In Tasmania, the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company also knew that a reliable, efficient transport system was crucial for large-scale, economic mining. Without a railway to cart in heavy mining equipment and to get its ore out to the seaboard for access to markets, the fledgling Mt Lyell mine would fail. The company clearly knew about the shortcomings of trails in the rugged landscape that had tested gold prospectors, surveyors and packhorse teams as far back as the early 1880s.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway today
The contractors began recruiting labourers in late 1894. Locals, aware of the conditions and the harsh climate, wouldn’t touch the work with a barge pole. Instead outsiders were hired, but unfortunately the men who surveyed and built the railway risked their health and lives in the difficult, isolated conditions. Earthworks for the many deep cuttings were largely carried out by hand, with labourers moving thousands of cubic metres of rock and soil. The largest cuttings were very deep.
The climb to the summit was far steeper than any railway in Australia had tackled. Considering the impenetrable and unmapped territory, the harsh climate, the remote location and the need for a huge budget, no-one expected the service to get going. And indeed there were construction crises, scandals, rivalry and more financial problems. Yet first locomotive steamed into Queenstown for the railway's official opening in March 1897.
With the final link officially opened at the new Regatta Point station in 1899, the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Co Ltd went on over the next decade to become Australia's largest mine. The railway, built against the odds, was earning its keep. And the original railway continued to operate for 67 years, despite natural disasters such as bushfires, catastrophic floods, broken bridges and a world flu epidemic. For those who lived in scattered bush settlements along its route and in Queenstown, the railway was a communication lifeline.
The popularity of the railway continued, even with the 1932 opening of the first road out of Queenstown that linked the Lyell community to Hobart. But by 1963 the railway closed and the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd became a company with a railway in name only.
Queenstown railway station
From the glassed-in rear doors with balcony, the view is spectacular as the train passes over bridges high above the rivers below, through massive hand-hewed rock cuttings, under the canopies of ancient rain forests and along the edge of plunging gorges. Clearly the West Coast Wilderness Railway continues to memorialise the resourcefulness, endurance and frontier spirit that developed Tasmanian’s west coast. Visitors can see the impact of early pioneers who tamed this very wild country.
Galley Museum, Queenstown
The round trip leaves Strahan at 10.15 am every day, arriving in Queenstown at 2.30pm; at 3.00pm the coach leaves Queenstown, arriving back in Strahan at 4.00pm. A lunch stop in the heart of the dense forest at Dubbil Barril allows passengers to wander along forest paths and discover remote creeks running down to the King River and see first hand the beauty of the majestic Tasmanian wilderness rainforest. At Lower Landing, passengers can taste Tasmania's special leatherwood honey, from the rainforest hives of the Tasmanian Honey Company. Fettlers' lunches and afternoon teas are available on board the train.
The rebuilt Queenstown Station is modelled on the original building with its high, curved roof. It features a café, retail store and information centre resembling a railway carriage. The Eric Thomas Galley Museum in Queenstown features memorabilia and extensive photographic displays of West Coast history and a range of interesting literature about those famous decades.
A very useful book by Lou Rae is called The Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co, a pictorial history 1893-1993, Ulverstone, 1993. The author concluded that restoring the railway showed long forgotten aspects of our mining and railway heritage, along with the lifestyles of the isolated West Coast mining communities. Australians are now gradually beginning to realise that there is far more to national heritage than convicts and sandstone buildings.
Note Strahan and Queenstown on the west coast of Tasmania