New England Highway : History and Development


A ‘ Great Northern Road ’ was constructed and improved during the mid 18 th century as far as Tenterfield, continuing from the Great Northern Road constructed between Sydney and Singleton in the early part of the 18 th century. However, despite the construction of a parallel railway from the 1850s onwards the progress in development of the road was still steady and considerable, especially in the bridging of creeks and rivers. Although bridges had been provided over the majority of streams crossed by the Great Northern Road prior to the establishment of the Department of Public Works, it was this Department who built and rebuilt structures of an enduring type.1 Some of these include:

  • The iron and steel Victoria Bridge over Wallis Creek at Maitland (1896)
  • The timber and iron bridge over the Hunter River at Aberdeen (1893)
  • The timber bridge over the McDonald River at Bendemeer (1904)

Of these bridges, only the structure across the Hunter River at Aberdeen is still in use by through traffic, the others located on former alignments of the Highway.

According to the Department of Main Roads, “no direct evidence can be traced in the records as to when the Great Northern Road was extended from Tenterfield to the Queensland Border.”2 However, it has been established that a route from Tenterfield into Queensland , crossing the border between Amosfield and Stanthorpe, was the most used until 1924. The downside to this route was that it gave an indirect connection to Brisbane and sections of road across the Darling Downs were difficult in wet weather.3 In 1924 steps were taken to establish a more direct route between Tenterfield and Brisbane, via Amosfield, Legume and Woodenbong to Mt Lindesay. This work involved the construction of the missing link between Woodenbong and Mt Lindesay, which was carried out by the Department of Public Works and completed in 1929, and the reconstruction of the road between Oakey Creek and Woodenbong – work which was completed by the Department of Main Roads in 1934. New bridges were provided over Kooreelah Creek and Maryland River in 1930 as part of this work and they are still in service today.

On 7 August 1928 the Main Roads Board declared the road from North Sydney via Chatswood, Hornsby, Peat’s Ferry, Gosford, Wyong, Adamstown, Newcastle West, Hexham, Beresfield, Maitland, Singleton, Muswellbrook, Murrurundi, Tamworth, Armidale, Glen Innes, Tenterfield and Woodenbong to the QLD Border at Mt Lindesay State Highway No. 9 and named it ‘Great Northern Highway’ in May 1929. Less than two years later, in May 1931, the Main Roads Board changed this declaration to omit the section of highway south of Hexham – which became part of the Pacific Highway. On 24 March 1933 State Highway No. 9 was given the name ‘ New England Highway ’ after the vast region of northern New South Wales which it serves. Queensland also adopted this name for the continuation of the road from Mt Lindesay to Brisbane .

Two notable improvements were affected on the Highway during the Great Depression, involving realignment at Armidale and at First Moonbi Hill. At Armidale, the opening of a new railway overpass at the southern end of Dangar Street meant the old level crossing on Mann Street and Butler Street was closed to traffic. The route of the New England Highway was changed from its former route of Miller St , Mann St , Butler St and Rusden St to a new alignment via Kentucky St , Dangar St , Barney St and Marsh St in February 1933. At First Moonbi Hill a third route over the mountain for the New England Highway was constructed, eliminating the “S-bend” route, constructed in the 1870s, and a steep grade on an 11.2km section north from the village of Moonbi . This deviation was built largely by Cockburn Shire Council by ‘day labour’ and was opened on 3 February 1937 . A notable feature of the old route is the Monier Bridge over the Moonbi Creek, a concrete arch span which was constructed shortly before World War 1.

By 1950 a bitumen surface had been provided along the length of the New England Highway from Hexham to Tenterfield, with a 10km section over the Bolivia Range providing the only exception until the completion of a deviation in March 1951. North of Tenterfield, little work had been done to improve the Highway and it remained largely in the same condition as it was following reconstruction in 1934.

