Half-way between Sheffield and Railton, regular road-users travelling down Stoodley hill today remain cautious of the sharp bend at the bottom that cuts around a steep, rocky outcrop. Lots of work has gone into improving this notorious corner, which, from the earliest times, was regarded as ‘one of the most dangerous corners on the Coast’ and the scene of many accidents. Many present-day travellers may be totally unaware that this same dangerous corner is also the site of one of the Kentish district’s most historic structures, commonly referred to as ‘Dick Lowe’s Bridge’. Hidden away in the bottom of this gorge, nine metres below the present bitumen highway, is a historic stone archway bridge, similar to convict structures seen in Southern Tasmania. Constructed of fine basalt bluestone rock, it forms a tunnel 30 metres long to carry the waters of Lowe’s Creek beneath the highway to join Redwater Creek on its run through Railton to the Mersey River. On the archway’s eastern end is inscribed 1897.
While crossing this bridge in a vehicle, it is impossible to see any sign of this historic culvert, and much too dangerous to slow down and look around or even walk back along the side of the highway to peer over the side. For decades, the gully has been filled with blackberries, but in spring 2021 the pro-active group known as Kentish Walks opened up this site, cutting two access tracks with signposts into the base of the ravine; one from off Stoodley Rd, the other a steep descent down from Rail Track Road.
Dick Low builds first bridge
From the very beginning, Kentish pioneers had difficulties descending the mile-long hill, rounding the sharp corner, and immediately facing a further, final steep decline into the bottom of the rough ravine to cross its rocky creek bed. As early as 1863, a petition was signed by every Kentish resident begging the government that “one small but exceedingly dangerous ford might be bridged.” Their plea was totally ignored. Thus followed years of troublesome travelling, slipping and sliding down the muddy Stoodley hillside track, only to find, after heavy rain and floods, the creek impassable.
The first public indication that the government was prepared to help occurred in an August 1877 newspaper, when the Director of Public Works called tenders to clear and construct culverts on Kentishbury Rd ‘commencing at Dick Low’s Bridge’. A couple of months later, tenders were also called ‘for the erection of a bridge at a place known as Dick Low’s Bridge.’ This was awarded to bridge contractor Robert Milburn, Tarleton, with his tender of £182/10/-. After building this bridge over the 1877/78 summer, Milburn’s next two contracts involved bridging the Cam and Blythe Rivers.
What is so unusual about the wording of these two government tenders is the implication that well prior to Milburn’s 1877 tender, a person named Dick Low had given his name not only to the creek but built an earlier bridge across that creek. More than that, ‘Dick Low’s Bridge’ had become a place name for surrounding settlers. This is confirmed in Sept 1879 when Surveyor Dooley released his survey of the proposed railway route between Sheffield and Railton passing through a place called Dick Low’s Bridge, even though 18 months earlier Low’s bridge had been replaced by Robert Milburn’s new bridge. All doubts disappear when in November 1886 the second Post Office in the wider Railton region was opened at Lowe’s Bridge. The Tasmanian Directory for 1890 lists Railton PO with only 21 residents, while Lowe’s Bridge PO had 51 residents. In the 1870/80s many new settlers took up blocks around Stoodley and Shadyside, which later proved to be inferior land. Interestingly, some residents objected to the place being called ‘Dick’ Low’s Bridge, insisting on just Lowe’s Bridge. About the same time, the original Low spelling now became Lowe. Lowe’s Bridge Post Office operated 1886-1903 and one of the most prized possessions a Tasmanian stamp collector can have is a franked postage stamp bearing Lowe’s Bridge postmark. After 1905, the district, with its newly located Post Office, was renamed Stoodley.
