Blue Mountains railway: the train that thought it could
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Blue Mountains railway: the train that thought it could



This presentation from Open Day 2013 looks at the development and expansion of the railway line through the Blue Mountains and how arrival of the Great Western Line saw a period of rapid growth for ...

This presentation from Open Day 2013 looks at the development and expansion of the railway line through the Blue Mountains and how arrival of the Great Western Line saw a period of rapid growth for the towns along the railway.



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  • Good afternoon and welcome to this talk about the Great Western Railway and the train that thought it could. This talk could also be called John Whitton – the man who thought it could! Glenbrook railway cutting, no date, 12932-a012-a012X2448000091
  • For many years travel through the Blue Mountains was difficult. Cox’s Road to Bathurst was little more than a dirt track and it took at least two days for a horse and carriage to make the trip. The discovery of payable gold at Ophir in 1851 led to rising numbers of travellers on the road and the need for a railway was fast becoming evident but crossing the Blue Mountains by rail seemed like an impossible task. Image Soldier’s Gap, Mt Victoria, no date, NRS 4481.
  • And that task fell to the Chief Railway Engineer, John Whitton. The first railway line in NSW ran from Sydney to Parramatta and was opened on 26 September 1855. As part of the second phase of railway construction Whitton submitted plans in October 1860 for a railway from Penrith to Bathurst. The Great Western Railway would be 103 miles or 166 km long, include 17 tunnels and 33 stone viaducts, and cost 2 million, 650,000 pounds or 25 thousand,728 pounds per mile. The railway would, in most instances, follow the Great Western Highway. Image John Whitton NRS 4481 [4/8652 Image 1363]
  • Although Whitton’s plan for the railway line was practicable, it was in no way a certainty. Sir William Denison, the Governor-General favoured horse tramways and for a few years Whitton’s proposal was deemed too extravagant for the fledgling Colony. From this topographical map of the Blue Mountains from Lawson to Lithgow, you can see the terrain that Whitton was trying to avoid having to go up and down by his planned tunnels. In the end, Whitton had to compromise his original plans and opted to use zigzags instead of tunnels to reduce costs. By 1864 work began on the Great Western Railway and on 11 July 1867 the first 28 mile section from Penrith to Weatherboard (or Wentworth Falls) opened. Passengers then had to disembark and continue by coach to Bathurst. NRS 16407/1/2[16]
  • This first section of the Great Western Railway included some trademark Whitton structures. The Victoria Bridge, crossing the Nepean River at Penrith, was built at a cost of 96 thousand, 874 pounds. Whitton liked to build structures that would last. The iron girder sections were imported from England. Building the piers, that you can see on the contract plan on the right, and the assembly of the bridge fell to William Watkins, who was also contracted to complete most of the necessary earthworks from Penrith to Mt Victoria. The bridge originally took one railway line and a road across the River but was used as a road bridge from 1907 once the adjacent railway bridge was completed. The image on left is taken earlier than 1880 and you can clearly see workmen in the foreground. Victoria Bridge, digital id 15344_a044_000048 Contract plan from R560 [Box 7, W133]
  • This is a working plan on the approach to the Nepean River from Penrith. On the left hand side of the plan, below the word Penrith, is Jane St and above the word Penrith is High St or the Great Western Highway. Past Proctors Lane is the start of an easement down to the river. The very dark hand writing on the right with an arrow is the Log Cabin. R560 Box 7 (W18) Granville to Wentworth Falls, Working plan Penrith to Nepean River.
  • The Knapsack Viaduct forms an integral part of the Lapstone Zigzag. The viaduct, which can be seen in the distance in the photo on the left, crosses Jamison’s Creek, a deep sandstone gully. The sandstone arch bridge is a larger single track version of the viaduct in Picton. You can just imagine the railway winding upwards between huge rocks and bushland. A railway guide in 1879 described the viaduct as an admirable and imposing structure by the genius of John Whitton. Whitton himself described the viaduct in simpler terms as a bridge consisting of “five spans of fifty feet and two of twenty feet each, built in masonry … for a single line of railway on an incline of 1 in 10”. Quote Knapsack Viaduct at Lapstone, no date, digital id 17420_a014_a014000724 Knapsack Viaduct, earlier than 1880, digital id 15344_a044_000047
  • Just beyond the Knapsack Viaduct is the Lapstone Zigzag (or Little Zigzag), built on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains. Lapstone Hill summit is 526 ft (160m) and trains were required to reverse twice, on grades as steep as 1 in 33, to reach the summit, as you can see from the plan of the zigzag on the left. The zigzag was built on relatively light earthwork (compared to the Great Zigzag). From the plan on the left you can make out sections of the single rail line going backwards and forwards. The length of the top points and bottom points limited the length of trains and the single track meant that trains travelling in opposite directions had to stop at crossing points. A deviation with a tunnel was built in 1890 and in 1910 a new tunnel replaced the zigzag altogether. Lapstone Zig-zag (R560, Cont 7, W20) Bottom Points on Little Zigzag at Lapstone, c.1870s, digital id 17420_a014_a014000721
  • Many of Whitton’s designs for railway stations across the Blue Mountains are strikingly similar. This is a contract plan for railway stations on the Glenbrook to Blackheath section of the GWR. The station design includes a ticket office, a general waiting room, and a Ladies Room with washroom attached. You can see many of these elements in photos of the early Blue Mountain railway stations that follow, especially the End Elevation on the right. R560/10 Blaxland Railway Station
