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Australia's First - The Goolwa to Port Elliot Railway

The Governor?s plans for the railway were approved by the Colonial Office in June, 1851; the estimated coast was ?21,109. This was a considerable project, because the railway lines, the axles, wheels and turntables - everything required for the creation of a railway - even the cotton waste, had to be ordered from England. The railway lines eventually used were second-hand, having served to transport stores during the Crimean War. Recycling is not a modern concept. It was decided that the gauge for the railway would be five foot, three inches, because at that time both Victoria and New South Wales had decided on this gauge for their proposed railway.

Work commenced in 1851 at Port Elliot, but not without difficulties. Not only was there no local engineering base in South Australia, the Province was short of sawyers to produce the necessary sleepers on which the railway would be laid. The sleepers eventually used were eight-foot lengths of unhewn local eucalypts. They were about seven inches in diameter, and were grooved to accommodate the rails which were screwed to the sleepers with four-and-a-half-inch screws. There were no platelayers to be found anywhere, and so a few carpenters were engaged to supervise gangs of labourers. They were, in fact, building a tramway; the carriages were to be horse-drawn.

Most of the proposed route was through level country. It was only at the terminals that blasting was required. Here Mr Buxton Forbes Laurie, a young chemist, who had experience with explosives, came into his own. Buxton Forbes Laurie was an interesting character. He appears to have been popular every where, and even his wife adored him! Obviously a talented man, he became Superintendent of the Railway on his thirtieth birthday. The next day he was made a Justice of the Peace, and the day after that he became a Magistrate - a man of remarkable talents. He was already one of the great landowners in the district. Now his use of explosives was so successful that the resultant stone from the blasting was sufficient to ballast the entire line and the Port Elliot jetty. In the same year the foundations were laid for large storage sheds at each terminal. These buildings were completed within twelve months. The shed at Port Elliott was a handsome three storied building which remained until 1896. The railway ran to the end of the hundred yard long jetty. Unfortunately, even at the end of this jetty the water was only six feet deep, which meant the goods from the railway had to be transported by way of lighters to the ships which stood further off shore. At Goolwa the line ran at right angles to the wharf, and the trucks had to be swivelled on a turntable to run alongside vessels. From the wharf, the railway ran past the present Post Office, where the verandah served as the passenger station. The railway curved past the Corio Hotel and eventually took the track the railway still follows today, towards Middleton and Port Elliot.

The railway was never officially opened, but by May 1, 1854, the line was fully operational. Goods and passengers were accommodated in eleven wagons and one carriage. Mr Buxton Forbes Laurie had already been Superintendent of the Railway since January 1. His salary was two hundred and fifty pounds a year.

In Australia, this was the first public railway on which carriages travelled on iron rails. It was probably the first in the Southern hemisphere. Certainly Adelaide had to wait until 1865 before the Adelaide to Port Adelaide railway line was operational. The rolling stock consisted of eleven wagons and one passenger carriage. One of the elegant little carriages can be seen today near the Goolwa Post Office. One of the passengers in this vehicle described it - "A quaint, bone-shaking affair it was. A journey in that strange vehicle was an ordeal in endurance..." The writer goes on to suggest that anyone, setting out from Goolwa dressed in black, would arrive in Port Elliot looking as though they "had slept for a week in a flour mill". Apparently, on a good day, the journey from Goolwa to Port Elliot could be completed in fifty minutes.

On the completion of the Goolwa to Port Elliot railway a celebratory dinner was held on March 28, 1855. Mr Buxton Forbes Laurie was Master of Ceremonies, and Mr Nation sang a song which was much appreciated. The company drank to the health of the Governor "with every demonstration of respect."

On April 10 and 11, 1855 a violent storm damaged the breakwater and destroyed twenty yards of the rails. In May another storm tore away sixty yards of rails and undermined the breakwater. Even worse storms followed. Then the new Governor, Sir Richard McDonnell, curtailed expenditure on public works. In spite of these disasters, the Goolwa to Port Elliot railway continued to serve the district until more violent storms seriously damaged the Port Elliot Jetty and ships were wrecked. Those who had argued against Governor Young?s choice of a harbour were proved to be correct in their judgement, and Port Elliot ceased to be an ocean port in December, 1864, when the tram- line extension to Victor Harbor was completed.

Australia's First - The Goolwa to Port Elliot Railway

Linked toBuxton Forbes LAURIE

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