So who was Dick Low? Convict or a free settler? Thanks to the only personal reference about him in any newspaper, Latrobe’s North Coast Standard newspaper, dated 7 May 1892, appears to have the answer. An unnamed correspondent writes: ‘The oldest native-born inhabitant of Tasmania is Richard Low, a hale and hearty pioneer of 86, who has been previously living in the Kentish district. His father built old Government House, which once stood in Macquarie St. Hobart, on the site where Sir John Franklin’s Monument now stands. Richard Low…built the old bridge (now demolished) on the high road between Railton and Sheffield which was called after him – Dick Low’s Bridge’. Having confirmed that his father Francis Low was indeed commissioned by Lady Jane Franklin in 1837 to construct a scaled timber model of old Government House, we can only assume that the rest of the information is also accurate. This correspondent specifically states in 1892 that Richard Low’s original bridge was “now demolished.” Replaced, obviously, in 1877 by Robert Milburn’s bridge, which itself was replaced twenty years later in 1897 by the fine, historic, arched bluestone culvert that still exists today.
It seems after the government’s initial refusal in 1863 to build a bridge across this dangerous ravine, constant letters of complaints from early settlers led them later to send Richard Low to bridge this dangerous creek crossing. Without sandstone available on the Northwest, all coastal bridges were constructed from long logs supported on wooden buttresses. The approximate lifespan of such timber bridges was about 20 years. Probably around 1870 Dick Low settled beside an unnamed creek which was soon named after him. Just how much local stone he was able to use is hard to guess. His timber spans probably came from Sam Winter’s first sawmill, erected at Redwater Creek about 1868 to cut sleepers for the first railway line. After a decade of dangerous crossings, Kentish settlers were so appreciative of this new structure across the creek that they quickly dubbed it Dick Low’s Bridge. About the same time, a branch road was opened to access all the new settlers around this district. The junction from where this new road began was Dick Low’s Bridge. So, it soon became a place name as well.
1897 The present bluestone bridge
In the late 1880s it was reported that ‘there was a hole through the narrow floor of ‘Dick Low’s Bridge’ (Milburn’s replacement bridge) and that it was ‘in a most deplorable condition’. The Railton Road Trust urged the government to give Lowe’s bridge immediate attention because of its ‘decayed’ condition and likelihood to collapse. Maybe they patched it up, for it wasn’t until a decade later that money was allocated to build a new bridge in the government’s 1896/97 budget. The Railton Road Trust, again, wrote urging for an immediate start to be finished before the next carting season. Nothing happened. In October 1896, one of the many accidents occurred on Dick Lowe’s bridge. A bolting horse in a chaise cart collided with George Rockliff’s bullock team, badly injuring one animal. The accident had other legal ramifications, because the cart driver was using binding-twine as a substitute for leather reins.
After further letters, the desperate chairman Sam F Oliver finally put a public notice in the newspaper dated 11 December 1896, stating ‘the Railton Road Trust will not be responsible for any accident occurring on Low’s Bridge, owing to its unsafe condition.’ Finally, this achieved a response. On 15 February 1897 a contract was let to Walter Butler, road contractor of Sheffield, ‘to build a bridge and improve its approaches’ for £210. Farmers were very annoyed with the government for delaying bridge-building until the carting season was underway, with 50-60 bullock teams regularly on the road every day, whereas for the previous 3 months there had scarcely been any traffic.
Walter Butler immediately commenced working with two shifts of men each day to get the job done. They pulled down the old bridge and erected a temporary one so farmers could continue to use the road. Walter’s son Tom Butler (22) arrived with their steam engine and stone-crusher. As their contract required them to eliminate the dangerous descent in and out of Lowe’s creek, their plan was to add 20 feet of road filling above the height of the bridge. This left them no option but to construct a substantial stone arched culvert in the bottom of the gully. By mid-April 1897 we read: ‘The old bridge known as Lowe’s bridge has been replaced by a fine substantial bluestone culvert, 6ft by 4ft opening, 100ft long with 20ft of road filling on top to reduce the grades from 1 in 8 to 1 in 18… The old bridge had been in a rickety condition for the last two years, the only wonder being that it had not collapsed long ago… This will be a great benefit to farmers carting heavy loads to the Railton station. The work is a credit to the contractor Mr Walter Butler, who has had men working day and night to get the job done before the winter sets in.’ To complete his task, Butler chiselled 1897 on the culvert’s eastern end. He received many accolades for his work, which has stood the test of time.
