Almanac Life: Skater Boys

Whenever I pass beneath the West Gate Bridge on my way home to Williamstown, it is impossible for me not to steal a glance at the large memorial plaque, a grim reminder of the infamous disaster in which 35 construction workers lost their lives. There were a further 18 workers who were injured. It may surprise the many who vividly recall the infamous day (including me – although I was only five years old), that this coming October will mark the 50th anniversary of Australia’s worst industrial accident. A workmate of mine was only six years old when he lost his father in this accident, so I am constantly aware of the tragedy’s impact.


However, my memories are of a different hue when traversing the bridge to venture home. Because at the age of twelve, my friend Matt and I would use the empty expanses of the West Gate Bridge to practise our skating skills.


For a short time, Matt lived in a rambling old house near the Melbourne Road exit ramp of the West Gate. The house was demolished long ago to make way for what is now a Shell petrol station. On weekends, I would tuck my skateboard under my arm and head off to Matt’s place. Once there, with a couple of other local lads, we would make for the bridge, crawl through a hole in the fence at the Spotswood football ground and hike up the incline of the still incomplete bridge. Even to my young eyes, from the top the view across the western suburbs was spectacular. The bridge was our blank canvas, as the lines were yet to be painted on the asphalt. From a spot roughly adjacent to where the farm of fuel tanks stood silently, we would hurtle down the bridge to the fence at the end of the exit ramp – and then we would grab our boards and do it all again. It was a thrilling mix of adrenaline and outright fear.


Our skateboards were rudimentary. My board was not much more sophisticated than a wooden plank with wheels, while Matt’s was constructed of dark blue polyurethane. His looked better, but was still almost impossible to manouvre. Thus, we were never really able to complete Tony Hawk type moves. In fact, bringing the board to a halt upon gathering a full head of steam was a difficult task, and one which we never fully mastered. Inches of skin were scraped from knees; mounds of pebbles were prised from elbow wounds. Pride was often wounded but would quickly heal if the next accident was not yours. The final span of the bridge, which had collapsed with such tragic consequences, was still yet to be completed. All that separated the unwary or over-curious from a fatal mis-step was the flimsiest of chain fences. I was never keen on getting more than 20 metres or so from the edge. And further, it would more often than not be blowing a gale up there.


Our fun was terminated when we spied a security guard patrolling the road. Even more serious was the discovery that the hole in the fence had been patched up. We collectively shrugged our shoulders and agreed that it had been good while it lasted.


Having lived overseas for well over a decade, Matt and his wife will soon be returning home. I have missed him. We have plenty of shared experiences on which to reminisce. Including those weekends when, for a brief moment in time, we were the West Gate skater boys.






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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Times have changed Smoke. That would have been a fair old skate track! Not for the faint-hearted.

    Even to this day I’m always glad when I get off that bridge.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Mean feat Smokie! I can hear those wheels absolutely humming!

  3. Remember it well; and the two halves that were there for years until it was completed.

    Great memories Smokie, but I too, hate driving across it. Very little room for minor errors.

  4. Rulebook says

    Smokie I would have been,7 we must have been in Vic for xmas holidays I can remember going there seeing the gap but to young to comprehend the disaster and admit I’ve never been on a skateboard

  5. Oh the things we did when we were young……

  6. Thea Allan says

    Thanks for sharing the magic of your childhood

  7. Earl O'Neill says

    I had one of those wooden boards, with the pressed metal trucks and rubber wheels. Top of the free was the Bahne Superflex. David Condon had one, he was 16, had a tattoo and played drums w a metal band. Double kick setup.

  8. Thanks for all the comments, all.

    I actually do not like even driving over the bridge these days.

  9. I’m really enjoying these tales from your yoof Smokie. My skateboard was a cheap wooden affair too and I never really felt in control while atop it. For me, like the yo-yo, it was just another craze and I escaped with no broken bones.

    Glad I’m not the only one who sweats driving over a tall, exposed bridge. Going recently from Copenhagen to Malmo over the bridge on the wrong side of the road (for me) on a windy Sunday morning was terrifying. Like landing after a bouncy flight, I was happy when there was Swedish soil under the BMW’s wheels!

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    Great stuff Daredevil Dawson!

    One of Mark Seymour’s very best solo tracks is “Westgate”, about the collapse of the bridge during construction. What a terrible tragedy.

  11. i’m a few years older than you Smokie, being at primary school when the bridge went down. I remember were @ school, hearing the ambulances going/coming. My mum was having lunch @ the old (long gone) Coles Cafeteria upstairs in Paisley street. She also heard the ambulances going out, and a ‘cloud’ of dust, silt, floating across Footscray.

    In the late 70’s, 77-79, we’d often go for long rides on our pushies. Late 1978 we rode our bikes over a good section of the incomplete bridge.There was also tunnels, pipes around Spotswood, not far from the bridge we’d ride our pushies. Yep being a teenager with a push bike in the late 70’s took you on a few interesting journeys.

    Sadly 50 years later workers still die on the job, with employers walking away ‘scot free’.. In my memory none of those responsible for the engineering ‘balls-up’ that killed 35 men got away with little more than a slap with a wet tram ticket. Industrial manslaughter laws are a must.


  12. Well-balanced story, Smokie. Right balance of chronicling youthful adventures and tragedy.

    Did I read somewhere (the Almanac type book about the western suburbs from a few years ago?) that Spotswood footballers used to run up and down the unfinished ramps for training?

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