Blue Mountains Railways Celebrate 150 Years

From a vantage point beside the moving throng of commuters, thousands of them on any given day, the bust of John Whitton keeps a watchful eye on all who pass through Sydney’s Central Station.

Whitton was the Engineer-In-Chief from 1857 to 1890 and his extensive tenure coincided with the rapid development of railway lines across much of New South Wales. A mere 37 kilometres of tracks were in use at the time of his commencement in the role. By his retirement this had expanded into over 3,500 kilometres branching north from Sydney through Newcastle, Werris Creek and Tenterfield, south to Cooma, Albury and Hay, and west to Dubbo and Bourke. The key to opening up the gateway to the west was overcoming the challenging terrain of the Blue Mountains.

Initial challenges for the railway construction included building a railway bridge across the Nepean River and negotiating a way through Knapsack Gully in order for the western railway line to cross the mountains. Victoria Bridge, designed by Whitton, still survives today. The viaduct at Knapsack Gully was also designed by Whitton.

The character of many of the mountain villages have been defined by the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ and the railway opened up employment and housing opportunities. Prior to the establishment and extension of the railways with the arrival of Whitton, various other transportation ideas were proposed. Reverend Hulbert suggested the importation of elephants or camels as a solution; Sir William Denison spoke of horse-drawn railways. What a different world it may have been without Whitton’s vision.


Tribute to John Whitton, Central Station, Sydney

Last weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the Blue Mountains railway line, which reached as far as Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls). The first passenger train to Weatherboard ran on 22 July 1867. The line was then extended to Blackheath and Mount Victoria before the construction of the famous zig zag descent into Lithgow – another achievement of Whitton’s. The coming of the railway was to alter and redefine life in the area, and all these decades later, the railway remains an integral aspect of mountain life for locals and visitors alike.

Read through the letters most weeks in the Blue Mountains Gazette and you’ll find that train timetable changes continue to create a flurry of interest and weekend trains are so regularly packed with tourists that additional carriages have been commissioned. The noise of freight and coal trains is regularly compared to existing and anticipated aircraft noise. Like many mountain folk I can hear trains trundle by at all hours, but for me the short toot of commuter trains leaving the station and the low rumble of freight trains remind me of the perpetual motion of life, of people and goods moving about, travelling from one place to another.

Celebrations over the weekend included heritage train rides, and you can see some footage of the trips here.


You Can Lead A Horse To Water

Across Australia, in large towns and small, occasionally there are old horse troughs in parks or along the roadside. They were installed to provide drinking water for horses as they carried people and goods all across the country before motor vehicles dominated the landscape.

Some of the troughs were erected between 1930-1940 by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Troughs Association. A significant bequest left by George and Annis Bills assisted with the proliferation of the troughs. Although rarely used these days, they are regarded as socially significant as they demonstrate early philanthropy and animal protection in Australia in the early twentieth century.

George and Annis Bills were English migrants who met in Queensland. George’s business ventures included a very successful mattress manufacturing business. Annis Bills died in 1910, and George died in 1927. After personal bequests, the income from his estate was to be used to provide troughs for horses, and to prevent cruelty and reduce the suffering of animals in any country. The large bequest was in part administered through the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

There are at least three stone drinking troughs for horses still in situ through the mountains at Warrimoo, Wentworth Falls and Medlow Bath that were installed as part of the Bills bequest.

The troughs at Wentworth Falls and Medlow Bath have a side trough for smaller animals. Some also had a tap for the boss. The majority of the 700-odd troughs were erected in Victoria, and there were about fifty installed overseas including some in the UK and Dublin.

Although the troughs were initially individually designed and constructed, by the early 1930s a standard design was used featuring pre-cast concrete and a curved pediment with the inscription ‘Donated by Annis and George Bills Australia’.

Check this link out to read more of the history and see some great photos including ducks taking a drink in one of the troughs at St Arnaud, Victoria.

What a wonderful legacy to benefit untold numbers of horses, dogs, humans and any other creatures with a thirst who came across them.