  • These two photos of Glenbrook Railway Station, from around 1900, and Lawson Railway Station, in about 1910, show many similarities. Both stations have an island platform with the station and the veranda section in the centre. Glenbrook Railway Station, c. 1900, digital id 17420_a014_a014000729 Lawson Railway Station, c.1910, digital id 17420_a014_a014000736
  • And here is another similar railway station at Wentworth Falls. Again it has an island platform with a similar station design, which you can see in detail on the right. The photo dates from around 1900. Wentworth Falls Railway Station, c.1900, digital id 17420_a014_a014000760 R560/10 Wentworth Falls
  • The Weatherboard to Mt Victoria section of the Great Western Railway opened on 1 May 1868, less than a year after the first section of the GWR to Weatherboard opened. From Lapstone Hill the railway progressed along an escarpment, still climbing upwards through Leura, Katoomba, Medlow Bath and Blackheath. From Mt Victoria, the railway cuts across the Darling causeway, then through the Clarence tunnel and then down the second zigzag to the Lithgow Valley. The Lithgow Zigzag was completed on 18 October 1869 and began operating immediately. Mt Victoria Railway Station, c.1871, digital id 17420_a014_a014001367 R560 Box 11 Mt Victoria, Turntable, no date
  • Forced to use zigzags instead of tunnels due to budget constraints, the Great Zigzag or Lithgow Zigzag, remains an impressive monument to Whitton’s engineering skills. The Zigzag is a series of sloping tracks forming the letter “Z”, with reversing stations at Top & Bottom Points. It included three sandstone viaducts and two tunnels. While Whitton designed the zigzag, Patrick Higgins was contracted to build it and George Cowdery was the Resident Engineer. The Zigzag was bypassed by the ten tunnel deviation in 1910. NRS 16407/1/1[6] Great Lithgow Zigzag
  • For two and a half years between 600 and 700 men lived in tents up and down the zigzag. They were paid 1 shilling and 3 pence a day, and if the worker brought a horse to site he was paid 1 shilling and 9 pence. When the surveyors surveyed the line, they often had to be lowered over the cliffs in wicker baskets to shoot the line. Whitton supervised the construction from Engineer’s Lookout, a stone seat in a cutting next to No. 2 viaduct. Whitton had to send instructions by runners or use semaphore or mirrors to signal what he wanted. 3 man teams drilled holes in the cliffs with hand augers which were then filled with gunpowder for blasting. Two men held and turned the auger in place while the third man hit it with a hammer. Class Z1412 (G23) No.34 locomotive on the Lithgow Zigzag railway, no date, digital id 17420_a014_a014000453
  • The Great Zigzag descends the western escarpment from Clarence to the Lithgow Valley, a drop of 170m or 550ft. Between Top and Bottom points on zigzag is the middle road section, which descends 31m (101ft). Here you can see a plan on the left for Bottom Points and the photo on the right shows the platform and the pointsman residence. Both of these images are from around 1886. R560 Cont 12 Lithgow Zigzag Bottom Points, 1886. Lithgow Zig Zag - Bottom Point showing platform and pointsman residence, c.1886, digital id 17420_a014_a014000752
  • One of the problems with the Great Zigzag was that the Top Points were too short. In 1901 a goods engine burst through the buffer stops at the Top Points Lookout and almost fell into the Ida Falls Gully, as can be seen by the dramatic photo on the right. The Zigzag, in general, could not cope with the increased rail demands which was creating bottlenecks. In 1908 work began on the ten tunnel deviation, which opened in 1910. Derailment on the Zig Zag at Lithgow, 4 April 1901, digital id 17420_a014_a014000990 Derailment on the Zig Zag at Lithgow, 1901, digital id 17420_a014_a014000989
  • From the Lithgow Valley the GWR progressed over the Central Tablelands and arrived at Raglan, on the east bank of the Macquarie River by March 1873. It took nearly three years for the railway to continue to Bathurst though. Once again, Whitton had to design a bridge to cross a river, this time the Macquarie River. The wrought iron lattice girder bridge was constructed in 1876 and Bathurst Railway Station opened on 4 April 1876. Lithgow Railway Station, c.1890, digital id 17420_a014_a014000754 Bowenfels Railway Station, c.1880, digital id 17420_a014_a014000759 Wallerawang Railway Station, c. 1871, digital id 17420_a014_a014001362
  • And here is Bathurst Railway Station. It is a Victorian Tudor style building and here you can see it from the proclaimed plan from 1875, to a shot taken soon after the station had opened and a present day photo of the station. R560 Cont 7 (W127) Proclaimed plan Bathurst Railway Station and Whitton’s signature, 1875 Bathurst Railway Station, c.1876, digital id 17420_a014_a014000635 Bathurst Railway Station, 2013
  • For John Whitton, the GWR remains a lasting memorial to his vision of what could be achieved if you think you can build it. “I think I can” became “I know I can” and in a relatively short space of time, 11 years, the GWR had crossed the Mountains and reached Bathurst. For the Blue Mountains and the settlements beyond, the railway meant faster travelling times for goods and produce and more growth and development. As NSW moved into times of prosperity, the Blue Mountains became a leisure spot. Guest houses and holiday cottages flourished alongside luxury hotels such as the Carrington and the Hydro Majestic. The Blue Mountains would never be the same again. 3673 on Caves Express Knapsack Viaduct, 1936, digital id 17420_a014_a014001371 Cover NRS 16407/1/2[30]
  • And finally, these last photos show how the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba developed. In the first photo, taken in about 1884, you can see the Railway Station in the foreground and the Carrington Hotel under construction, both surrounded by a rural setting. The photo below, from about 1892, shows a drastically altered new railway station but still surrounded by not much else. By 1930 though, there are a large number of buildings around the station, including the Carrington in the top right of the photo. The last photo, from 1950, shows a Katoomba that may be recognisable to many of you. Katoomba Railway Station with Carrington Hotel under construction, c.1884, digital id 17420_a014_a014000743 Katoomba Railway Station, c.1930, digital id 17420_a014_a014000747 Katoomba, c.1950, digital id 17420_a014_a014001369
  • Thank you. Picnic in a cave – Blue Mountains, 4-8676_Image[1853]

