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IN THE 1860s the American Civil War was raging and the mills in the north of England were crying out for a new suppliers of wool.
The government of the new colony of Queensland, keen to get the produce from the rich farmlands of the Darling Downs, began a project that would change the state forever, with Ipswich at its heart.
This week marked the 150th anniversary of the start of construction of the rail line from Ipswich to Bigges Camp, now Grandchester, the first line in Queensland. It was the first section of what would become the Main Line, which would eventually run from Roma St in Brisbane up the range to Toowoomba.
The line was designed to get southern Queensland's agricultural riches to port and onto the northern hemisphere as quickly as possible.
Ipswich was chosen as the location of start of the line as the furthest town upriver steamships could reach. With roads between Ipswich and Toowoomba barely existent in some places, Queensland Rail historian Greg Hallum said the government of the new colony needed a way to get wool to the port as quickly as possible.
"Queensland was … a colony without a huge economic basis. It was primarily pastoral … there hadn't been any big gold finds. They had to provide reliable transport to the agricultural areas of the Darling Downs where a lot of the wealth was generated and that's because the roads were dreadful. In a lot of cases there were no such things as roads," Mr Hallum said.
"Wool was vital to the Queensland economy, especially in the 1860s. The American Civil War raging in the early 1860s created enormous worldwide demand for wool.
"I think it was for a pound of wool off the sheep's back, you'd get a pound in the hand if you were a squatter, so there's enormous money.
"The woollen mills in northern England were screaming out for wool to clothe the armies in the United States. There was just this enormous demand generated by the Civil War.
"The squatters in Queensland didn't want to miss out on anything and they wanted reliable transport.
"To get a wagon load of wool hauled by horses or bullocks down from the Maranoa or from the Darling Downs, was sometimes a six-week journey to port. It's a long time.
"It was absolutely vital to get some sort of reliable transport in Queensland."
Rail Workshops Museum director Andrew Moritz said construction of the line was a huge deal for Ipswich.
"Imagine that coming into town, you know, 'We're starting a railway and we're starting a railway here.'
"You know it's going to mean lots of jobs and future economic prosperity," Mr Moritz said.
Construction of the line saw Ipswich become not just a rail centre but a customs port as well.
"(For) Ipswich (the rail line) was enormous. It was a customs port of Ipswich, it was an immigration depot, because people came half way across the world … would step off a paddle boat from Brisbane to an immigration port at North Ipswich," Mr Hallum said.
Construction between Ipswich and Toowoomba saw up to 2000 men working on the line. The construction workers, who were enticed from Europe with big pay packets, were tasked with back-breaking work.
"Some of the first eight-hour (working day) strikes that ever took place in Queensland, in Australia, actually happened in conjunction with the railway works," he said.
"They came out here, they called them navvies (short for navigational engineer) the construction workers, and they had to work 10-hour days.
"By the end of 1865, they were on strike for eight-hour days.
"They didn't get it. They did get a reduction in hours but didn't get the eight-hour day. The also got a bit of a reduction in pay at the same point.
"When they went on out on strike … Ipswich and places like Toowoomba and Laidley were living in fear these armies of navvies would march on the town and burn the place down and loot all the stores.
"They were considered fairly fearsome fellas."
While many were from Ireland and Scotland, a number were from northern Germany. Many of them camped in towns in the Lockyer Valley, where there are still many people with Germanic ancestry.
"In the railway camps ... they used to fly their flags. The Irish had a green flag with a harp on it, the English had the Cross of St George and there are references to the (Germanic) flags flying in places like Gatton.:
While the line may look small today, Mr Moritz said it was a marvel for its time.
This article first appeared on www.qt.com.au
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