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Early in 1895, John, Adam and David Wilkie left for Western Australia after John had sold one Waitotara property in New Zealand and a boot shop to help finance the Coolgardie contract.
John at the time owned 380 acres near the river mouth and 354 acres further inland (near the present highway) at Waitotara.
At Westmere he owned 500 acres called Lilybank north of the Blueskin Rd and spreading beyond Westmere Railway Station.
Adam owned Headlands at Fordell where he lived until going to Australia, and 900 acres at Waitotara leased for 21 years before he left for WA. But with a purchase clause and inflation he lost this property, Riverley at Kauangaroa and another block on the Waimate Plains near Hawera.
In June 1894 they secured a contract for the Southern Cross- Coolgardie railway line (about 185km). John Wilkie was general manager and Adam was on the construction of the line. The WA Government’s estimate was £130,000 and the Wilkies’ tender was £64,000, the lowest tender submitted by £13,000, which staggered the other contractors.
The terms called for completion within 12 months, with the Government supplying the track, and the Wilkies’ plan was to complete the construction in rapid time, then carry goods and passengers for their own benefit.
The first train into Coolgardie. Credit: Outback Family HistoryThe first section to Yellowdine was completed in 10 weeks (it took a month getting men and plant on the job) and they started running trains with considerable success immediately. They laid a mile a day, which was record time. The railway passed over salt lakes and treeless areas in extreme heat of up to 45C.
There were no settlements and no water for the entire route.
Five months later, in November 1895, the railway line arrived at the Woolgangie camp around 40 miles from Coolgardie.
There were 1000 men camped here — teamsters, navvies, and others. Water had given out so Cobb & Co carted water to the camp. In December, typhoid fever broke out and there was no doctor or nurse. A plea for assistance went out and the Sisters of the People responded.
They were medical missionaries, all trained and certified nurses who received no payment.
Hugh Climie, a forwarding agent of Woolgangie and Coolgardie, paid the entire cost of the creation of a tent hospital there.
Sister Gertrude arrived in the hottest summer weather of January 1896. She handled it alone for seven weeks until Sister Mildred joined her. Some patients were conveyed by train to the nearest hospital by the Wilkies. Along the way, sisters would be at each railway station they passed through.
A portrait of John Wilkie. Credit: Outback Family HistoryThere were many deaths.
A mile of materials would go through from Fremantle each day which was laid in a day, being the equivalent rate of any track laid in the US at the time.
They had three locomotives of their own and hired rail trucks from the Government. The gold rush caused people from all over the world to take part, and the population in WA went from 50,000 to 184,000 in six years.
The brothers supplied good amenities for the men so they were soon known as the boss contractors of WA.
In spite of this, and the terrain being very easy compared to NZ conditions were harsh and with the extreme heat, typhoid and lack of water, so many lives were lost.
The Government was very satisfied and gave them the contract from Coolgardie to Kalgoorlie on the same terms.
On arrival in Coolgardie, the Wilkies set up a condensing plant for water which produced 100,000 gallons of pure water out of 120,000 brackish water, fuelled by wood. John was general manager and Adam inspected the gangs.
This article first appeared on thewest.com.au
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