Part One of a 4-part series
TWO of the Wingecarribee Shire's northern villages, Balmoral and Hill Top, were first established in 1865 as railway camps.
The Picton-Nattai (Mittagong) section of the Great Southern Railway, which opened in 1867, traversed a rugged ridge to the west of the Bargo Brush. Mid-way along, at Saddleback Range, Big Hill, a deep cutting was required and the two camps were situated at either end of the excavation works.
The modern 'human endeavour' sculpture at Big Hill Cutting, on Wilson Drive between Hill Top and Balmoral, was featured in a previous article which explained that the area was first visited by three white explorers in 1798.
Led by John Wilson, they trekked through twice, first reaching the Wingecarribee River near Bullio, and then venturing to Mt Towrang near present-day Goulburn. Wilson Drive was named in their honour.
In 1802 the colonial explorer Barrallier came through the rugged upland area, seeking a way over the Blue Mountains, as did explorer Hamilton Hume on his way to the Wingecarribee in 1814. The upland area is part of the Merrigong Range, which stretches southward from Thirlmere to Mittagong. It was a territorial border route for Aboriginal peoples who named it Merrigong and are said to have made the route known to the early explorers including Wilson.
The rugged upland area was too remote to attract early settlers. By the 1830s, however, on lower land near the Bargo River, the Great Southern Road through the Bargo Brush to Berrima and beyond had become heavily used by settlers, landowners and government officials. They travelled on horseback or in stage-coaches through this often impassable track.
It became a favourite haunt for bushrangers who are said to have had hideouts in the rugged upland.
No wonder then that plans for a railway from Sydney to the south, first mooted in the 1850s, were eagerly anticipated. The line opened to Picton in 1863 and work commenced on the Picton-Nattai section. Gangs of workers built the earthworks along with bullock teams who moved timber and rocks as the line progressed.
Excavating the 78 foot (24 metre) cutting at Saddleback Range, Big Hill was an onerous task.
This cutting was required so the 4.8 kilometre section of line up the range could rise on a gradient of 1 in 30. Work crews toiled to create the cutting using explosives and basic equipment to clear the sandstone by hand. It cost the lives of two workers and took six months to complete. Supply camps were established at the bottom and top ends of the works, a difference in height of almost 46 metres.
BALMORAL: Railway station opened as Big Hill Lower Siding on 15 April 1878; this photo c1940. Photo: BDH&FHS
ONCE the railway line was in operation, sidings were required at the two camps so an additional locomotive, known as a 'bank engine', could be attached to southbound trains to help haul the carriages up through the cutting. At the north end was 'Big Hill Lower Siding' and the south was 'Big Hill Upper Siding'. After being detached at the upper siding, the bank engine would be coupled to a north-bound train to return down to the lower siding.
As the section's steep grade required extra maintenance, greater numbers of railway workers had to live in the area and their families formed the nucleus of townships.
In the hope of making a tidy profit, landowners along the railway route sub-divided land wherever a station opened, including in 1878 at Big Hill Lower Siding (renamed Balmoral) and Big Hill Upper Siding (renamed Colo and later Hill Top).
Stations were also opened along the line south of Picton at Thirlmere (1885), Couridjah (1867), and Buxton (1893), all in what is now Wollondilly Shire. Along with Balmoral and Hill Top, stations were opened at Colo Vale (1883) and Braemar (1867), these all being within the present Wingecarribee Shire.
Private villages took shape around the stations at Big Hill Upper and Lower Sidings, with sub-divided lots purchased by resident families and by city people for country retreats. On larger blocks orchards were established.
With the Great Southern Railway as their life-blood, the villages of Balmoral and Hill Top flourished. As train traffic increased, however, the steep grades of the single line became problematic. Despite a local deviation between Hill Top and Braemar in 1897, it was decided to re-route the entire section of line via Bargo with several tunnels to Mittagong. This opened in 1919.
The original line was retained as a local service, known as the Picton-Mittagong Loop Line, which remained in operation until 1975.
This history of the twin villages will continue in following articles.
Continue next week
This article compiled by PHILIP MORTON is sourced from the archives of Berrima District Historical & Family History Society, Bowral Rd, Mittagong. Phone 4872 2169. Email email@example.com Web berrimadistricthistoricalsociety.org.au
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