Monday, November 9, 2015

The Railway & the Blue Mountains

A D255 locomotive at Bowenfels, c.1885

During the 19th Century, improvements in transport and communication were of vital significance for the development of New South Wales. In 1815 it took Governor Macquarie nine days to travel by coach from Sydney to Bathurst. This time was substantially reduced during the next thirty years as improvements were made both to the Western Road and to the type of coaches operating along it. However, travel and the transportation of goods remained uncomfortable, hazardous and sometimes impossible in bad weather. The construction of the railway to make transport to and from the west both more reliable and more rapid was seen as essential for the future of the state. This would have a dramatic impact upon the development of the Blue Mountains area, opening it up to those with the resources and the leisure to enjoy the environment for its health and recreational value; as well as providing the means for exploiting the coal and shale resources being discovered there, and ultimately making it practical to commute to work in the city.
Baldwin 4-6-0 locomotive c.1900

Construction, Problems and Later Improvements
From the late 1840’s there emerged a strong demand for the building of railways in Australia, which was strengthened by the discovery of gold. From the 1850’s railway construction began which transformed eastern Australia. New lines opened from Sydney to Parramatta (1855), Campbelltown (1858) and from the Port of Newcastle to Maitland. Maitland had become the centre of trade for most of northern New South Wales and was the first section of what was to become the Great Northern Railway. Extension of the railway westward from Sydney to Bathurst was also considered a priority to tap the rich natural and rural products of the Bathurst plains and western areas, although there would be significant obstacles to overcome. Indeed in 1857 a survey of a route across the Blue Mountains stated that, “a direct line between Sydney and Bathurst cannot be obtained” (Royal Engineers Report, 24.1.1857). However by January 1863, the Western Railway was completed as far as Penrith and for the next four years this was to be the train terminus and departure point for the coach services to Bathurst. As they had been earlier, the Blue Mountains were again seen as a major barrier to westward progress, for the extension of the railway line was proving difficult.

Three alternative routes were considered by government planners:

1. Bell’s Line of Road via Mount Tomah and Kurrajong.
2. Grose Valley to its head and proceed by way of a tunnel to Hartley Vale.
3. The three explorers' route already favoured by the road builders.

The third alternative was finally chosen as the one offering the least problems, both physical and financial. But, as in the case of the road, the difficulties of ascent and descent at each extremity of the mountain barrier were to occupy the technical and imaginative talents of those concerned for many years. A railway requires easier grades than a road, so the problem was a formidable one.

John Whitton, a man with considerable experience in railway construction in England, had been appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the N.S.W. Railways in 1856: to him fell responsibility for finding a solution to the problem. While he personally favoured the construction of a tunnel through Lapstone Hill, the finance available could not match the expense. As an alternative, Whitton and his staff designed a Zig-zag railway with two reversing points. It ascended the escarpment with a grade of 1 in 30 to 1 in 33, and incorporated a magnificent seven-arched sandstone viaduct across Knapsack Gully.

Knapsack viaduct, c1870

By July 1867, the railway was completed as far as Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls), and by May the following year had reached Mount Victoria. Whitton again employed the zig zag technique to descend the Blue Mountains in the west as the route down diverged from that of the main road lines and offered no possibility of a suitable grade.

The Great Zig-zag, Lithgow c.1870

The Lithgow or Great Zig Zag is an impressive piece of engineering. Two reversing points were again employed, but being considerably larger than its Lapstone equivalent, it required the construction of three large viaducts. Work on it began in 1866 and by October 1869, the railway line was completed as far as Bowenfels.

