"The railway rattled and roared and swung, with jolting carriage and bumping trucks. The sun, like a brilliant ball, hung in the western sky." A.B. Paterson.
When James Watt built the first stationary steam engine in 1774, it was the beginning of a new future in travel. While the first full scale steam locomotive was built by British engineer Richard Trevithick in 1804, it wasn't until 1825 that the design was improved by George Stephenson to the point where a steam driven locomotive could pull 90 tons of coal at 15 miles per hour.
Even then Stephenson was not satisfied until, four years later, he introduced the Rocket that reached a speed of 30mph while pulling 30 people.
The first steam service in Australia operated in Melbourne in 1854 and a little over 20 years later the railway station at Orange was officially opened by Sir Henry Parkes and was the terminus until the steel rails reached Dubbo and opened up the western plains.
The growth of Australia followed the spread of rail transport and it remained the largest source of employment in Australia for more than 100 years. The navvies and fettlers who built and maintained the rails camped near their work, and townships grew up around the settlements.
These men were in many ways the pioneers of the outback and by sheer hard work in extreme conditions they conquered the landscape. The Oral History group was fortunate to have two people who had lived through these interesting times share their memories with us.
Tom Hogan had a long career in the railway and is a man who knows and appreciates the outback, the endless distances and the loneliness and the difficulties of people who live far from the city. He started as a porter after being discharged from the RAAF after the Second World War.
Then as a guard he worked from Dubbo to Cobar and Bourke finishing his career as train controller for the western area.
He was one of the 48,000 men and women employed by the state of NSW.
"The railway at that time conveyed the majority of the travelling public around the state," Tom said. "It also carried the smallest parcel to the heaviest freight items as well as wool, wheat and livestock.
“It was divided into five independent branches with each having the same goal of running and maintaining the rail system".
Tom also talked about the refreshment rooms, staffed by women and who served hot meals to hungry passengers along the track. The Oral History group could remember these, along with the hot pies, steaming meals and other delicious offerings with the greatest delight.
In those days passengers were able to get on and off at every little siding and bread and milk and other goods were delivered. One day Tom forgot to unload a crate of day old chickens, so was forced to take them on to Bourke.
"I fed them my lunch", he told us ruefully, and the next day he dropped them off to the irate owner. Six months later I saw him again and asked after the chicks.
"They're wonderful," said the owner. "The best chooks I ever had!". "It must have been my lunch that did it," said Tom.
The growth of Australia followed the spread of rail transport and It remained the largest source of employment in Australia for more than 100 years.
"In the 1960s it all began to change," said Tom, "when diesel trains began to replace the steam engines, the refreshment rooms were closed and the number of employees was cut drastically and road transport largely took over from rail”. Tom remembered the fettler's wives and families who lived in makeshift accommodation close to the line. The women would order things from Cobar or Bourke, give Tom the money and he would return the goods to them on the return journey.
Jan Phillips was the child of a fettler's family and lived beside the railway line at a tiny settlement named Kinalung between Menindee and Broken Hill in the early 1940s.
"It was 1941 and Dad got a job at Kinalung. We arrived with all our gear and found there was no house for us,” she said.
“The men took the day off to build us a house of sleepers with a roof of canvas. Mum lined the sleepers with cardboard boxes and the white paper in which our bread was delivered.
“We lived there for two years and Mum always said it was the happiest time of her life."
"I suppose it was because we were all poor and the little community supported each other.
"I went to the provisional school at the age of four to keep the numbers up to the required minimum of 15. The teacher was just out of Teachers’ College and lived in a partitioned off room in the little wooden school. The train was our lifeline as it brought food and water from Menindee, but you had to get to the station before the goats if you wanted anything left.
"The main thing I remember were the dust storms which stung my legs. The dust storms began with an orange cloud covering the sun and advanced to `a complete blackout’, leaving everything covered in a thick layer of dust.
“But there were also the Coolgardie safes, ingeniously constructed to keep food cool, the difficulties of having no electricity and the swarms of blowflies.”
When wooden sleepers were replaced by concrete the fettler's work largely disappeared and Kinalung no longer exists. The Oral History group had a great time remembering the days of steam and as usual there were many laughs and memories to be shared.