At Algebuckina, some 58 kilometres south of Oodnadatta, a wrought iron bridge carried the former Alice Springs narrow gauge railway across the flood plain of the River Neales. Though no train has passed over it since the new standard gauge route was opened from Tarcoola, the bridge still exists today and has a rather unique and interesting history.

When planning the extension of the Great Northern Railway from Peake to Angle Pole (just south of Oodnadatta) during the 1880s, the South Australian Government decided that the crossing of the River Neales would require a rather long and substantial bridge. A tender was called on 29 March 1889 for construction and delivery of ironwork for the superstructure and was subsequently let to James Hooker who owned the Lion Foundry at Kilkenny SA. James Hooker was a boilermaker by trade and had already built several iron bridges for the SA Government to serve as river crossings near Kapunda, Undalya, and other places. However the contract for the Neales bridge was one of the biggest he had ever undertaken.

Government labour began sinking the cast iron piers in 1890 and by the time the first of the wrought iron arrived for the superstructure, most of them had been completed. Considerable progress was made during the first half of 1891 and the Public Works Report for the twelve months ended 30 June states that the abutments had been finished, the pier cylinders were sunk into position except for two or three at the northern end, and that eleven spans of the superstructure were in place. Eventually it was completed and opened for traffic on 8 January 1892.

It was intended to have it ready in time for the opening of the Warrina – Oodnadatta section of railway on 7 January 1891 but delays in delivery of ironwork to the Algebuckina site prevented this. A temporary causeway placed across the river bed for construction trains during June 1889 had to be used in the meantime, and it is during the life of this causeway that the only instances of the line ever being cut by River Neales floodwaters occurred.

The first such incident was on 5 February 1890 when the track was cut for sixty hours. The second happened on 8 April in the same year and lasted 168 hours, while a third took place during the ensuing twelve months though in this case; no trains were delayed. Less than six months after the bridge had been opened the track across the causeway was taken up.

Of some concern is the belief that the Algebuckina ironwork was originally intended for the river crossing at Murray Bridge SA. Nothing could be further from the truth, though it is possible surplus pier cylinder sections may have been used in the Algebuckina piers. The superstructure for the River Neales nevertheless was definitely built by James Hooker as mentioned, but the bridge over the River Murray was manufactured in the UK 22 years earlier. Perhaps the fact that the latter item was stored in pieces at Dry Creek after its arrival in SA while politicians argued over where it should be erected, coupled with the possibility that surplus material may have been used for the piers at Algebuckina, gave rise to the long standing misbelief. For the full story on why the Murray Bridge was not erected for five years after arriving from the UK, consult SA Parliamentary Paper No. 254 of 1877 and SA Parliamentary Debates, September 1867 and June 1872

Dimensions of the Algebuckina structure are: 19 spans, each 101 feet 6 inches (30.9 metres) long; total length 1,928 feet 6 inches (587.8 metres)—which is 51 feet 6 inches (15.7 metres) shorter than the Murray bridge—and 10 feet (3 metres) deep girders. It should also be noted that the width of the clear roadway on the Murray bridge is much greater than that allowed on the Algebuckina bridge.

A party of men, possibly politicians and railway officials, inspect the relatively new Algebuckina Bridge circa 1897. What appears to be the remains of the causeway can be seen just below the structure near centre left of the picture. A U class locomotive stands by waiting to take the party on. (Photographer Rev. Robert Mitchell; photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 47499.)

This article by Roger Sallis was published in Pichi Richi Patter, Vol. 25 No. 1, Spring 1997. Editor's note: Minor amendments have been made to the metric conversions.