The top of the main ridge is the only viable route to cross the Blue Mountains. It was necessary, therefore, that the railway shared this often extremely narrow area with the road. This resulted in the railway crossing the road at various points and also meant that in some places the road itself had to be moved to make the best use of the limited space available. Such places are often indicated where the present road closely hugs the railway boundary.
Valley Heights station with gate-keeper's cottage c.1880
At locations where the original railway crossed the Bathurst Road, level crossings were constructed. There were twelve of these between Emu Plains and Mount Victoria, all numbered for easy identification and all except one, No. 7 at Springwood, provided with stone gatehouses. When the major part of the Blue Mountains line was duplicated in 1902, most of these original level crossings were removed and replaced by under bridges or over-bridges. At the time of duplication many of the present station buildings (e.g. Blaxland, Faulconbridge, and Valley Heights) were demolished and the original stations converted into island platforms. Indeed, Springwood, Wentworth Falls and Mount Victoria were the only brick station buildings then existing to survive duplication.

Originally of light construction, the railway line over the Blue Mountains was characterised by steep grades and curves imposed by the Government’s emphasis upon economy. As traffic increased over the years, considerable relocation work has taken place where possible, to ease grades and straighten curves. While it is difficult in many places to identify the original centre line, the abandoned cuttings and formations can still be seen. For example, between Linden and Woodford, the line was moved from the original deep cuttings during extensive relocation work in 1896, removing several bad curves. In some areas the abandoned rail route has been used to improve the alignment of the highway, as seen in the Lapstone-Glenbrook area.
Glenbrook Tunnel construction
As with the road approaches to the Blue Mountains, significant modifications have also occurred over the years to these sections of the railway:

1. Lithgow end: by 1885, westbound traffic caused a bottleneck and a deviation to avoid the Zig-zag came under consideration. A new route involving extensive tunneling was opened in October, 1910.

2. Lapstone end: increases in rail traffic caused similar bottlenecks to those occurring in the west, while the shortness of the reversing stations meant a limit on the length of trains. This posed a severe disadvantage as freight increased and more powerful engines were introduced. In December 1892, a deviation avoiding the Zig-zag and incorporating a tunnel through the Lapstone Hill was opened. Evidence of the original Zig-zag route remains on Lapstone Hill. By 1911, because of the discomforts caused by the tunnel ‘spoor ventilation, the severe 1 in 30 to 1 in 31 grades, and the bottlenecks that occurred following the duplication of the line from Glenbrook to Mount Victoria, a further deviation following the gorge of Glenbrook Creek, incorporating a new tunnel through The Bluff and a new brick viaduct across Knapsack Gully, remains the present rail route. The grade was improved to 1 in 60. The old tunnel still exists and much of the old rail route, including the old Knapsack Viaduct, has been incorporated into the Great Western Highway.

Stimulus To and Influence Upon Town Settlement and Development
In the decades that followed the opening of the railway line, a large number of the present Mountains townships emerged and took shape around the new railway platforms. The railway provided incentives for town growth and development in a variety of ways:-

Various inns spread at intervals along the Western Road provided the nucleus for the sparse settlement occurring during the first half of the 19th century. With the development of the railway, many of the early platforms were located in close proximity to established places of accommodation, thus reinforcing the early stages of human occupation.

• Blaxland began as Wascoe’s in 1867. John Outrim Wascoe was the current landlord of the “Pilgrim Inn”.
• Springwood was established in 1867 near the popular Springwood Inn, better known as Boland’s Inn.
• Woodford was opened in 1868 as Buss’s Platform. William Buss had been the popular licensee of the King’s Arms Hotel, or Buss’s Inn as it was more generally known, until his death in October, 1867.
• Lawson began as Blue Mountain in 1867. The Blue Mountain Inn, established in 1840, was nearby.
Wentworth Falls opened as Weatherboard in 1867. The Weatherboard Inn was one of the oldest of the mountain inns, established in 1827. This was for a time the railway terminus, and a bustling itinerant community developed around it.
• Blackheath had a railway platform built in 1869. This was the location of the Scotch Thistle Inn, though evidence suggests it was closed at this time.
Rail accident, Springwood 1923

