The Yarra was the city’s lifeblood, but also an obstacle for people and goods. Initially the only way to get across was in a boat, or at the ‘Falls’, using the rock ‘stepping stones’. 

Before any bridge was built, punts transported people and animals across the river. William Watt opened Melbourne’s first punt in 1838 - a ‘dray without wheels... launched through the agency of a small rope looped round the main rope across the river’. Several other punts, some steam-powered, operated on the river from the 1840s.

Melbourne’s first bridge over the Yarra River, by Ham Brothers, lithographers, 1850

Reproduced courtesy State Library Victoria

The First Punt Across the River Yarra 1838, by W.F.E. Liardet

Reproduced courtesy State Library Victoria

In 1845 the Melbourne Bridge Co. built Melbourne’s first bridge - a crude, timber, trestle-bridge just downstream of the present Princes Bridge. Local landowner R.A. Balbirnie leased it and collected tolls: 2s.6d. for drays (c. $20), 1s. for lighter vehicles (c. $10), and 2d. for pedestrians (c. $2).

In 1850 the first permanent bridge over the Yarra opened at the site of the present Princes Bridge. The structure spanned the river with a single arch of exceptional length (45.7 m) - the longest stone arch ever built in Australia. Its completion encouraged further settlement on the south side of the river — at Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) and Sandridge (Port Melbourne). Crown land sales in this area were held in 1852.

Melbourne, 1854 (From Emerald Hill), by E. Gilks

Reproduced courtesy State Library Victoria

Poor access and occasional flooding limited settlement at Emerald Hill (South Melbourne). A few settlers built houses near the beach at St Kilda (population 60 in 1846), but Prahran remained a forest and Emerald Hill a stock run until the 1850s.

Princes Bridge, by Alf Flood, 1892

Reproduced courtesy State Library Victoria

The single-span Princes Bridge was built in 1850 to replace the timber trestle bridge. It was demolished 34 years later and the present bridge opened in 1888.

Within 20 years of European settlement, chimneys abound and industry lines the banks.

Yarra Yarra from south side of Prince’s Bridge, Melbourne, by Edmund Thomas, 1853

Reproduced courtesy State Library Victoria