[Photo: George and Annis Bills trough located in Railway Parade, Medlow Bath]

Book Review: Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne

For the last few years, I have been keeping my eye out for local history books based in and around the Blue Mountains. I have managed to find specific books about some of the mountain villages, and some books with a larger scope taking in most if not all of the area from the base of the mountains right through to the Hartley Valley.

If I had a wish list of what I would like to find in a book on the mountains, it would be this:

  • An overview of the mountain ranges to give scope and context;
  • An explanation of the key transport changes – without roads and rail, the mountains would not be a viable place to live;
  • Acknowledgement of the significant role played by fire through the mountains; and
  • A chapter on each of the villages from Lapstone to the Bells Line of Road.

In a perfect world, this information would be presented in an interesting, easily accessible fashion with appropriate references, key timelines and fabulous photos. Images are really important in helping to define the essence of the villages, particularly as for many people most of the villages are merely signs or points along the Great Western Highway when the speed limit drops and you have to slow down, again. There would also be an index so I can locate whatever specific place I need to find at any given time.

When I came across a tweet from a local bookshop that they were holding copies of the newly released Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne, I knew it was the book for me. Even sight unseen it promised to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about many of the villages, along with over 500 photos. It is all that I hoped for and more – check out the website to get a glimpse here.

The book provides an overview of how each village came about. For example, near Wentworth Falls there was another village called Brasfort which was incorporated into Wentworth Falls in 1895. I was aware that Wentworth Falls had been known previously as Weatherboard, but it was interesting to know how this name came about. The beautiful lake at Wentworth Falls was originally dammed to provide water for steam trains. There are many historical stories and snippets to pique interest as well, including the life and death of Mary James at Twenty Mile Hollow (Woodford), and the tragic fate of her eldest daughter whose body was found on the Victoria Pass. The ghost of Caroline Jones was said to haunt the area, and there is a poem by Henry Lawson called ‘The Ghost at the Second Bridge‘ about a spectral encounter.

I have barely scratched the surface but that is one of the joys of a book like this. It is perfect for dipping into, or reading chapters on villages of particular interest. The further reading section will encourage the expansion of my book collection and there is a stack of websites to explore. It is a fabulous read for anyone with an interest in the Blue Mountains.

Have you been lucky enough to find a dream book on an area you are interested in?

[Photo: mountain views near Leura/Katoomba]

My I Spy: something beginning with ‘Q’

I was sure that Q items would be querulous and quarrelsome, but they weren’t as bad as I thought. This is what I have spotted beginning with Q.

Queen Victoria Sanitorium, Wentworth Falls

Queen Victoria Sanitorium, Wentworth Falls

Queen Victoria Sanitorium, Wentworth Falls

Not one of my better photos, this is just a glimpse of one of the outbuildings in this once large hospital. It was one of many private establishments set up to cater for people with various diseases, including tuberculosis. It is hard to imagine the devastation wreaked by this disease, and various cures advocated extensive stays in hospitals such as this one. It is located several kilometres from the village on Tableland Road and is one of a number of sanatoriums established in the later Victorian period and early twentieth century. The centre of the complex was a country retreat, but later additions included small ‘open air’ chalets for consumptive patients. It was a nursing home in more recent decades but has been closed and in a state of disrepair for quite some time. Someone else drawn to old grandeur was able to take photos – have a look at the extensive blog post by Photomofo here.

Qwerty keyboards

Qwerty keyboards

Qwerty Keyboards

It was inevitable that I would learn to type. My Mum had a typewriter which I loved to tinker with and over time I have owned and used many typewriters, word processors, electronic typewriters, computers and keyboards. I did a year-long course in office administration many moons ago and can touch type at speed. I’m particular about keyboards that I use for ‘work’, be it paid or fictional. It has to feel right, especially for longer stretches of time. These are my current tools of trade.

cropped-img_0977.jpgQuiet Times

I had to laugh when I came across this neat arrangement of mugs in a local cafe. Time certainly slips by quicker when you’re busy.




