Part Three of a 5-part series
FIRST proposed in 1846, the Great Southern Railway from Sydney to Goulburn eventually opened as far as Picton in 1863 with construction underway on the line through to the Southern Highlands.
At the time, Bowral and Moss Vale did not exist and Mittagong, then known as Nattai, was a scattering of villages. One of these, New Sheffield, was located near the Fitz Roy Iron Works that was in full swing supplying rails and other products to the railways.
Further down the road were two major settlements: Berrima, a staging post on the Southern Road, and Sutton Forest, one of the district's first villages with prosperous landowners and a thriving social hub.
As early as 1850 the regular 'Berrima Correspondent' column in the Sydney Morning Herald anticipated the railway, stating:
"We are happy in being able to state that the feeling which at one time obtained as to the impracticability of the railway, is fast losing ground in this district, and several who were at first doubtful, have now become shareholders. There are various articles of commerce lying idle in the district, entirely owing to the expense of carriage. Neither are the advantages which must result to the farmers of this district to be forgotten."
The Herald reported in 1861 that Chief Engineer John Whitton had indicated no grades steeper than 1 in 30 were required for the southern line and that the existing gauge of 4 feet 8 inches would be adopted.
For the Picton to Nattai section he selected the least expensive route that traversed the ridge on the western side of the Bargo River flanked by deep gullies. He thus avoided the more direct ridge carrying the Great Southern Road (now Hume Highway) that would have required bridges and tunnels beyond the means of the colony.
The route through this undeveloped country soon became dotted with the tents of navvies' encampments and with tracks and cart roads.
Work stopped for a time on the difficult Big Hill Cutting through solid rock at Saddleback Range near Hill Top. Originally planned as a tunnel on a gradient of 1 in 33, it instead became a cutting, as a tunnel would have suffocated train crews and passengers on the upward climb.
With broken sandstone obtained along the route for ballast, earthworks were completed by October 1865.
The rails used were rolled at the Fitz Roy Iron Works.
The Herald of 13 June 1866 described the route: "It may be safely said that the rocks, hills, mountains, gullies and precipitous watercourses which border the line between Picton and the Gibraltar Rock - a distance of more than 30 miles - are for the most part appalling. The country stands remote, full of rugged grandeur and unpromising desolation."
The completion of the line through such rugged country was a proud day for Whitton who, with the Minister for Works, inspected it in January 1867.
On February 28 a special 15-carriage train left Sydney at 10am conveying members of parliament and distinguished visitors to the official opening at Nattai. Along the way, more people boarded at Picton and the carriages were divided between two engines to cope with the steep grades ahead.
The opening was held at the new station, named Mittagong, an Aboriginal word meaning 'little mountain' that was the local parish name.
The first train arrived at 1:30pm to an occasion described as being like a fair with refreshment booths and sundry amusements. The senior member for the district, John Morrice MLA, took the chair and many speeches and toasts were made. A luncheon was attended by 160 paying guests and, in tents nearby, Larkin & Wakeford, the company that built the line, provided food and ale for its 200 navvies and their families.
On March 1, 1867 the single line was handed over to the government and opened to traffic. Loop lines had been provided at intervals so trains could pass. It would be 50 years before a duplicated line was built.
Braemar, known as Rush's Platform, was the only intermediate stopping place until the 1880s, when other platforms opened along the route, including at Buxton, Thirlmere, Hill Top and Colo Vale.
The original platform at Mittagong station faced a loop instead of the main line and a two-storey refreshment room came into use there in August 1870. Toilet facilities were also provided - until the 1890s there were no 'lavatory' carriages on long-distance trains.
By December 1867 the line was completed to Sutton Forest station (later renamed Moss Vale) that became the new temporary terminus.
To be continued
This article compiled by PHILIP MORTON is sourced from the archives of Berrima District Historical and Family History Society, Bowral Rd, Mittagong. Phone 4872 2169. email: email@example.com. au