Queensland Main Roads Department had, during the immediate post-war years, completed a new high-standard route from Brisbane via Cunningham’s Gap and Warwick to Wallangarra. This new route saw increasing traffic volumes as interstate travellers avoided the more difficult Mount Lindesay Highway and a need became apparent for a high-standard road within New South Wales that would link Wallangarra with the New England Highway at Tenterfield. An existing road, Main Road No. 374, already connected Tenterfield with Wallangarra but had the disadvantage of crossing the railway line five times in its 9 mile length, four of which were level crossings and the other a narrow overbridge with right angle approaches. Thus, the Department of Main Roads resolved to reconstruct the road throughout its length and work was undertaken by Tenterfield Shire Council: “Between 4.5 miles and 6.5 miles north of Tenterfield the Shire Council completed by contract in 1946, a deviation eliminating two of the level crossings. This deviation involved the construction of a timber beam bridge 65 feet long across Tenterfield Creek”4 Construction another deviation, between 10.75 and 12.25 miles north of Tenterfield, was constructed immediately afterwards, eliminating the other two level crossings and was completed in 1950. Completion of the reconstruction programme was followed by Main Road No. 374 being proclaimed State Highway No. 24 but not named, on 27 January 1950.

Then, in 1954, a decision was made by both the NSW and Queensland Departments of Main Roads to re-route the New England Highway from Tenterfield to Brisbane via Wallangarra, Stanthorpe, Warwick and Cunningham’s Gap. The State Highway No. 24 classification, which had been applied to the Tenterfield-Wallangarra road from 1950 to 1954 was transferred to the old route of the New England Highway through Amosfield, Legume and Woodenbong to Mt Lindesay and was named ‘Mt Lindesay Highway’. Queensland followed suit by redeclaring their section of the former New England Highway as ‘Mt Lindesay Highway’. This change, gazetted on 3 September 1954, produced the Hexham-Wallangarra routing that exists today. The New England Highway ’s position as a major through route between Sydney and Brisbane was further reinforced in 1955 with its inclusion in the National Route marking scheme as Route 15. This designation was upgraded in November 1974 when the Highway was declared part of the National Highway under the National Roads Act 1974.

Work during the late 1950s and early 1960s was of a more routine nature, largely involving the replacement of narrow and ageing bridges and the elimination of rail level crossings. Notable bridge replacements occurred at Tamworth , where a two-lane steel bridge over the Peel River , built by the Department of Public Works in 1881, was replaced by a new four-lane concrete structure in April 1965. The last single-lane bridge on the highway was replaced during 1967 as part of a larger project to construct a 6 mile deviation, replacing two level crossings – the last on the New England Highway , three narrow bridges, steep grades and sharp curves between Kankool and Willow Tree. Named the Chilcotts Creek Deviation, it was opened to traffic in December 1968. A heavy vehicle checking station on the deviation at Kankool was later opened in March 1972. Further south, the NSW Electricity Commission funded the construction of a deviation at the site of the proposed Liddell Power Station, necessitated by the construction of a 2800-acre cooling pond which would inundate a large portion of the existing highway. The deviation, including a grade-separated access to the Bayswater and Liddell Power Stations and a section of dual carriageway, was opened to traffic in January 1967. Other notable projects of this period included a new railway overpass on the northern outskirts of Muswellbrook (May 1966) and a deviation between Guyra and Llangothlin (December 1970). This deviation eliminated two railway level crossings by relocating the highway to the eastern side of the railway line for six and a half miles.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Department of Main Roads, with the assistance of Newcastle City and Maitland Councils, provided a four-lane route for the New England Highway between Hexham and East Maitland. The reconstruction and expansion programme was kicked off in March 1961 with a combination of works to eliminate the rail level crossing at Hexham. Newcastle Morning Herald continues the story: “The Main Roads Department has establishment the route of the new section of the New England Highway near Tarro and Beresfield… From the station, the highway would cross the existing main road near the Hunter District Water Board’s pumping station and move on to virgin land behind residences on the south-western side of the present highway.”5 The work was planned to include the construction of a new road on the eastern side of the railway between Hexham and Tarro, an overbridge just south of Tarro Railway Station and a new road skirting the southern perimeter of existing development at Tarro and Beresfield “until Weakley’s Flat Bridge, west of Beresfield, was reached.”6 Originally, the Department had planned to widen the existing highway through Tarro and Beresfield, acquiring immediately a wide strip of land on the south side of the existing highway, however, record floods in 1949 showed the need for a new, flood-free, alignment. Construction of the railway bridge was undertaken first and it, along with a single-carriageway portion of the future New England Highway was provided to connect with the new Newcastle-Coalfields road ( John Renshaw Drive ) which was constructed as far as Minmi-Thornton Road ( Lenaghans Dr/Weakleys Dr ), was opened late in 1964. Construction was then postponed until in September 1965 when the Transport Minister, Mr Morris, announced that “the four-lane New England Highway , which ends on the Tarro side of the new overbridge at Tarro, is to be continued through to Minmi-road.”7 This work would require new twin bridges at Weakley’s Flat but would remove two “serious blackspots [whose] removal is long overdue.”8 Then, in November he announced that it was proposed to construct dual carriageways on the New England Highway , as far as Wallis Creek, East Maitland over the next eight years. This programme would include a deviation and new twin bridges at Four Mile Creek, which would also bypass a section of winding road at Metford, and a new culvert at Scotch Dairy Creek to replace a timber bridge. The first item, the deviation around Tarro and Beresfield, was opened to traffic on 15 October 1970 and the same day the Transport Minister announced that rebuilding of the highway between Long Bridge at Maitland and Rutherford , including a new bridge over the North Coast railway line, would begin. Changes to the funding regime in 1974 resulted in a three year delay and it was not until August 1982 that four lanes had been provided between Thornton and East Maitland and from Veterans Flat to Rutherford .

