On Thursday 23rd September 1880 Mudgee celebrated the coming of the railway. I emphasise “coming” because it would be another four years before it arrived. The celebration at Wallerawang was for the turning of the first sod. It was a day for big-wigs and lighter-weights in frock coats and top hats. Among the party alighting from the Sydney train were four KCMGs and one CMG (Knights and Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George) – Premier Sir Henry Parkes, Lieutenant Governor Sir Alfred Stephen, Minister of Justice Sir Joseph Innes, Member of the Legislative Council and former member for Mudgee Sir John Robertson, and blacksmith and entrepreneur Sir John Davies. The Mayor of Sydney was there as well as nine Members of the Legislative Assembly.
All were welcomed with a great cheer from numerous members of the Mudgee Railway League, who had spent over twelve uncomfortable hours in a Cobb & Co coach to be there for the occasion. President Mr James Atkinson presented Sir John Robertson with a fine silver spade and polished cedar barrow inscripted with his crest and monogram. The sod was turned and thrown into the barrow, speeches were made and responded to, and the assembly moved on to a sumptuous banquet with more speeches. It cost the railway league £220 to organise the event, at a time when a railway navvy was lucky to earn a shilling an hour.
Steam railway construction began in NSW in the 1850s, by entrepreneurs who went broke. The government took it over, laying out a plan for a series of trunk lines radiating from Sydney, to be followed by branch lines. They appointed John Whitton as Chief Engineer of Railways and he would hold the job for thirty-two years. It wasn’t long before communities all over NSW saw the advantages of rail – efficiency, access, communication, people. They formed railway leagues and put their hands up.
So too Mudgee in March 1875. Their purpose was to induce the government to “take the necessary measures for the formation of a railway from Wallerawang to Mudgee”. Support was garnered from neighbouring towns, a petition of 2,200 signatures was drawn up and a deputation of pastoralists and parliamentarians met with the Minister of Works in April. The deputation was led by local pastoralist G H Cox and included pastoralists C C Cox, R Lowe, C Lowe, G Rouse, R Rouse, A Brown and P A Jennings. By July two lots of surveyors were on the job, Townsend surveying from Wallerawang to Crown Ridge and Kennedy from Crown Ridge to Mudgee via Ilford. Soon pressure mounted from Rylstone pastoralists and a trial survey for a route via Rylstone was done in 1876 (and done again in 1880).
Mudgee continued to agitate but the government was confounded by other railway proposals. Why not a railway from Newcastle to Muswellbrook to Mudgee and on to Bourke or Walgett – easier engineering, less cost and through rich fertile country? What about from Raglan near Bathurst through Sofala to Mudgee? Well then, from Emu Plains through the Colo Valley to Rylstone and Mudgee?
In the meantime Mudgee Railway League gathered the numbers and costs for their preferred route – population, produce and livestock in the area; cost of rail construction and expected revenue; comparison with costs and returns by road; expected return from passengers, mails, freight. It was an impressive document though I’m not sure how well it all added up. Nevertheless it got the required result – estimates were presented and in August 1879 parliament approved the extension of the railway from Wallerawang to Mudgee. Eight months later parliament approved the first section Wallerawang to Capertee and tenders were called.
For some commentators things didn’t seem quite right. The critics became more vocal: the country was barren, the terrain difficult and costly, the returns would be minimal, it was a white elephant, it favoured the pastoralists at the expense of the taxpayer, it was a Mudgee swindle.
Two years later (August 1881) Mr McElhone MLA moved for all costings to be tabled. Sure enough there had been errors in the estimates on which the parliament had voted. Was it deception or blunder? The engineering department appeared to take the brunt though the rumours continued. You can probably tell I like a whiff of scandal but this seemed to go nowhere. Perhaps the truth was buried in the ashes of the Garden Palace Fire of 1882 when significant railway records were lost.
Even before the turning of the sod, it was full steam ahead for construction of the Mudgee Railway, but I’ll leave that topic for another blog.
One thing this showed me about activism – if you go strong enough and hard enough and you’re patient enough, and you have friends in high places, you’re likely to succeed.