Blue Mountains railway: the train that thought it could Blue Mountains railway: the train that thought it could Presentation Transcript

  • Blue Mountains Railway – the train that thought it could! The making of the Great Western Railway from Penrith to Bathurst
  • The Impossible Task “when the question of railway extension had to be considered, grave doubts generally existed as to the possibility of getting a railway across the mountains at all, except at a prohibitive cost” NRS 17514/1/1[3] p.6
  • John Whitton – Chief Railway Engineer • Whitton designed the Great Western Railway from Penrith to Bathurst • 166 km/103 miles long • Climb eastern escarpment and use tunnels to descend western escarpment
  • Compromise
  • Victoria Bridge, Penrith Heavy duty wrought iron girder bridge on stone piers covering three spans Section of contract plan for Victoria Bridge, 1866 clearly showing piers.
  • Working plan of approach to Victoria Bridge
  • Knapsack Viaduct “an admirable and imposing structure by the genius of John Whitton”
  • Little Zig-Zag, Lapstone Bottom Points on Little Zig-Zag, Lapstone, c. 1870
  • Early Blue Mountains Stations
  • Glenbrook & Lawson Railway Stations
  • Wentworth Railway Station
  • Weatherboard to Mt Victoria
  • Great Lithgow Zigzag One of the engineering wonders of the Victorian age
  • Building the Lithgow Zigzag • Took 600-700 men 2 ½ years to build • Workers used hand augers for drilling – 3 men per hole • Surveyors lowered down cliffs in baskets • Whitton sat at Engineer’s Lookout
  • Lithgow Zigzag – Bottom Points
  • 1901 derailment
  • Lithgow to Bathurst Lithgow Station (above), Bowenfels Station (top right) and Wallerawang Station (bottom left)
  • Bathurst Railway Station Bathurst Railway Station – from the plan to the reality
  • I think I can … I thought I could! In 1936 day trippers could take the Caves Express and be in the Mountains in just over two hours!
  • Katoomba
  • References • NRS 17514/1/2[47] The Railways of NSW 1855- 1955 • NRS 17514/1/1[3] Thirty-five years on the New South Wales Railways: The Work of the late Mr. John Whitton, C.E., 1898 • Robert Lee, Colonial Engineer: John Whitton 1819-1898 • Robert Lee, The Greatest Public Work: The NSW Railways, 1848-1889 •