Re­mem­ber­ing when rail once ran in the Ovens and King val­leys.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Steve Kelly

RAIL­WAYS of the Ovens and King Val­leys used to be the lifeblood for the re­gion’s peo­ple through­out the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

Nick Anchen has writ­ten a fas­ci­nat­ing book about the rail ser­vice stretch­ing from Wan­garatta to Whit­field, Bright, Beech­worth and Yackan­dan­dah, telling the his­tory of the peo­ple and the rail­way net­work that served them.

His in­ter­est in trains was sparked as a child - his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were rail­way men, he used to live next to a rail line in Croy­don and his neigh­bour was an en­gine driver.

There was no es­cap­ing what was to be­come a hunger for his­tory and ev­ery­thing ‘trains’.

The book came about af­ter sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple in their lat­ter years, who had so much knowl­edge about the rail net­work that used to run through the Ovens and King val­leys.

“I started record­ing sto­ries be­fore these peo­ple fell off the perch, be­cause it’s im­por­tant to have a record of this part of Aus­tralian his­tory,” Nick said.

About 100 in­ter­views later he had to tran­scribe the ‘ folk­lore’ of rail his­tory, which was once upon a time very much the cen­tre of any town in the area.

The Wan­garatta to Whit­field line for in­stance, com­monly re­ferred to as ‘ The Whitty’, was con­structed on a nar­row gauge line to save money in the short-term.

But Nick told North East Liv­ing mag­a­zine it was a “failed ex­per­i­ment” be­cause the time and re­sources it took to un­load and load onto a train at Wan­garatta which had the stan­dard gauge line to Mel­bourne, in the long run made it an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise.

In Nick’s book he tells the story of how the ser­vice was loved by lo­cals and be­came an in­te­gral part of the King Val­ley.

For most of the line’s early years, mixed trains ran six days per week – Monday to Satur­day – de­part­ing Whit­field at 8.45am, and Wan­garatta at 2.30pm, with about 2.5 hours taken for travel in each di­rec­tion.

The ser­vice, although a vast im­prove­ment over the previous trans­port ar­range­ments in the King Val­ley, was slow, in­ef­fi­cient and not par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able, and trav­ellers com­plained about the lim­ited time al­lowed to con­duct busi­ness or shop­ping at Wan­garatta be­fore the train re­turned to Whit­field.

Well pa­tro­n­ised spe­cials were run for foot­ball matches, athletics car­ni­vals and pic­nics in these years.

A mo­tor trol­ley ser­vice - the ‘ Spirit of Salts’ - be­gan run­ning on non- train days, car­ry­ing the mail and other es­sen­tials from Whit­field to Wan­garatta and re­turn.

Any­thing and ev­ery­thing was car­ried on the trol­ley such as bags of chaff or flour, and com­muters.

The de­cline and clo­sure of the rail line came about in Fe­bru­ary 1952 - bush­fires raged through the King Val­ley, dam­ag­ing bridges and track in sev­eral places be­tween Moyhu and Whit­field.

Nick said that the rail­way was patched up suf­fi­ciently for trol­ley op­er­a­tions, but trains never again graced the up­per reaches of the line.

Trains con­tin­ued to run from Wan­garatta to Moyhu but due to de­clined us­age it closed in 1953.

Nick cites the Wan­garatta Chron­i­cle’s re­port­ing of the at­mos­phere on the line’s fi­nal day of ser­vice.

“Res­i­dents and school chil­dren along the King Val­ley waved and held up ban­ners as the gaily dec­o­rated nar­row gauge Whit­field-wan­garatta goods train made its fi­nal run on Tues­day af­ter 54 years on the run. Stream­ers cov­ered the en­gine on which was chalked ‘Good­bye old girl, well done, Born 1899, died Oc­to­ber 6, 1953’ and other mes­sages. The train crew, driver Ocker Creel­man, fire­man Don Johns and guard Bill Daly, were cheered all along the line from Moyhu.”

Nick’s Rail­ways of the Ovens & King is a bril­liant 148 page, well-writ­ten book with great, glossy colour and black and white pho­tos that cap­ture a bril­liant his­tory of the re­gion.

Even if trains don’t in­ter­est you, this book is worth its weight in gold for any­one who en­joys read­ing about his­tory and view­ing amaz­ing his­tor­i­cal im­ages of the Ovens and King.

PHOTO: Daryl Gregory col­lec­tion

Res­i­dents and school chil­dren along the King Val­ley waved and held up ban­ners as the gaily dec­o­rated nar­row gauge Whit­field-wan­garatta goods trainmade its fi­nal run...END OF AN ERA \ On Oc­to­ber 10, 1953, towns­folk gath­ered to wit­ness the last rites of the ‘ Spirit of Salts’, and in­deed the Whit­field rail­way it­self.

VI­TAL SER­VICE \ Bright Rail­way Sta­tion (circa 1910) in the days when ev­ery­body trav­elled by train, rail­ways were of great eco­nomic im­por­tance to the dis­tricts they served.

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