During the 1870’s, the more reliable and rapid travel provided by the railway encouraged Sydney’s more affluent people (judges, politicians, businessmen, etc.) to purchase land and build country residences in the Blue Mountains. For a number of these, private railway platforms were provided to service their families, while others established their estates in proximity to already existing stations. The “country estate” trend soon attracted others including the businesses and services required to satisfy the needs of new communities. Many of these large properties were eventually subdivided in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Various specific railway activities provided growth incentives to those areas in which they were located. Water was essential for the operation of steam engines and a regular supply had to be maintained until electrification was introduced. Thus at a number of points along the railway line facilities for water storage and reticulation were established. From 1867 at Glenbrook (Watertank) water was gravitated from the lagoon to a tank by the rail line, while dammed supplies were constructed at Woodford/Linden (from 1885), Lawson (from 1867), Wentworth Falls (from 1878) and Blackheath (from 1867). The supply at Linden eventually became public, serving towns on the Lower Blue Mountains, while Glenbrook and Wentworth Falls were converted to public recreation lakes and Lawson and Blackheath to public swimming pools.
Katoomba platform and staff c.1880

With grades varying from 1 in 33 to 1 in 66, the climb between Valley Heights and Katoomba is one of the steepest in Australia. During the age of steam, both Katoomba and Valley Heights, with their turntable facilities, benefited as terminus points for the pilot engines. Valley Heights still retains its significance in relation to the railway with its roundhouse and workshops.

Mount Victoria’s position as a terminus for both tourist rail traffic to Jenolan Caves and commuter trains contributed to its early growth. For many years Mount Victoria was also one of the principal refreshment stops on the western line. Full meals were served in the substantial refreshment rooms built in 1868 and now occupied by the historical museum.

The numerous railway navvies and labourers who worked on the Mountain line also contributed to the growth and development of the towns along its route. For example:

·         In 1866-67, while the railway was being built, labour had to be supplied. At Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls) for example, Charles Wilson erected an accommodation house on the site of the present post office, which served the railway workers as a hotel, store, butcher’s shop and baker’s shop.
·         In the 1870’s the Springwood area contained a large proportion of railway families whose numbers contributed significantly to the early establishment of a public school in 1878 and, to business growth in the town around this time.
·         A similar stimulus for town development occurred at Glenbrook where a public school was established in 1892 in response to the many children in the work camps during deviation work to replace the old Zig Zag. Glenbrook-Lapstone was again the site of major construction camps during the 1913 deviation.
Lapstone Zig Zag

A further influence the railway has had on the pattern of development in the Blue Mountains arises from re-emphasis of the earlier division already imposed on the landscape by the road. The road and the railway both dominate the crest of the ridge, the principal area where settlement could occur. Many of the towns that developed found themselves bisected by the road-rail route. Additionally, many parish boundaries (e.g., Coomassie and Magdala; Linden and Woodford; Blackheath and Kanimbla) had been partly defined by the road route and many towns have grown half in one parish and half in another. As a result of this bisection there have been, in some towns, noticeable variations in settlement patterns on either side of the road-rail. Towns such as Katoomba and Blackheath, where a Crown subdivision was established on one side of the railway, separate from those areas where development occurred through subdivision of earlier grants.

Electrification of the suburban line between Parramatta and Penrith in 1915 was completed in 1955. By the end of the following year, an electric service was operating to Valley Heights and this was extended by the end of 1957 to Lithgow. Electrification of the railway had considerable effect upon development in the Blue Mountains. Along with the improved performance and general ownership of motor cars, it encouraged a shift in tourist emphasis from the extended holiday to the one-day excursion, an effect felt most in the Upper Mountains. Also, by improving access to the city and its western suburbs, it stimulated the trend to “commuter” or “dormitory” settlements, an effect most noticeable in the Lower Blue Mountains.

Blue Mountains Heritage Study – Final Report, Croft & Associates with Meredith Walker, for Blue Mountains City Council, 1982.


Local Studies Librarian
Blue Mountains City Library

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