Tag Archives: Lake George

After the railways, the water problem

The work of extending a system of railways across New South Wales was spread over many years, largely because of the need to finance such a large scheme in stages. The line from Goulburn to Cooma, for example, cost well over a million pounds. Once such works were completed, there was the question of what should be done next.

It was obvious that climatic conditions presented the country with major challenges. The availability of water was very variable. Drought was frequent and severe. The persistent dryness of much of the land, and alternating patterns of drought and flood, were extremely frustrating. Given the magnitude of the problem, could successful responses be devised that would provide farmers and pastoralists with stable conditions from year to year?

In October 1886 the Queanbeyan Age reported a speech delivered in the NSW Legislative Assembly by Hon. Edward O’Sullivan, the member for Queanbeyan. Mr. O’Sullivan argued that, ‘we had already done our duty to the people in the matter of railway construction, and other public work, and the next great national work which would have to be undertaken would be that of the conservation of water and distribution of water.’ The entire community suffered, in inconvenience and expense, through not having a national scheme for these purposes. It was a case of human ingenuity against the forces of nature:

We must, in fact, show that human intelligence was superior to nature by initiating a comprehensive scheme of water conservation and irrigation.

This meant storing and diverting water, creating irrigation systems, and multiplying wells, tanks and dams. Mr. O’Sullivan was optimistic that this could be done. There were already natural features to assist. The snow in the Snowy Mountains provided water that could be diverted into the Murrumbidgee and the Murray, for example. There were natural reservoirs such as Lake George that could store flood-water. Private enterprise had already shown on a small scale that irrigation could increase yield and support stock. Other countries, such as India and Spain, had successfully employed irrigation systems with rainfall at similar or even lower levels.

There was already in progress in New South Wales a Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water (10 May 1884 – 9 May 1887), set up ‘to make a full inquiry into the best method of conserving the rainfall, and of searching for and developing the underground reservoirs supposed to exist in the interior of the colony, and also the practicability, by a general system of water conservation and distribution, of averting the disastrous consequences of periodical droughts.’ Mr. O’Sullivan drew on some the findings of the Royal Commission to support his arguments.

These were some of the early efforts that eventually led in the twentieth century to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the extensive use of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin, and other water conservation and irrigation measures.

We are in a better position now to judge whether ‘human intelligence’ is ‘superior to nature.’

‘Water conservation and irrigation’, Queanbeyan Age 9/10/1886, pp. 2-3. ‘Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water’, NSW State Records. Bruce E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat: The Career of Edward William O’Sullivan, 1846 – 1910, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1965; idem, ‘O’Sullivan, Edward William (1846-1910)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 11, 1988, pp. 106-108, and online. ‘Mr Edward William O’Sullivan (1846-1910)’, NSW Parliament website.

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.