Unknown artist, 'Huon Road in Summer', 1886, showing the unmade surface (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Until the end of the nineteenth century, building a road in the colony was usually a slow process, which began with marking a route by a surveyor, settlers, mineral prospectors or miners. As use increased, the road was cleared and grubbed, and holes were filled to a standard suitable for packhorses. Further improvement for bullock drays or horse-drawn carts and coaches resulted in widening the roadway, raising and shaping the surface for drainage, and placing timber culverts where small waterways crossed the road line. The final stages for horse-drawn, steel-tyred vehicles included the methods adopted by Telford or McAdam.

River crossings were usually located at suitable fords but these were often impassable in winter or times of flood. Bridges were built of logs covered with road soil, spanning from bank to bank, and, for wider streams, multi-span bridges were built with the logs spanning between 'pig-stied' piers or uncemented masonry piers. For about fifty years from the mid-1820s, most bridges and culverts were of masonry construction. Due to the cost of masonry, the next step was for bridges of laminated timber arches supported on masonry piers and abutments. Then came iron or timber trusses.

Soon after Collins established the settlement at Hobart Town in 1804, free settlers began to take up nearby land for farms. These settlers demanded access to their properties. The government cleared a track to the government farm at New Town, and settlers improved parts of the track and links to their properties. A reasonable road was provided by 1807. That year Lieutenant Laycock walked from Port Dalrymple to Hobart Town. Governor Bligh sent Surveyor-General Grimes to check the route and locate a line of road. Parts of this 'Main Line of Road' had been cleared and improved and simple timber bridges constructed over some streams by the time Governor Macquarie rode the line during his 1811 visit. He instructed that the road be improved, and by his second visit in 1821, he could travel by coach.

In 1811 Macquarie selected George Town as the centre of settlement in the north and Norfolk Plains (Longford) for settlers transferred from Norfolk Island, and instructed that roads be built from Launceston to each. Gradually free settlers took up land around Hobart, Launceston and the new Main Line of Road. This led to demands for more roads and better river crossings, which resulted in the first road from Hobart Town to New Norfolk, built by McCarty under contract to the government. Settlement on the Clyde River at Bothwell led to a road from Cross Marsh (Melton Mowbray) and extensions to Hamilton and New Norfolk. The road at Bothwell also linked to Great Lake. Another road was built from Campbell Town to Fingal to serve gold discoveries there.

The Van Diemen's Land Company was granted 250,000 acres in the north-west conditional upon the area being cleared, improved and cultivated. Improvement included a suitable road, from the hinterland near Surrey Hills, to the north coast near Emu Bay. The Company built an extension from Emu Bay to Port Dalrymple to allow movement of stock to market without depending on ships. Other settlers, who had taken up land between Port Dalrymple and the Mersey River, opened up roads from their holdings to the coast or to navigable rivers. The road to New Norfolk had been extended to Ouse and Marlborough (Nive River) to serve settlers by 1840. During the next forty years the road was further extended for tourist purposes to Lake St Clair.

In the 1830s a road was made from New Town via the Risdon ferry and Grass Tree Hill to Richmond. Access to the east coast was improved by the construction of the Sorell Causeway (1874). Although there was a horse track from Richmond to Jerusalem (Colebrook) and Little Swanport, settlers wanted a more direct land route to Hobart. A start was made at Rocky Hills (1840) as part of the connection to the road to Little Swanport which continued to join the Main Road at Epping Forest, and on the road between Swansea and Avoca. A road was also started, in 1845, from Swansea to Conara and, in 1864, between Conara and Falmouth to Georges Bay (St Helens). In 1855, Surveyor Scott found good land at Scott's New Country (Scottsdale) and, as settlement extended, in the 1870s roads were built out from Launceston to new settlements and to gold and tin mines in the north-east. Later, the floating Hobart Bridge across the Derwent (1943) led to much closer settlement on the eastern shore of the river and along the east coast, causing increased pressure for improved roads in those areas.

By 1830 a bridle track ran from Hobart Town to Browns River (Kingston). Settlers at Victoria (Huon River) started to build a track to Browns River in the 1850s, but remained without direct access to Hobart until 1865 when the direct road was completed. The extension of this road to Port Esperance was authorised in 1867, but not completed for many years.

Construction of a road from Pitt Water to Port Arthur was delayed because of the need to ensure the security of the prison, but once the peninsula was opened for settlement in the 1880s, a road was provided through Dunalley, Murdunna and Eaglehawk Neck. As settlement increased, branch roads were provided as required.

A map of roads in 1870 shows roads on most present-day routes, except in the mining areas of the west coast. After mines were opened in the 1880s most communication was by railways or tramways and most trade and travel by sea from Strahan or Burnie to Melbourne. Pressure from west coast residents and Hobart businessmen resulted in Hobart being linked to the west by the Lyell Highway in 1932. Another thirty years saw the west coast mining areas linked to Burnie by the Murchison Highway (1960s).

After the opening of the first railway in 1869, the rail system expanded rapidly and road works almost ceased until after the First World War. But as motor transport increased in the 1920s, it was found that roads, constructed for use by iron-tyred vehicles, soon failed under the action of pneumatic tyres. This led to trials of stone pavements bound together by tar or bitumen (tar macadam or tarmac) or, for heavily loaded roads, mass concrete or reinforced concrete pavements. Due to the high cost of such roads, much research was done throughout Australia to develop a method of building low-cost roads by using available soils and gravels. A bearing test was developed in America to measure the strength of the soil on which a road was to be built, and the result was related to the thickness of pavement required to prevent failure of the road.

After the Second World War, mainland departments of roads developed laboratory tests to predict the bearing strength of soils and hence the thickness of pavement required. Tasmania's Public Works Department adopted the Victorian system and was able to build roads at much lower cost than if using crushed rock. During the war years roads deteriorated because of the need to provide for defence. Further damage occurred soon after the war because of a rail strike, which resulted in a vast increase in heavy road traffic carting essential supplies to industries throughout the state. Essential maintenance was being undertaken when further damage was caused after the roll-on ferry service across Bass Strait began in 1959. The axle loads of trucks on New South Wales and Victorian roads was greater than those on Tasmanian roads so, to meet the requirements of free trade between states, the limits on the latter roads were increased to conform. Similar overloading of the road pavements occurred because of the rapid increase in haulage of logs between forests and wood-chipping centres after the mid-1960s.

In 1957, the Director of Works in New Zealand was engaged to examine Tasmania's road system. He concluded that the main requirement was for more dust-free pavements, and he proposed a class of improvement known as 'as is' sealing, by which existing unsealed roads were improved to a standard width and strength of pavement, and sealed with little improvement in alignment and profile.

With the increase in numbers and weights of vehicles during and after the 1960s, reconstruction of the Midland and Bass Highways was undertaken by major realignment, including bypassing towns and constructing new bridges. New roads leading to major towns included dual carriageways with limited access to provide better and safer flow of traffic.

Further reading: Public Works Department, Tasmania, Annual Report 1947/48; H Bellamy, 'Modern road construction', Institution of Engineers, Australia Bulletin, April 1925; L Newitt, Convicts & carriageways, Hobart, 1988; G Stancombe, Highway in Van Diemen's Land, Western Junction, 1968; F Hanson, Roading in Tasmania, Wellington, NZ, 1957; H Newell, 'Road engineering and its development in Australia, 17881938', Institution of Engineers, Australia Journal 2 & 3, 1938.

Allen Wilson