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IT’S now almost three years since the last heavy rail train came into Newcastle railway station. The track, now torn up, has joined the long list of lost railway lines of the Lower Hunter.
Many tracks though went to coal mines, but sometimes passengers were carried. Remember South Maitland Railways? When people could travel by rail to Weston and Cessnock? Or the spur lines of Caledonian Collieries Ltd, out West Wallsend way? And the network of J & A Brown’s coal lines between Hexham, Richmond Main Colliery (near Kurri) and back to East Greta junction. Or the coastal railways south of Newcastle, going past Jewells to John Darling Colliery and onto Crocketts Timber Mills at Belmont? And the now vanished rail link direct into Sandgate Cemetery?
One of the only tangible reminders these days of old railway lines is the Fernleigh Track, converted from coal haulage into a popular bush cycling and pedestrian path.
Weekender had a timely reminder of those bygone days recently when speaking to former Newcastle rail employee Stan Geise. He’d come across a copy of a large and unusual old map labelled NSWR Newcastle and Maitland Railways dated January 20, 1931. So, while he briefly had the map in his possession, he highlighted some features.
“Interesting, isn’t it? For example, did you know The Junction was originally called ‘Howley’s Siding’ because of rail lines there,” Geise said.
Indeed it was. Afterwards, a little research revealed Howley’s Siding (in Watkins Street) was named after mine owner Thomas Howley. He died in 1942, but by then he had revived the famous Merewether Beach railway. A ‘Howley’s new tunnel’ and Glenrock Colliery also appear on the 1931 map.
Also on the map are now probably largely unknown rail lines into former racecourses at Rutherford and Boolaroo plus Heddon, out of Kurri.
“I’m amazed at the detail on this copy of the old map,” Geise, 85, a retired rail coach builder, said.
He’s right. There appears, for example, to be 24 coal mines alone between near Telarah and Pelton. And along the coast south of Newcastle more, now ‘unknown’, mines emerge. Besides the former Glenrock Lagoon colliery, there are mines such as Burwood Colliery, Dudley Colliery, Lambton B Colliery, Redhead Colliery and Belmont’s John Darling pit (now a school site).
The old official map, showing both government and private railways, passenger stations and platforms, plus some government tramway routes, extends from Newcastle in the east to Branxton in the west and Rothbury Colliery.
The map reveals there were once four rail lines around Greta alone – to Central Greta Colliery, Greta Greta Colliery, New Greta Colliery and Whitburn Colliery.
At top right of the map is an inset of inner-Newcastle rail lines. Here, the main coal rail line from Hunter Street (the ‘Burwood tramway’) to Merewether’s Glebe Hill Colliery and Newcastle A.A.Company’s Victoria Tunnel is clearly shown.
The forgotten Morando Sidings and a soap and candle works are also seen at Port Waratah and the BHP site, while a coal crane site is pinpointed as being on ‘Bullock Island’ (Carrington).
“From the map, there was once even a mortuary siding/station in West End Newcastle. It’s gone now and on the very top of this map is the rail line from East Maitland to Raworth and onto Morpeth,” Geise said.
“There’s many curious markings on the map, but I think they all mean the same thing. Like here, where ‘Honeysuckle 103m 29c’ is written down. I think that’s the old rail distance to Sydney, as in 103 miles and 29chains (165.7km).”
But maybe the 1931 map doesn’t tell the whole story? Take the rediscovery by workmen in November 2014 of rail lines, circa 1870, buried under bitumen at Nobbys Beach. Before 1896, these rail lines were used to haul rocks up to 30 tonnes each to be dumped into the sea to extend the southern breakwater.
Hush-Hush ArmyOVER the years, there have been intriguing hints that some Newcastle soldiers may have been involved in a shadowy, almost forgotten, sideshow of World War I. Hence my interest in an unusual new book by journalist and travel writer Barry Stone called Secret Army (Allen & Unwin, $29.99 RRP).
Secretly assembled in late 1917, this elite band of Allied soldiers were called ‘Dunsterforce’ after their commander Lionel Dunsterville, a childhood friend of author Rudyard Kipling. They were then sent to the ethnic powder keg of the Caucasus, the region between the Black and Caspian seas embracing Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and part of southern Russia.
The thankless role of these volunteers was to preserve British interests by creating a buffer zone between Turkey and Russia. The German enemy had already been arming Georgians with thousands of rifles after the retreat of the Czar’s armies. Here, this ‘Hush-Hush Army’ were expected to counter the threat of diplomat Wilhelm Wassmuss, dubbed the German Lawrence of Arabia.
The men of this ‘mad enterprise’, according to author Stone, matched wits with German spies and assassins, forged unlikely alliances with Russian Cossacks, helped Armenians flee genocide and saved thousands of staving Persians. Oh, and did I mention the fleet of 41 Model T-Fords?
It’s an extraordinary secret mission shunted into the footnotes of history books. After the Battle of Baku, British involvement in the Caucasus came to a screeching halt with the hasty evacuation of Dunsterforce.
Commander Lionel Dunsterville was later criticised for failing to keep the city of Baku out of Turkish hands, despite outgunning them with warships, aircraft and artillery, none of which the attackers possessed.
He also didn’t carry out orders to blow up oilfields on Baku’s outskirts. But if Dunsterville has not fared well in retrospect, the brave men of his force have. One Australian soldier returned home and in 1943 was given command of the Jungle Warfare School in Queensland. Along the way he helped found the war veterans’ charity, Legacy.
On the same side of the coin, a flamboyant Cossack ‘ally’ was flown to London after WWI. Author Stone writes that he was decorated then promptly disappeared from history, “taking with him, it was rumoured, an unspecified amount of Dunsterforce gold”.
This article first appeared on www.theherald.com.au
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