04 June, 2013

Anticipating the Octopus Act

This blog post has been a while in the making - over 150 years in fact - and it begins at a time when decisions were made which created the city of Geelong and the landscape of the Barwon River as we know it today. But it could have been so much different.
On Sunday, I was alerted to the presence of a steam train in town when I heard its whistle at South Geelong Station and zipped off to snap a few pics. Over the years, I have collected snippets of information and photos of Geelong's rail heritage (some of which has already appeared on this blog), but in some cases wasn't sure of their relevance to the Barwon.
R707 City of Melbourne steam train Melbourne bound
Then, a few weeks back whilst researching a previous post, I came across a newspaper article from the Bendigo Advertiser of 1857 which gave me the excuse I needed.
This was a time when Victoria's railways were in their infancy.  By the end of the 19th century a network of train lines would sprawl across the state, their development supported by the government in the form of the so called "Octopus Act" of 1884 which legislated for the construction of 59 new railway lines. But in 1857 this was yet to come and debate raged over what form any future development should take.
The privately-funded Melbourne-Geelong railway line was about to open and there was increasing agitation from other regional centres - particularly Ballarat and the Goldfields - to have rail links of their own. But what routes would the new lines follow? After all, easy access to rail services could make or break the future of small rural towns which meant that there was some fierce lobbying before a final decision was made.
In particular, competition for trade and services between the growing urban centres of Melbourne and Geelong was strong as they vied to attract the riches flowing from the Goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo and the wool of the Western District. Ultimately, strong influence by interested parties from Geelong, combined with a 20km shorter distance than that to Melbourne ensured that the government elected to run the line to Ballarat from Geelong. This section of track was completed in 1862 and is the subject of a subsequent post.
A photograph of an earlier depiction of the Geelong railway station by S.T. Gill
In 1857 however, this outcome was by no means assured and various different track alignments were under discussion. One of the hottest topics of the day was the idea of a single "great trunk line of railway for Victoria" which, starting in Melbourne, would then need to take in the towns of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine - presumably with branch lines to service outlying areas.
One example of how a trunk line might run was published in the form of a letter to the editor of the Geelong Advertiser and reprinted in the Bendigo Advertiser on 11th April, 1857. The author of the letter felt that a trunk line could best be achieved in this way:
Starting point from the metropolis, Melbourne, and using the Geelong and Melbourne line from Melbourne to Geelong, which we may say is already constructed and ready for continuation. 
Starting point from Geelong, due south, 50 chains from the present station, then taking a sweep to the westward along the flat land between New Town Hill and the Barwon to the point known as Melville's quarry, crossing there, thence proceeding along the point at the foot of the Barrabool Hills, crossing the Barwon at Buckley's Falls, thus arriving on the flat plain land in the short distance of about three miles and a-half; then taking a straight direction west by north to Meredith; from Meredith west by south, half west to the course of the river Yarro Wee, better known by the name of the Leigh, crossing the same at the junction of Williamson's Creek, travelling along the level land by the side of the Creek, south of Buninyong, Green Hills, and Hard Hills, rising on the table land in the immediate neighbourhood of Winter's, going along the level land, through Sebastopol and White Horse, to a grand western station situated on the level land between the township of Ballaarat and the swamp, thus crossing the dividing ranges without any difficulty of any importance, the highest point yet attained being the station of Ballaarat; preventing extra rising to the extent of 200 feet, which is the fall from the saddle of Warrenheip to the township of Ballaarat...
The proposed site of a rail bridge across the Barwon below Queen's Park
He went on to detail the route to Castlemaine and Bendigo also suggesting locations for stations along the route as follows: a station at the second  crossing of the Barwon (Buckley Falls) would service farmers in the Barrabool Hills and Murgheboluc, a second at Lethbridge would be closest to Steiglitz and farm land along the Moorabool with a third at Meredith and a fourth on the Leigh River to the south of Buninyong to allow access to the goldfields. Subsequent stations along the line would be located at Ballarat, Coghill's Creek, Deep Creek, Lodden, Harcourt and Sandhurst. This route he claimed, would be the flattest and the cheapest, requiring less infrastructure than other proposed routes.

Looking downstream towards the site of a second rail bridge proposed for
the Barwon River in 1857. The paper mill was built at about this point in 1875
The final paragraph of the letter then addresses the previously unstated issue of competition between Geelong and Melbourne, declaring:
It cannot be anything but a want of knowledge of the country, or jealousy of the metropolis of the infant town of Geelong...[which would cause the rail route to be aligned other than as stated in his letter].
In the event, the authorities of the day did not agree entirely with this vision for the future of Victorian rail and so the line to Ballarat branched off the Melbourne-Geelong line at North Geelong, crossing the Moorabool River instead of the Barwon. Stations were located at Lethbridge and Meredith, however, rather than extend the track beyond Ballarat, a separate line was built from Melbourne to Castlemaine and Bendigo. Completed by 1862, perhaps it ensured that this trade at least passed through the port of Melbourne.
As for the Barwon, it would remain without a rail bridge for several more years.

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