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AFTER a hard shift on June 13, 1895 coal miner Robert Hales was walking home through the relatively short 80m Helensburgh Tunnel south of Sydney when a steam train appeared behind him.
He ran. Not fast enough.
His body was cleft in two with the halves found some distance apart.
Some say his ghost still haunts the tunnel and can be seen running from the darkness as if trying to flee.
His is just one of the legendary tales surrounding the abandoned railway tunnels on the old Sutherland to Wollongong line.
Built between 1884 and 1886 and abandoned just a few decades later, these disused tunnels are a reminder of the scale and speed of Australia’s growth.
Years after Hales’ grisly demise, on August 14, 1912, John Joseph McNamara boarded a train for the races in Sydney with the princely sum of £1 safely ensconced in his pocket.
Legend has it he won, and won big.
He caught the train home that evening but never made it.
The next day his body was found in the Otford Tunnel — a dreaded 1550m stretch of steep grade that used to choke passengers with thick clouds of smoke and steam every time south westerly winds blew into it from the ocean.
McNamara’s battered body was found with head, chest and neck injuries — his winnings gone.
The tunnel was closed in 1920 and used as a mushroom farm in the 1960s and 70s but bushwalkers these days talk of a ghostly figure disappearing from the corner of their eye or feeling an icy hand on the back of their neck.
The Sutherland to Wollongong train line was built to service the burgeoning southern coal fields and rapidly expanding farming country.
The section of line between Waterfall and Otford passed through hilly terrain, which required the construction of seven tunnels now abandoned and collectively known as the Helensburgh Tunnels. These were the Metropolitan Tunnel, Cawley Tunnel, Helensburgh Tunnel, Waterfall Tunnel, Lilyvale No. 1 Tunnel, Lilyvale No. 2 Tunnel and the Otford Tunnel.
Helensburgh and District Historical Society president Allan House said the group has been managing the tunnels on Crown Land since the mid 1990s.
“The first (Helensburgh) station was the only station in the state, possibly in Australia, that was sandwiched between two tunnels,’’ he said.
“The station master’s house and one of the railway buildings are still there today.’’
The original rail line was abandoned by 1920 when the difficult line was deviated between Helensburgh and Stanwell Park to make it easier for the steam locomotives of the time.
While largely overgrown and vandalised the tunnels offer a fascinating insight to Australia’s early rail history.
Mr House said the 624m Metropolitan tunnel was the only one open and easily accessible to the public.
“It is a photographer’s paradise,’’ he said.
The tunnel was closed in May 1915 and used by Metropolitan Colliery as a reservoir, the southern end plugged with concrete, until the connection of town water several decades later.
“They abandoned the use of the tunnel as a reservoir and during the time after it was not being used as a reservoir a glow worm population took up residence and it’s there today,’’ Mr House said.
The northern entrance and the adjacent Helensburgh station platform were badly silted up with mud and rubbish until Metropolitan Colliery agreed to excavate the site under Mr House’s supervision in 1995.
It revealed a 24m section of the platform still intact.
These days Mr House said the tunnel was a popular location for wedding photographs and with scouting groups coming to look at the glow worms.
This article first appeared on www.dailytelegraph.com.au
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