wales, opening to traffic in 1810. For over 100 years it remained the busiest road in the NSW and was financed during a large portion of the 1800s by a toll – toll booths were located near Sydney Farm (now University) and at the Duck River.
Broadway (formerly George Street West) was created during the early 1900s in conjunction with the construction of the new Sydney Central railway station. The project involved the resumption and demolition of buildings on the south side of George Street West and the subsequent widening of the road.

A major reconstruction of Parramatta Road was undertaken in 1920/21, funded jointly by the State Government and the councils along the road but upon completion in May 1921 still only provided a gravel surface. The newly formed Main Roads Board soon began the construction a subway at Granville to replace a notorious railway crossing and this was opened in July 1929. Soon afterwards the Main Roads Board (and later the Department of Main Roads) used unemployment relief funds to reconstruct the road and provide a cement concrete surface wide enough for four lanes of traffic. This was work was completed early in 1935.

During the 1960s the Department of Main Roads addressed congestion on Parramatta Road by re-striping the existing cement concrete surface to provide for six lanes of traffic. Parramatta Road also became the state’s first clearway in June 1967, which prohibited kerbside parking along the busy artery in peak periods. In August 1971 the first ever road overpass of Parramatta Road was opened at Taverners Hill to relieve congestion at the intersection of Parramatta Road, Tebbutt Street and Old Canterbury Road where there were very high traffic volumes crossing the Gt Western Highway on an angle. The overpass made use of narrow suburban streets as approaches and a one-way street system was introduced on the south side of the bridge. The problem of right-turning traffic blocking the path of through traffic along the busy urban artery was solved in September 1984 with the introduction of ‘S’-lanes and the closure of the median at locations with no protected right-turn bay. These ‘S’ lanes provide room for a protected right turn bay without widening the road by terminating the left lane prior to an intersection and shifting the middle and right lanes to the left about 3m.

Through the 1980s the Great Western Highway between North Strathfield and Mays Hill was superseded by the Western Freeway as the major east-west artery. However, there is no surface reservation for the extension of the freeway from Concord towards the City. The opening of the City West Link in July 2000 somewhat relieved congestion on the Railway Square-Haberfield section of the Highway, leaving only the Haberfield-North Strathfield section still the main route from Sydney to the west. Planning is underway for the construction of a tunnelled motorway to connect the Western Motorway with the City West Link and/or Anzac Bridge which will afford great relief to the congested Parramatta Road corridor. In conjunction with these plans is the redevelopment of Parramatta Road, likely to involve a major increase in residential and commercial density, and the construction of a light rail line – most probably as an extension of the current Lilyfield-Central line. Parramatta Road and Broadway, between Petersham and Railway Square already has bus lanes in the peak periods.

Parramatta to Emu Plains

A road along the current alignment of the Great Western Highway (except at Prospect and Penrith) was constructed soon after completion of the Sydney-Parramatta Road and was in frequent use by the time Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth first crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813. The County of Cumberland Planning Scheme of 1951 recognised the Highway would still be of the utmost importance to the Western Sydney region and thus a reservation was made between Mays Hill and Kingswood which would permit the widening of the highway to six lanes in the future. In some parts, between Wentworthville and Prospect for example, the reservation provided was wide enough to permit widening to eight lanes. The Department of Main Roads commenced construction of dual carriageways on the Great Western Highway in 1950 and by 1953 had completed work between Eastern Creek and Kingswood. Work during the late 1950s and early 1960s saw the widening of the Highway through Parramatta and Mays Hill, and the construction of dual carriageways through Wentworthville and Pendle Hill to Prospect. Construction was commenced on the Prospect Deviation, a 3km controlled-access freeway-type road which would bypass a sub-standard two-lane section of the highway that was bounded on either side by high-standard four-lane dual carriageways, in early 1966. The deviation was opened to traffic in October 1968 and negated the need for a parallel freeway on this section for a further twenty years. The old highway was known as Old Western Road for many years but following the construction of Mays Hill-Prospect section of the Western Motorway is now known as Tarlington Place, Reservoir Road, Yallock Place, Boiler Close, and Honeman Close. The Church Lane overpass and Ponds Road connection to the Highway were provided as part of the original deviation and the westbound on/off ramps were added in the mid-1980s (Paul Rands tells me 1985 but isn’t 100% sure) when the DMR widened the deviation to six lanes as well as upgrading and realigning Church Lane. As part of the Parramatta-Mays Hill section of the Western Freeway the Department of Main Roads widened the Great Western Highway between Hawkesbury Road and Emert Street (now Cumberland Hwy) to seven lanes. This work was completed by December 1982.