Handmade quilts represent a labour of love. So many hours of careful cutting, stitching, the selection of fabric and patterns. One of my most treasured possessions is a patchwork quilt made by my Mum from scraps of fabric from clothes that she made over the years. The mish-mash of squares and colours have softened and faded with extensive use but when the bushfires escalated and devastated parts of the Blue Mountains in 2013, it was one of a handful of things that I packed, just in case.  This quilt belongs to a friend of mine and is beautifully made.

Have you spotted anything quaint starting with Q recently?

Next I’m off to track down rare and regular things beginning with R. Keep an eye on Autumn‘s insightful spying here, as well as on Instagram.


My I Spy: Something beginning with ‘B’

Welcome to the second instalment of weekly I Spy, as inspired by a post by Pip Lincolne. One of my fellow travellers through the alphabet is one of my favourite bloggers, Autumn. You can see Autumn’s take on A here.




This beautiful and brightly coloured bowl was given to me by someone who I helped at work. It surprised me at the time, as I felt I was just doing my job, but when I look at it I’m reminded to try to do the best that I can, and to treat people how I’d like to be treated. This can be overlooked sometimes when you are feeling tired or distracted, but it reminds me to think beyond myself.

Bust of WC Wentworth

Bust of WC Wentworth


I came across this recently unveiled bust of William Charles Wentworth at Wentworth Falls this week. Wentworth was one of the three explorers who finally crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813 after many attempts by the early European settlers to do so. Their journey across the mountains led the way for the opening up the rich farming land to the west, and started off a new round of exploration as the main impediment of the sandstone curtain had been overcome. Wentworth’s fellow explorers, William Lawson and Gregory Blaxland, have busts in the mountain towns named after them. The busts were funded by a mixture of public, private and personal sponsorship, including donations from descendants of the explorers.




There are mixed feelings around this sweet little bathtub, designed to hold bath salts or soap. It was spotted at a fete or local market down the south coast of NSW several years ago during a road trip with my Mum. We had wandered about and found some treasures and were ready to get back on the road. In my haste I reversed without looking properly and managed to hit a huge (in width and height) gum tree. The crunch of car and tree trunk was the first indication of a problem.

Have you come across any interesting things beginning with B this week?

A Different Track

The journey from Sydney to the Blue Mountains by rail is a well-travelled one, particularly for the people who commute each work day to the city. Depending on where you start and finish, it can be quite a lengthy journey through the mountains and the ever-extending suburbs of Sydney.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I embarked from Central Station on the Indian Pacific. The Indian Pacific leaves every Wednesday, heading to Perth via Broken Hill and Adelaide. My journey took me to Adelaide in 24 hours.

I could quite easily rave about the train and the trip as it was extraordinary in many ways. Once I got over the excitement of getting onboard, patiently waiting whilst the two sections of the train were coupled together (it is too long for a single platform with 2 locomotives and 27 carriages on my trip), I settled back to watch the Sydney suburbs slip by before we began the slow climb up the mountains.

The gradual ascent was felt physically through the train – you could feel the engines at work, and I sat by the window entranced as it curved around the bends. There were sandstone segments as we approached Lapstone, moments of darkness through tunnels before bursting out amongst an ocean of trees. At Warrimoo there were houses tucked into gullies. Then a glimpse of a sandstone cottage built in 1867 near Springwood. Passing by the Corridor of Oaks at Faulconbridge, then scorched tree trunks came into view. There were vistas towards Sydney or acres of wilderness, depending on the turn of the track.

It was interesting to see what was familiar from a different angle, a higher viewpoint. I spotted some lovely character cottages near Hazelbrook, then we were running alongside the Great Western Highway and the shops and pub at Lawson sped into view. Little ferns poking out of stone walls, a kid practising discus near Wentworth Falls. As we approached Leura I saw the last lingering remnants of autumn colour and the beautiful sandstone cliffs in the distance. Then Katoomba, the soft glowing lights of guest houses, welcoming weary travellers. Tree branches slapping the side of the train, then the Hydro Majestic, lit up amongst the darkening shadows. Towards Blackheath, the depths and folds of the valleys in the last light, through Mount Victoria, last light over the Hartley valley.

Have you taken a different track on a well-travelled road?

[Photo taken near Emu Plains before the climb up the mountains]