Bridge-builder Walter Butler (1851-1920)
Walter George Butler was the eldest son of George Butler, who aged 14 was sentenced in Sheffield, England, to seven years transportation for stealing a pair of boots. In VDL, he was sent to the boys’ prison at Point Puer, Tasman Peninsular. Later, in Aug 1848, George Butler (24) m Sarah Jarman (18) in Launceston, eventually having 15 children. Walter was 13 in 1864 when his father was hired to clear the West Kentish property Vermont Vale, later owned by the Braid family. By 1875 George Butler was able to purchase his own property at Nook, where Sarah operated the Nook PO. In May 1873 young Walter Butler m Maria Strawberry (both 21) and settled in Sheffield, having nine children. Walter became an overseer for the Kentish Road Trust, later the PWD, before becoming a road contractor on his own. He purchased a traction engine and a stone crusher, and developed a reputation for working hard and getting road jobs done in an efficient manner. His work took him all over the Kentish, Devonport, and Ulverstone districts. Among his contracts were several bridges, extending Staverton Rd to Mt Claude, putting in a big deviation on the Forth-Wilmot Road, and the Paradise deviation road across the Dasher to join Claude Rd.
In 1890 Walter Butler was a founding member of the Sheffield Turf Club, making land available for the first Boxing Day race meeting that attracted nearly 400 people. He owned several properties along Formby Street. While working on his Lowe’s Bridge contract, Butler commenced his own coach service between Sheffield to Railton, which he continued until the railway line opened in 1914. To his various coaches, in 1903 he added a new ‘four-horse drag’ that carried 25 passengers to sporting events and picnics at the Bluff. All his horses and vehicles were kept on his farm at the southern end of Henry St, Sheffield (now Roland Court subdivision). Walter died in May 1920, aged 69.
Tom J Butler MHA (1875-1937) began working for his father at the age of 13, driving bullocks carting stone for road works before upgrading to running the traction engine and a stone crusher. After Tom married Edith Manning on 15 July 1902, they moved into the new house Tom had built at 1 High St, Sheffield, where most of their 10 children were born: Lionel (Jack), Allan, Ray, Florence (Dolly), Rita, Nancy, Joffre, Margaret, Bernice & Max. In 1912 they moved to their Randwich property off Nook Rd. After his father retired, Tom Butler expanded his road-making business all over northern Tasmania and included transporting heavy machinery. In 1920 he constructed the eight mile road into the Waddamana power-station, then, using traction engines, hauled the first power plant into this site. He won contracts for hauling huge transformers to various substations. When the government began laying down bitumen roads, they had problems until Tom Butler entered the field. He laid the first bitumen roads from Launceston to Hagley, down the West Tamar, around Latrobe, and in Somerset districts. He joined the Kentish Council about 1910, but pressure of business made him decline re-election. He purchased several Kentish farms and the Livery Stables at Maddox Hotel, Sheffield. In 1931 he stood for the House of Assembly and topped the poll, creating a state record with 5,863 primary votes. On a visit to WA, Tom brought back the idea of establishing Area schools in Tasmania, with Sheffield becoming the first one. Tom Butler died suddenly in Hobart on 8 July 1937 aged 61. A huge crowd, including many state and local government representatives, attended his funeral in the Sheffield Methodist church and later at the local cemetery.
Folklore surrounding Dick Lowe’s Bridge has developed from the many families who once lived around this location. The name does have a romantic ring about it and one fanciful story suggests its Post Office was the place to get a quick marriage. But the truth is that the present fine, historic arched bridge dated 1897 has nothing whatsoever to do with the original Dick Low, and everything to do with the pioneering father and son duo Walter and Tom Butler whose contributions to Kentish were considerable, yet largely uncelebrated.