At Penrith, the original route of the Highway was along High Street through the centre of Penrith. In the mid-1980s the section of High Street between Woodriff Street and Station Street was closed off to traffic and converted into a pedestrian mall. Thus, State Route 44 traffic was re-routed onto Henry Street as an interim measure before the improvements to North St, Belmore St and Jane Street could be completed in January 1993. The legal definition of the Great Western Highway was amended to incorporate the route change the Henry St, North St, Belmore St and Jane St on 15 February 1991.

The first bridge crossing of the Nepean River between Penrith and Emu Plains was opened in January 1856 but it was washed away in a heavy storm in august 1957. The bridge was then re-erected but was completely destroyed by floods in 1860. Crossing by ferry was then resumed until 1867 when a bridge (the present Victoria Bridge) opened to carry the railway from Penrith to Wentworth Falls across the river. This bridge was wide enough to carry a single line of traffic as well as a one railway track, with a galvanised iron fence erected down the centre of the bridge, and “an electric bell gave audible notice that the road was occupied to anyone at the farther end.”1 A new bridge to carry the railway only was opened on 2 June 1907 as part of the duplication of the railway and the Victoria Bridge was transferred wholly to road traffic. This bridge still carries Great Western Highway traffic to this day.

More information on the Victoria Bridge can be found on Penrith City Council’s website: http://www.penrithcity.nsw.gov.au/index.asp?id=259.

Emu Plains to Blaxland

The first ascent of the Blue Mountains was constructed by William Cox in 1814 but the frequent flooding of the Knapsack Gully made another route desirable. Thus, a road known as the “zig-zag road”2 (now Old Bathurst Road) was constructed soon afterwards. When Major Thomas Mitchell was surveying the site of the future town of Emu (now Emu Plains) in May 1830 he discovered a gully that offered possibilities of a better route. Mitchell then examined the gully and “found that it would [provide] the most direct and least inclined road that can be possibly made between [Blaxland] and Emu Plains.”3 Thus, a deviation was commenced soon afterwards and was completed in October 1832 when Governor Bourke drove over it on a visit to Bathurst, and named it “Mitchell’s Pass.” During construction of the deviation it was found necessary to construct a bridge over the head of Lapstone Creek (Lennox Bridge). Mitchell employed renowned bridge builder David Lennox to design and build the bridge, which has since become the oldest surviving scientifically constructed stone arch bridge on the Australian mainland. It is still standing and in use to this day, although it was closed to vehicular traffic in 1962 due to damage to the stonework rendering the bridge structurally unsound. The Department of Main Roads began restoring the bridge in the late 1970s and it was officially re-opened to traffic on 14 December 1982.

The newly formed Main Roads Board in 1926 commenced the construction of a deviation between Emu Plains and Blaxland to obtain improved grades, alignment and width (Mitchell’s Pass today carries only eastbound traffic due its width). The Main Roads Board made good use of an abandoned railway alignment (which explains why through much of Glenbrook the highway is in a deep cut), which had been constructed as the Lapstone zig-zag in 1867 and bypassed by the current route in 1913, and an existing 5.5m wide and 118 long stone arch viaduct over Knapsack Gully. The formation was widened to accommodate two lanes of road traffic and the deviation was opened on 26 October 1926. A bitumen surface was later provided in February 1930 and the viaduct was widened to 9m in 1939. This route carried Great Western Highway traffic for over sixty years until the extension of the Western Motorway to Governors Drive at Lapstone eliminated the eastern portion of the route. Upon opening of the motorway extension the existing Great Western Highway was closed to traffic between Mitchell’s Pass and Governors Drive, including Knapsack Bridge. The 138 year-old heritage listed bridge is still standing today and is a short walk from Lennox Bridge.4

