The Blue Mountains as a challenge to available technology

When the First Fleet arrived from England in 1788, no attempt had been made to survey the region preparatory to forming a new settlement. It must have been both intriguing and disquieting to scan the range of mountains on the western horizon and wonder what mysteries they held and what lay beyond.

For many years the mountains were regarded as an impassable barrier to westward exploration and expansion. The rugged, densely forested terrain with its many spurs, valleys and cliffs offered no easy way forward, and the continuous nature of the mountain ranges to the north and south meant there was no immediate way around.

The credit for finding a way through goes to the expedition of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813 – twenty-five years after the colony had been established. Following their lead, George Evans made a complete crossing later in the same year. In 1814 William Cox, using convict labour, supervised construction of a road across. The work took six months, from July 1814 to January 1815.

But the road was rough, often steep, and boggy in wet weather. Bullock drays carrying goods found the going extremely slow. A railway locomotive would be more powerful, but could a railway be successfully built across such a landscape? In 1857 Captain Hawkins of the Royal Engineers reported that a direct line could not be built from Sydney to Bathurst for a railway or tramway.

Persistence paid off, however, and ten years later a railway across the Blue Mountains was well on the way to completion. After another ten years (during which a bridge had to be built over the Macquarie River), in a land where hunter-gatherers had roamed the mountains and plains for millennia, a steam train arrived in Bathurst.

‘Railways: The Great Western Extension’, Sydney Morning Herald 21/7/1865, p. 7. The literature on technology includes: Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (comp.), Technology in Australia 1788-1988: A condensed history of Australian technological innovation and adaptation during the first two hundred years, Melbourne, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, 1988; online edition 2000, updated 21 November 2001.

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