The federally-funded Maitland Bypass was commenced in January 1984 and built in three stages. The first stage connected the existing highway at East Maitland to Parallel Street (the signed Shopping Centre Bypass) near Anzac Street , involving new bridges over the Wallis Creek to bypass the iron and steel Victoria Bridge , built in 1896, and a section of concrete pavement across the floodplain. This first stage opened in February 1986 and was followed by a second stage to Walker Street in December 1986. The third and final stage would involve a new four-lane bridge over the railway line, removing through traffic from historic Regent Street and allow construction of a mall in High Street, Maitland. The construction, by Maitland Shire Council, of a ring road in the town centre allowed construction of the pedestrian mall to commence in April 1988. Prime Minister Bob Hawke officially opened the completed Maitland Bypass in September 1988. Four lanes had now been provided along the length of the highway from Hexham to Rutherford.

While construction was in progress near Maitland, the injection of federal funds into the highway allowed improvements to be effected elsewhere. These included a new 2km deviation and bridge over the Hunter River at Singleton, the rehabilitation of the 12.6km Liddell Deviation, a new bridge over the Hunter River at Aberdeen and a flood-free alignment at Bendemeer. Two low railway underpasses north of Uralla were eliminated by the Barleyfields Deviation in February 1980 and a deviation at Devil’s Pinch, north of Armidale, was completed in December 1982. The highway through Scone was widened from four to six lanes during 1985, along with the rehabilitation of the Liddell Deviation. At Tintinhull, near Tamworth , a small realignment was completed in December 1986. The new bridge over the Hunter River at Singleton was a Bicentennial project and eliminated dangerous congestion at the old steel truss Dunolly Bridge . This opened to traffic in May 1986, closely followed in December 1986 by a new bridge for northbound traffic over the Hunter River at Aberdeen , allowing the narrow existing bridge to be used for southbound traffic only. At Bendemeer, a timber truss bridge, constructed by the Department of Public Works in 1904, over the McDonald River was bypassed in December 1985, allowing it to be closed to traffic. A new lower-level structure was then constructed by the Department of Main Roads for local traffic use.

However, the most significant project carried out on the highway during this period was over the First Moonbi Hill, between Tamworth and Bendemeer. This 5km project was commenced in June 1975 and would be the fourth route constructed over this notorious range. A new southbound carriageway three kilometres long was constructed alongside Laheys Creek while a new dual carriageway deviation eliminated a route down First Moonbi Hill that was constructed in the mid 1930s. The new southbound carriageway was opened to two-way traffic in June 1980, allowing the DMR to reconstruct the existing highway for partial use as the northbound carriageway. This work completed the project in August 1982. More information on the New England Highway through the Moonbi Ranges can be found HERE.