Short lengths of climbing lane were provided between Knapsack Bridge and Hare St, Glenbrook during the 1950s and in 1979 the Department of Main Roads commenced widening of the Highway to four lanes between Knapsack Bridge and Blaxland. The work at Lapstone Hill involved widening the road to four lanes, thus connecting the short lengths of passing lane and at Glenbrook the Blue Mountains City Council constructed an overpass of the Highway at Fletcher Street. Widening work was completed between Mount Street and Hare Street (undivided) in September 1981, between Governors Drive and Mount Street (undivided) in December 1981 and from Hare Street to 1km west of Blaxland Railway Station in June 1987. A part of the extension of the Western Motorway, completed in June 1993, the intersection Governors Drive was grade-separated and a New Jersey median barrier was provided for part of the way up Lapstone Hill. Currently (September 2005), the Roads and Traffic Authority is undertaking safety improvements at Lapstone Hill which include the extension of the median barrier, shoulder widening and the shortening of the third westbound lane so that the merge is located before the bottom of the hill. The website5 says that works should be completed by August 2005 but they are still going in September *shakes fist*

Blue Mountains Section

Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth were the first three white people to cross the Blue Mountains in 1813. Governor Macquarie was so impressed with the reports of the western plains that he sent George Evans to survey the route later that year. The first official road over the mountains was constructed by William Cox and was opened in April 1815, largely following the route established by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth except for localised deviations such as at Linden. Despite the obvious difficulties of constructing a road in this sort of country, the Colonial Government was not satisfied with the road and in August 1827 “issued a Government Notice, offering a reward of a ‘Grant of land, cattle, or such other reasonable indulgence as may be preferred’ to any “free person” who reported to the Surveyor of Roads a better route to Bathurst.”6 It is understood that any new route was to avoid, if possible, Mount York and Mount Blaxland, “the passage of which presents serious impediment to the communication with the country beyond the Blue Mountains.”7 A man by the name of Archibald Bell had discovered a route from Richmond via Mount Tomah to Cox’s River in 1823 but the track was extremely rough and never popular. Subsequently it was abandoned in 1834. The present-day Bell’s Line of Road (State Route 40) follows Bell’s alignment closely. Thus, despite the Governor’s objections, the original route was adopted as the principle east-west road.

Following proclamation as State Highway No. 5 in 1928 the Main Roads Board commenced bituminous sealing of the highway, a project completed prior to 1939. The alignment of the highway was chosen because it followed ridges through the Blue Mountains as much as possible and thus avoiding any gullies. This blessing for nineteenth century traffic proved to be a hindrance to the motor vehicle era as the often narrow ridge tops that were shared with the railway line did not allow much room for widening of the highway. This effect was compounded by the establishment of many small settlements at railway stations along the route, which were often located adjacent to the Highway, thus increasing the local-through traffic conflict. The Department of Main Roads commenced its first deviation of the mountains section of the Great Western Highway at Springwood in 1965 in order to eliminate two railway underpasses and bypass the congested route through the town centre (Macquarie Rd & Ferguson Rd). Enough room was provided on the ridge to permit the construction of dual two-lane carriageways on the north side of the railway line and the deviation opened in 1969.No ramps were provided to access Hawkesbury Road – access was either via the old highway (Macquarie Rd) or George St/Silva Rd. An eastbound on-ramp from the Hawkesbury Rd/Silva Rd intersection to the Great Western Highway has since been opened.

