Opawa River Bridge

Engineering Work (eg road, bridge, sawmill, dam)


The Opawa River Bridge was constructed between 1915 and 1917, making it the first concrete bowstring arch bridge in New Zealand.

Also known as the Grove Road Bridge, the structure carries State Highway 1 over the Opawa River at Blenheim. After the failure of early road bridges, local traffic shared use of the railway bridge until the Opawa River Bridge was completed.

The bridge was designed for the Public Works Department, prior to the outbreak of World War One, by J. D. Holmes under the supervision of his father, Robert West Holmes (1856–1936). The creation of a bowstring arch bridge shows Holmes’ awareness of contemporary international currents in bridge design because this form of structure only came into popular use in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The first piles for the new bridge were driven in February 1915. Although completed in March 1917, the structure was only officially opened by the Minister of Internal Affairs, G. W. Russell, in December 1917. The structure cost approximately £21,000; significantly more than expected. The bulk of the funding was grudgingly provided by local bodies in Marlborough and one third by the Government.

The Opawa River Bridge has eight 21.3 metre bowstring arch spans. Geoffrey Thornton describes the bridge as “…rather heavy in its structural members; quite understandable in an early essay.” This bridge led the way for the development of concrete bowstring arch bridges in New Zealand, and by the 1930s designs had evolved into graceful and attractive structures, such as the Balclutha and Fairfield Bridges.

Heritage Recognition

This place has been recognised by Heritage New Zealand as a Category 1 historic place (List no.241):
Opawa River Bridge: New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero information (www.heritage.org.nz).

‘The Opawa Bridge,’ Marlborough Express, 11 October 1916, p.3

‘Opawa Traffic Bridge,’ Marlborough Express, 11 December 1917, p.8

G. Thornton, Bridging the Gap: Early bridges in New Zealand, 1830-1939, Auckland, 2001, pp.262-63


No Attachments


State Highway 1/Grove Road, crossing the Opawa River immediately north of Blenheim.


Access Info
This structure is best viewed from the banks of the Opawa River, and is accessible to vehicle traffic as part of State Highway 1.

Nature of Engineering
Infrastructure (incl. Road, water, ports)


Opawa Bridge, Blenheim, and a car travelling across, [192?]. Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: 1/2-045797-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

(Click image to enlarge )

Lat: -41.500185 Long: 173.962090