Escalating Change

I’ve been writing Mirror Sydney for long enough that many of the places I have featured have now been demolished, or changed, or transformed. On my train trips across the harbour I have been observing the start of the demolition of the Port Operations Tower in Millers Point. The tower at the top is almost gone now. Once it is fully removed the concrete stem below it will be eaten away by robotic excavators from the top down. Could there be a more sci-fi fate than to be eaten by robots?


Scaffolding on the tower at the start of demolition

Despite all the city’s changes there are places that remain stubbornly consistent, and of all the different types of city places the stubborn ones are perhaps my favourites. Stubborn places can quickly turn elusive, though, because coming into notice is usually a harbinger of disappearance. Earlier in the year I had been quietly noting that, despite all the reconstruction at Wynyard station, the trip up to York Street required a journey through the 1930s via the steep, wooden escalators.


So it was no surprise when, back in July, there were reports of their potential removal. The arguments in favour of their replacement were more than simply their age. They pose a fire risk, and the wooden slats can be dangerous, as guide dogs’ claws have become stuck in the wooden steps. But as yet the Office of Environment and Heritage are yet to give their final decision, and the escalators remain for now.

This exit from the train station gives you a triple choice: you can either enter the Concourse Bar with its lingerie-clad bar staff, turn off for a trip along the corridor of a spacecraft (the new Wynyard Walk pedestrian tunnel), or climb aboard the wooden escalators. The row of four escalators, divided by shiny, wood panels have always reminded me of furniture, a sideboard, perhaps, or a cabinet, or a piano. This early photo of them, with one of the wells boarded over, looks even more cabinet-like – and with the added bonus of “shadowless lighting”.


Now panels are decorated by thick, round studs, like the heads of giant wooden nails, no doubt to deter people from sliding down what would otherwise be an excellent slippery dip.

In 1932 when the station opened escalators were regarded as much a novelty as a piece of infrastructure, and article after article in newspapers made mention of them as the city’s latest attraction, a “source of almost endless joy” for children. School groups coming from the country to visit Sydney made certain to ride the escalators for a taste of city life. For those unaccustomed, the Broken Hill newspaper the “Barrier Miner”, described the new contraptions thus (please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know how to use an escalator):

The escalator looks just like an ordinary staircase when it is at rest, but when in motion all that one has to do in order to ascend to the top is to get on the bottom stop, take hold of the rail if desired, and stand quite still and be carried up to the top landing, just as a bucket of ore is carried up on a conveyor belt. At the top the passenger is gently slid on to the solid lauding; but as it seems unlikely at the first glance that the sliding will be as gentle as it really is there is often a bit of a jump by the inexperienced person, though those accustomed to travelling up the machine simply walk straight on as they reach the top.

Even into the 1940s the escalators were still entrancing young visitors.


It wasn’t just children who found the escalators exciting. A 1932 newspaper article describing an acrimonious failed romance between a 50 year old widow and a 70 year old travelling showman made mention of “a happy time riding on the escalators at Wynyard Station”, before the troubles began.

The trip may only take 48 seconds (or 18 if you are a “hustler”), but this is enough time for romance, thrills and altercations. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in Wynyard and choose to travel the 1930s way.



15 Comments on “Escalating Change”

  1. Mirella Torrisi says:

    You are so right- as soon as something becomes visible, it’s vulnerable. I’m exhausted trying to protect this city. This blog is great.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Mirella, yes it can be hard to keep up with everything that’s changing, even just to document it. Glad to hear you enjoy the blog.

  2. I’m a latecomer to this fabulous website though I’ve been aware of some of the Sydney noir shows (Peter Doyle’s especially). But being in the UK doesn’t help! I do get back to Sydney pretty regularly (I last lived there in 1999) and will quite possibly be moving back (thanks to Brexit) in a couple of years. Keep up the good work!

  3. I travelled on these escalators twice a day for 5 years on my way to Fort Street Girls’ High School, now the National Trust headquarters. I loved them!!

  4. Graeme says:

    I rode on a few of the wooden ones at Macy’s in New York several years ago. Only recently noticed one (apparently there are two) at Town Hall Station, and that’s only because I’m using public transport a lot more since I obtained my Seniors Opal card. Up until now, I hadn’t realised how rare they were. I’ll have to take a detour (I’m on the Illawarra line) to view the Wynyard ones. On that subject, I note that the fourth Wynyard one was not installed until 1952. One assumes the extra capacity wasn’t required until then.

  5. Ash. says:

    I always hustle when I am on an escalator! As I am usually running late, every second counts!

  6. QueensGirl says:

    Those wooden escalators are charming; I hope they stay. The only other place where I’ve seen them is Macy’s department store in Manhattan.

  7. Ash says:

    Last night I went to Wynyard Station to enjoy the escalators. It took 53 seconds from the bottom to the top and 23 if I hustled. They must have slowed down a little in their old age.

    So glorious with their timber trims!

  8. Margaret says:

    Ah, the Port Operations Tower… when it was fisrt built it was nicknamed “The Pill”, as it controlled all the berths in Sydney.
    And the 10 year old Hardy Bridgland in the newspaper clipping .. he died in his beloved Mullumbimby in Dec 2010.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      A racy nickname for the Tower!
      I love Hardy’s feature in the paper from all those years ago, and it’s wonderful to hear he had a long life in the place he loved. Thank you for your comment Margaret.

  9. AgentGerko says:

    The escalators at Wynyard were actually the original escalators used at the old Milsons Point station, before the Bridge was built, when you had to get down from the Station to the ferry wharf.

  10. I cannot begin to tell you the deep joy I find reading your blog – as a Sydney expat from the end of the century I miss the city so, and rarely have the chance to revisit. I’ve just been giving myself the treat of a Good Long Read, and came across this post with particular delight. I have two little girls born and raised in Mullumbimby, and on our rare Sydney visits they have no greater delight than riding escalators – we don’t have any of those here (nor traffic lights). And the Bridgland family still has a strong presence in Mullumbimby. I wonder whether they go down to Sydney to ride the escalators? 🙂

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you – I’m so happy to hear you’re enjoying reading the blog and it’s bringing a bit of Sydney to you!

  11. Nicole says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog as I am about to embark on my first ever visit to Sydney, sadly I now realise 2 1/2 days is not going to be nearly enough time to see much at all. I just googled these escalators and watched a time lapse of their replacement, and the art work created from the old steps. I am glad they kept the timber look design on the new ones.

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