The Department of Main Roads had grand visions for a complete reconstruction of the Great Western Highway across the Blue Mountains. They began the massive task in 1979 at Glenbrook, and included duplication between Willow Park Ave, Leura and West St, Wentworth Falls, and a realigned railway underpass that was completed in September 1981, however the programme the halted in 1985 due to a lack of funds. Despite this, the Department used what limited funds they had and completed several important projects. The vitally important Bent Street deviation at Katoomba was opened during the year, eliminating the last remaining level crossing on the left on the Highway and a 90 turn in Katoomba Town Centre. In May 1987 widening and reconstruction, including lengthy cuts and fills, through Valley Heights (Green Pde to Macquarie Rd). Another project saw the straight duplication of the highway through Faulconbridge completed in August 1990. Progress then stalled for a number of years before lobbying pressure saw the Government commit to a funding programme. In August 1998 the State Government announced $360 million of funding towards the provision of four lanes from Penrith to Katoomba and other works west of Katoomba. The Federal Government followed suit, committing an additional $100 million to the route under the Roads of National Importance programme. Upgrades were to mostly to duplicate the highway, provide some service roads and additional pedestrian bridges. Construction was commenced immediately at Warrimoo (between Baden Place and Green Pde), involving a new footbridge over the Highway at Warrimoo Railway Station, and was completed in July 2000. Duplication in the vicinity of the Coomassie Shopping Centre at Faulconbridge was completed in December 2003. A major realignment involving extensive earthworks at the Linden Bends was done in five stages, the last of which was completed in August 2003. West of Katoomba, the notorious Soldiers Pinch was realigned and the Highway widened to provide an three lanes (overtaking lanes in both directions) – completed in June 2002, and the a new four lane railway bridge on an improved alignment at Medlow Bath in December 2003. In August 2004 the 1.5km Shell Corner realignment was opened, consisting of a new bridge and duplicated highway and eliminating a notorious black spot. Work currently underway, as at September 2005, includes: Leura to Katoomba, a section that involves an underpass at Leura Mall, to be completed in two stages; and straight duplication of the Highway between Falls Road and West Street at Wentworth Falls. The remaining two lane sections are currently at various stages of planning and design, however I don’t believe the Federal Government has provided any funding towards the upgrade under the Auslink programme.

The descent of the Mountains

The first descent from the Blue Mountains was made by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813 from the top of Mount York. This was the line adopted by William Cox when he built the first road over the mountain in 1815 however, its 1 in 4 grade made another route desirable. The descent of Mount York was terrifying. Logs had to be tied behind carts to steady them down the steep grade. Cox made the observation, when building the road, that sheep would have to carry the wool on their backs up the pass and be shorn in the mountains because the road was too steep for a cart with any sort of load to traverse it. For this reason a deviation came into frequent use in 1827 and carried most of the traffic to/from the west until the opening of Victoria Pass. The grade on this deviation was no better than on Cox’s road but it did have the advantage of getting stock to water and grass in the valley quickly.

In 1829 Hamilton Hume (of Hume Highway fame) discovered a new line down the mountain, turning north at Mt Victoria and following a range he called ‘Darling Causeway’, from which he claimed there was an easy descent to the valley. Surveyor-General Major Thomas Mitchell was instructed to report on Hume’s line and he reported that while it fulfilled the condition of avoiding Mount York and was a fairly easy grade, he himself favoured a “valley road” and one in a more direct line to Bathurst. Mitchell also objected to the Darling Causeway line because it would not serve settlers on the Fish River and O’Connell’s Plains. Instead, he offered a line “which a little practical skill and science might overcome,”8 and a start was made on the route in 1829. However, during construction a landslide occurred, completely blocking the road. “It appears that nothing further was done to complete the construction of the road and it never came into use, but instead Mitchell put in hand a road down the Victoria Pass along a better route discovered by him.”9 He was criticised intensely by the Colonial Secretary over his plans to build Victoria Pass mainly because a large amount of capital was expended on the abandoned road and the Colonial Secretary considered that future efforts should be concentrated on the Mount York line before any alternatives were considered. An angry series of exchanges between Mitchell and the Colonial Secretary, culminating in Mitchell resolving to resign rather than “forego his desire to prove that he had found a better descent of the mountains.”10 Mitchell eventually won and the Governor permitted him to build the Victoria Pass, which he declared open on 23 October 1832. The pass traverses a narrow ridge from which valleys fell away on either side, requiring massive amounts of earth and rock filling, supported by large stone buttressed walls, to provide a satisfactory grade. Victoria Pass still carries the Great Western Highway to this day, although it has been widened in some sections to provide passing lanes.

