Tag Archives: Alexander Johnston

From railways to resources

It would be hard to imagine Alexander Johnston, railway contractor, involving himself in the sort of idealistic scheme which William Lane promoted under the name ‘New Australia.’ If Mr. Johnston had been involved in such a scheme, one could readily imagine him making a success of it. He certainly would not have neglected to organise the money and machinery necessary to make it work.

Alexander Johnston (1839-1916) had emigrated from Scotland in 1856. He had been in Queensland for a time, then came to New South Wales. As partner and contractor he was involved in a number of construction projects, including tramways in Sydney, a section of the railway between Goulburn and Cooma, construction of cattle yards at Homebush, parts of the Nepean water supply, and water works in Melbourne. With his accumulated wealth he was able to invest in and contribute to a number of enterprises which benefited from his experience in the fields of engineering, geology and project management.

In the 1890s, while the ‘New Australia’ colonists were trying to establish an ideal society in Paraguay, Alexander Johnston was helping to open up the North Shore of Sydney to investment and development. He was associated with a private syndicate (the North Sydney Tramway and Investment Company) responsible for construction of the North Shore (or Long Bay) Suspension Bridge (which gave the suburb of Northbridge its name) and the opening up of new land. Progress was not without its problems. There was a protracted period of delay caused by complications over ownership. Finally in 1912 the bridge was handed over as a gift to the New South Wales Government. The elaborate stone superstructure remains. Although the old metal deteriorated and a concrete arch now supports the weight, the structure is still referred to informally as the suspension bridge.

Political developments to the north of Australia offered a new field for enterprise. The British Government had long been wary of French designs in the Pacific. Then in 1884 Germany annexed the north-eastern part of New Guinea. Britain responded by proclaiming a Protectorate over the south-eastern portion, which was extended to neighbouring islands. This gave a new context for imperial and colonial action in suppressing lawlessness and fostering business expansion in the region. The discovery of gold on some of the islands off the east coast of New Guinea in the 1890s prompted a gold rush in a number of places, including Woodlark Island (also called Murua) from 1895 onwards. Despite the difficulties of the climate and the problems of disease, many individual prospectors took up claims. There were reports from time to time that the gold was giving out; whether this was an entirely objective assessment or a way of deterring possible competitors, the methods of extraction being used were fairly primitive and the gains were necessarily limited. Circumstances were ripe for a man like Mr. Alex Johnston, one of the directors of the Woodlark Island Proprietary Gold-mining Company, formed in 1899, to buy up small prospectors and introduce technically advanced methods to locate, identify, mine, process and transport gold and other deposits, and so prove that the riches of Woodlark Island and elsewhere were far from exhausted.

It was an era when able people, energetic and optimistic, were expanding the reach of investment and technology, with profound implications for political and economic control over land, resources and populations, in Australia and elsewhere.

‘Death of Mr. A. Johnston’, Sydney Morning Herald 17/6/1916, p. 11. Gold on Woodlark Island: e.g. Sydney Morning Herald 31/8/1897, p. 6. Sydney gold syndicate: e.g. Advertiser [Adelaide] 18/7/1899, p. 5; Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1899, p. 9.

On the foreshores of Lake George

The first public railway line in Australia – twelve miles long – was opened in Sydney in 1855. The final stage of the Great Southern Railway between Sydney and Albury was opened in 1881. From Sydney the line goes south to Goulburn, then turns west, passing through Yass, Wagga Wagga and so on to the Victorian border.

The line from Sydney to Goulburn was completed in 1869. In 1881, the year that the Great Southern Line was completed, the NSW Government gave the go-ahead for a branch line from Goulburn to Cooma via Queanbeyan. The first stage, the Goulburn Bungendore Railway Extension, was constructed by Topham, Angus and Co. and completed in March 1885. The next stage, from Bungendore to Michelago, was constructed by Messrs. A. Johnston & Co. and completed to Queanbeyan by September 1887 and to Michelago by December of that year. Messrs. Walker and Swan began construction of the final extension, from Michelago to Cooma, in January 1886, and the line was opened on 30 May 1889.

