THE TRACKS OF TIME
Remembering when rail once ran in the Ovens and King valleys.
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.
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.