However, many of the early motor cars struggled with grades of Victoria Pass and often needed the assistance of horses, causing agitation for a better route. Following the passing of the Local Government Act 1906 an extensive deviation was constructed which became known as Berghofer’s Pass. Construction was commenced in 1907 and, after many delays, it was opened to traffic in 1912. This route had much easier grades but very sharp curves and became the main road down from the mountains, leaving Victoria Pass in a neglected state. In 1920 Victoria Pass was made trafficable again and both roads were used simultaneously for a number of years until the Department of Main Roads considerably improved Victoria Pass in 1933-34. The DMR widened and reconstructed the existing pavement, constructed a minor deviation eliminating a steep pinch near the foot of the pass and later provided a bituminous surface as part of the general bituminous sealing of the Highway.

West of the Mountains

West of the mountains, the Great Western Highway remains on much the same alignment as was proclaimed in 1928 except for some localised deviations. In 1929 the Main Roads Board completely reconstructed the Highway between Old Bowenfels and Glanmire, eliminating railway crossings along the way. Sealing of the Highway was completed prior to World War 2 and then progress on the Highway was dormant for a number of years. In October 1967 work was commenced on the construction of an overpass to carry westbound Gt Western Hwy traffic onto northbound Trunk Road No. 55 (now Castlereagh Highway), thus eliminating the need for heavy coal traffic to make an at-grade right turn. Both the overpass at Marrangaroo and a 2.9km deviation at Yetholme, which replaced a narrow section of highway on a poor alignment, were opened to traffic in December 1970. As part of the continuing improvement of the Highway west of the Blue Mountains the Department of Main Roads constructed another 2.8km deviation easterly from Yetholme – the Kirkconnell Deviation. At Hartley, following the decision to construct a new bridge over the River Lett, the opportunity was taken to deviate the highway away from the heritage-listed town. The new bridge and two-lane deviation was opened to traffic on 16 December 1975.

The 1980s was a decade of dual carriageways on the Great Western Highway. Between Lithgow and the junction with the Castlereagh Highway a 7km dual carriageway deviation was constructed, eliminating two railway underpasses and including new bridges over Farmers Creek. This deviation was opened to traffic in October 1984. The widening of the Highway to four lanes through Bathurst and Kelso was commenced the following year and the Kelso section was completed in March 1987, and through the town in July 1991. This complimented the construction of a new bridge on a much improved alignment over the Macquarie River which was opened to traffic in September 1991. The old ‘Denison Bridge’ had been in service since 1870 and was located on a 90° skew. One further dual carriageway section was opened to traffic in July 1989 – the Lidsdale State Forest Deviation which extended previous upgrade work from the end of the Coxs River Deviation to near Old Wesern Road.

In December 1992 a 5km single-carriageway deviation was constructed between Mount Lambie and Lawsons Creek, acting as an extension of the Lidsdale State Forest Deviation. This project was the last completed on the Highway west of Lithgow apart from various safety improvements, aimed at reducing the risks associated with the thick fog that often envelopes the highway in this area.

In August 1998 the State Government announced a $360 million funding programme for the upgrade of the Gt Western Highway. While much of this money was centred on duplicating the Highway across the Blue Mountains, dual carriageways were constructed at Lithgow as part of the programme – completed in February 2003. This work extended the four lane conditions from the existing section completed in December 1991 to Lake Lyell Road.

The Roads and Traffic Authority has not released any plans for the further upgrading of the highway west of the Blue Mountains.

1. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 15
2. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 14
3. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 14
4. More information on both the Lennox Bridge and Knapsack Viaduct can be found on Penrith City Council’s website: http://www.penrithcity.nsw.gov.au/index.asp?id=259
5. http://www.rta.nsw.gov.au/constructionmaintenance/majorconstructionprojectsregional/greatwesternhighway/lapstonehill.htm Accessed 28/9/2005
6. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 11
7. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 11
8. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 14
9. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 14
10. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales ; Great Western Highway : Extracts from September, 1949 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales ; p. 14

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