The senior member of the firm Messrs. A. Johnston & Co., railway contractors, was Mr. Alexander Johnston. When the line for which he was responsible had been built from Bungendore as far the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan, he and his wife invited a party of ladies and gentlemen to accompany them on the first passenger journey along the completed portion of the line (‘No. 2 Section’), a distance of just over eleven miles.

Accordingly, on Monday 24 May 1886 a party of some thirty ladies and gentlemen arrived by horses and carriages and met the waiting train at the Molonglo Bridge, ‘back of Forrester’s Hotel.’ With his customary energy and forethought Mr. Johnston had made arrangements for the care of their horses and carriages while they were away for the day. The locomotive, the ‘Segenhoe’, with two trucks behind for passengers and provisions, was there ‘with steam at high pressure’, and with a cry of ‘All aboard’, a signal and a whistle, the party started off on their expedition.

Those on the train included Mr. and Mrs. A. Johnston and family, Mr. McNeilly and children, Mr. Parr and the two Misses Parr, the two Misses McLeod, Mr. and Miss Gale, Mr. and Mrs. J.J.M. Wright and Miss A. Wright, Mr. and Mrs. Little, Dr. Taylor, Mr. M.H. Kelly, Mr. E.E. Morgan, and Mr. Symons. Mr. Gale is presumably Mr. John Gale (1831-1929), proprietor of the Queanbeyan Age, to whom we may be indebted for the description of the day’s events. Meanwhile Mrs. McNeilly, Miss Johnston and Mr. Tovey proceeded on horseback.

The train covered the distance along the main line at a speed of over thirty miles an hour. There were several large cuttings and high embankments. Before the final run down to Bungendore the train stopped to allow passengers to inspect the beginning of a tunnel, one of three between Bungendore and Queanbeyan. At the other end of the tunnel were special earthworks designed to keep storm water from damaging the embankments and the line.

Then came the next stage of the adventure. Branching off from the main line was a rough line to the gravel pits on an old foreshore of Lake George, about a mile from the furthest extent of the lake at that time. Ballasting was needed for the railway line, and this was obtained by excavating several acres of gravel in this area, sometimes to a depth of 15 feet. There was still enough gravel left from this ‘inexhaustible supply’ for ballasting the whole of the line to Cooma, but it was expected that shingle from the bed of the Queanbeyan River, just as good if not better in quality, would be used later on.

The train proceeded more slowly along the rough branch line, which had been constructed for the purpose of conveying the gravel. After safe arrival at the projected destination, the entire journey having taken twenty-seven minutes (including stopping to inspect the tunnel), ‘About six hours were spent at the Lake in a very pleasant manner.’ Members of the party amused themselves in boating, rambling, cricket, rifle-shooting and other activities. Luncheon was at two o’clock. A long table was improvised, covered with ‘snow-white linen,’ and the guests with appetites whetted by their exercise ‘fell to in their heartiest fashion,’ partaking of a meal which, compared with ordinary picnicking, was quite exceptional in its scale and style. There was an abundance of food and an abundance to spare.

Just before 5 o’clock the train whistle sounded for all passengers to climb on board for the return journey. But before they started off it was a moment for speeches. Mr. Parr was Master of Ceremonies, and Mr. Gale gave a speech of thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Johnston for their hospitality. On the Royal Birthday they had given a splendid ball, and now they had made possible this singular trip, the first passenger train journey to the shores of picturesque Lake George. In his thirty-two years of knowing the lake, he had seen it a dry bed and an inland sea; he never dreamt he would live to come by train to the shores of what was now a sanatorium that thousands would surely visit. Thanking Mr. Johnston for this privilege and Mrs. Johnston for the excellent meal, he led the group in three hearty cheers.

Mr. Johnston gave a speech of thanks in reply, in the course of which he let out a secret: the idea had been his wife’s – ‘the conception and carrying out of the entire project’ were attributable to Mrs. Johnston.

After three cheers for the Queen and a verse of the National Anthem, the train departed and a journey of twenty-three minutes brought the party back at last to the Molonglo Bridge about dusk.

‘To Lake George by rail: Progress report on contract for No. 2 Section Goulburn to Cooma Railway’, Queanbeyan Age 29/5/1886, p. 2. Gravel near the Queanbeyan River: Queanbeyan Age 25/9/1886, p. 2.