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It has survived fire and flood, but it's the ravages of time that threaten to finally topple Victoria’s longest timber trestle rail bridge.
"It's now or never," says May Leatch, one of the principal organisers of a campaign to save the historic 770-metre bridge that ushers travellers into Orbost, four-and-a-half hours' drive east of Melbourne. "It's reaching the point where if we don't do something to preserve this structure it will soon be too late to save it."
Garry Squires, Liz Mitchell and May Leatch are campaigning to save the 770-metre long timber trestle rail bridge in Orbost. CREDIT:COLIN MANDY
In December, the campaign group Save the Snowy River Rail Bridge hung a huge banner from its upper planks, just in time for the annual influx of tourists drawn by the beaches and excellent fishing of nearby Marlo, where the Snowy meets the sea.
The office they set up in a dilapidated storefront in the main street of town – its walls covered with photos, clippings and a mural painted by a local artist – has had plenty of visitors too. But much of the support has come from out-of-towners.
"It's not that the locals don't care for the bridge," says Leatch. "It's just that for a lot of them it's something that's always been here, and they sort of imagine that it always will be."
But the rot has well and truly set in, and two engineering studies commissioned by the group have identified what needs to be done to restore the bridge to its former glory, and make it safe for walkers and cyclists to use.
The top timbers in the bridge are rare native mahogany.CREDIT:COLIN MANDY
The likely bill is around $2.5 million – not a lot, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, but for this once-but-no-longer-thriving community, it's a fortune.
"Twenty years ago, Orbost was a town of about 3000 people," says Garry Squires, chairman of the local chamber of commerce. "Now there's about 2000, and many of them are getting on a bit."
Timber used to be a major employer in the area, but that’s all but gone now. And when Jeff Kennett amalgamated the councils in 1994, Orbost saw much of its administrative services – and the jobs they supported – move to Bairnsdale.
The young people in the area left for school and work, and many never came back. Unemployment in the town isn’t much higher than anywhere else, says Squires, but that's only because so many people are retired and not actually looking for work.
The last train out of Orbost, 21 August 1987.CREDIT:SAVE THE SNOWY RIVER RAIL BRIDGE
And so it is that for Orbost's unlikely activists the ancient and crumbling bridge represents the town's best shot at a thriving future, primarily through tourism.
Liz Mitchell, who moved to Orbost 20 years ago, says the town is perfectly situated to capitalise on the growth in "soft adventure" travel.
"I've been running tours here for nine years, and every year I've had significant growth," says the owner of Snowy River Cycling.
The bulk of her business happens in autumn and spring, and more than half her customers are female and over-50 – a demographic well inclined to spend time and money in the areas they visit.
Peter Dreverman (far right), a third-generation Orbost farmer, is among those campaigning to save and restore the bridge.CREDIT:COLIN MANDY
A restored bridge would serve as a perfect end to the Gippsland rail trail, which runs 100 kilometres between Bairnsdale and the town. "Just imagine cycling over that to end your ride," she says, her finger tracing the long graceful arc of silvered timbers emerging from the forest and snaking towards the river. "It would be so memorable for people, and a real draw to the town."
But not everyone sees the same potential.
"There are plenty of people around here who'd be glad to see the bridge go," says Peter Dreverman, a third-generation farmer in the area. "They reckon it's an eyesore and it should be burnt down. But they tried that after the floods in 1971 and it didn't work."
For May Leatch, that resilience is part of the appeal of the bridge, part of its story. To see it restored would be to add another chapter, telling a tale of a resurgent Orbost. To do otherwise, she insists, would be unthinkable.
"If we just let it crumble," she asks, "what does that say about this town, or about us?"
Off the railsThe Orbost rail bridge was opened in 1916, and closed in 1987. At 770 metres, it is the longest in Victoria, but it does not have a National Trust listing. There is also a second, shorter section leading to the site of the former railway station.
By comparison, the iconic rail bridge at Kilcunda on the Bass Coast – blessed with ocean views and National Trust protection – is 91 metres long.
The Noojee trestle bridge (also National Trust protected) in the La Trobe River area spans 102 metres and is, at 21 metres, the highest in Victoria.
The Monbulk trestle bridge, a highlight of the Puffing Billy tourist attraction, is 91 metres long.
The Eltham Central Park trestle bridge – the only one still in use on the rail network in suburban Melbourne – is 195 metres long.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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