Following the opening of the Sydney-Newcastle (F3) Freeway to Freemans Drive in March 1988, traffic bound for the Pacific Highway was able to bypass the Newcastle urban area for the first time. The initial interim route through Kurri Kurri has since been supplanted by the extension of the freeway to John Renshaw Drive , however both join the New England Highway in the same location – Beresfield. This put new pressures on a section of four-lane highway that had previously coped well in its role as a Newcastle-Maitland and Newcastle-Coalfields link. For a number of years locals had been lobbying Newcastle City Council to remedy what they saw as a dangerous intersection at Tarro ( Anderson Drive ), culminating in NCC submitting proposals to the DMR for improvements to the junction in June 1987. Action was taken soon afterwards with the Department installing traffic signals at the John Renshaw Drive junction, pending construction of an overpass at a later date, and commencing work on a grade-separated interchange with Anderson Drive. The ‘Tarro Interchange’ was opened in May 1994 and was followed in September 1997 by the John Renshaw Drive overpass. These works, along with the duplication of Hexham Bridge (April 1987), provided an uninterrupted path for northbound traffic from the F3 Freeway to the Pacific Highway .

North of the Hunter, Tamworth and Armidale are the two largest towns the New England Highway passes through and both were recognised as traffic congestion bottlenecks. Two different approaches were taken to relieve congestion. At Tamworth the highway had been widened to four lanes through the urban area south of the Peel River , however the whole town relied on one bridge across that river right in the middle of town. Thus, Scott Road and Murray Street were upgraded and extended, forming a through route with the construction of a new bridge over the Peel River . On 5 November 1993 this new route was declared part of State Highway No. 9 - New England Highway. At Armidale, a completely new route skirting the urban area and providing much improved access to the University of New England was chosen. Constructed initially as a single carriageway road with overtaking lanes, provision has been made for ultimate dual carriageway construction. The Armidale Bypass was opened in December 1994.

At the Liverpool Range , between Murrurundi and Kankool a 7km section of dual carriageway was completed in two stages, opening in October 1994 and January 1997. At Belford, west of Branxton, a 6km section of dual carriageway and partial realignment was completed in October 1998. The eastern extremity of this project, Blacks Creek, is where the proposed F3-Branxton Link will join the New England Highway . During 2002 a small realignment was constructed near Bendemeer, at Rose Valley Creek, to straighten a 2km section of road.

Construction on the highway has slowed in recent years, in lieu of a massive funding commitment from both State and Federal governments to the Pacific Highway. As at October 2005 only the 3.2km Devil’s Pinch realignment is under construction, although a new bridge at Duval Creek, near Armidale, was completed in December 2004. The Devil’s Pinch realignment will eliminate a section of road prone to landslides and allow an increase in speed limit from 80km/h to 100km/h, replacing an alignment constructed in the early 1980s. It is programmed for completion in early 2006. Also to be completed in early 2006 is a new bridge and realignment at Four Mile Creek, south of Tenterfield. Realignment of the highway at Halcombe Hill, near Aberdeen , has been programmed for commencement during this financial year. Also included for this year is the construction of a grade-separated interchange at Weakley’s Drive and Thornton Road , Beresfield, to replace a staggered T-junction set-up.

In the long term it will be the F3-Branxton Link project that will have the most significant impact on the New England Highway . Pending completion of the Link, the New England Highway will revert to an east-west artery serving the Newcastle-Maitland urban area as through traffic travelling from the F3 to Singleton and the Golden Highway is removed from the existing highway. No firm timetable for construction has been set following escalating cost estimates.

1. Department of Main Roads; 'Historical Roads of New South Wales: The Story of the New England Highway' in Main Roads Vol. 17 No. 3; March 1952; p.76
2. Department of Main Roads; 'Historical Roads of New South Wales: The Story of the New England Highway' in Main Roads Vol. 17 No. 3; March 1952; p.76
3. Department of Main Roads; 'Historical Roads of New South Wales: The Story of the New England Highway' in Main Roads Vol. 17 No. 3; March 1952; p.76
4. Department of Main Roads; 'Country Main Road Construction - Some Work in Hand by Councils' in Main Roads Vol. 14 No. 2; December 1948; p. 62-63
5. ‘Route Set For Highway Work’ in Newcastle Morning Herald ; 14 March 1961
6. ‘Route Set For Highway Work’ in Newcastle Morning Herald ; 14 March 1961
7. ‘4-lane highway to continue to Minmi road’ in Newcastle Morning Herald; 17 September 1965
8. '4-lane highway to continue to Minmi road’ in Newcastle Morning Herald; 17 September 1965

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