The railway that brought an end to the pioneering days
The construction of the Great Southern Railway from Dandenong to Port Albert was the most important event in the early history of the district. It changed the area from an isolated pioneer backwater to an important agricultural region. It is difficult to comprehend how important this development was and what a massive feat of engineering the construction of the railway was.
Prior to the opening of the railway the vast quantity of timber on the selectors’ farms was of no economic value. This timber was in the way of progress and needed to be cut and burnt. The sale of timber for building materials, fence palings and products like barrels could not happen without rail transport.
Above: Early Leongatha railway station
Leongatha Historical Society
When the railway came to Mirboo North in 1886, pioneer settlers in the Leongatha North area organised a working bee to build a bridge over the Tarwin River to allow bullock drays and wagons to have better access to the rail network. The railway was the ultimate transport link for these settlers in the 1880s.
Leongatha is located where it is as a result of the railway. Surveyor Lardner and his team were responsible for surveying the Crown land into farms (selections) and townships. A township called Koorooman was surveyed on the ridge at what is now Leongatha North. Lardner was not to know the route of the South Gippsland Railway planned to go from Dandenong to Port Albert. Surveying for the railway began in 1884 and took years to complete. Finding a route over the hills between the valleys of the Bass and Tarwin River basins was very difficult.
When the final route for the railway was surveyed near Johann Horn’s property on Coalition Creek, nowhere near the proposed township of Koorooman, surveyor Lardner reserved several hundred acres of Crown land for a new surveyed township. He selected this site as it was at the point where the track between Mirboo North and Anderson’s Inlet would cross the proposed railway. This became the site of Leongatha.
The Great Southern Railway was constructed in sections. The second section between Korumburra and Toora was constructed by engineer Andrew O’Keefe and his team of overseers and navvies (railway construction workers). O’Keefe’s tender was around $650,000, an enormous sum back in the 1880s. The route had to be completely cleared of giant trees, cuttings excavated, gullies filled and bridges built. All this was done with horses, bullocks and men. Some 700 bullocks and 200 horses were used to clear and lay the line. Supplying the men and horses was a huge task. In the Leongatha and Koonwarra area supplies had to come to Inverloch by sea and overland using wagons.
O’Keefe had a wharf built on the Franklin River to bring in supplies. A small railway was constructed to take materials from there to a point near Bennison. From here the railway was built in two directions north to Korumburra and south to Toora. Engines, trucks and railway lines were brought from Melbourne and Sydney by sea. Camps for the workers where established where large cuttings needed to be excavated. The largest camps were at Kardella, Ruby and Koonwarra. The construction was a long slow process. There were landslides and huge quantities of earth had to be moved with horses and scoops. Tree stumps had to be removed with explosives, an extremely dangerous activity.
In such an environment, accidents happened and medical care was almost non-existent.
On 14 September 1889, Denis Maher and William Holm were working felling trees near the site of the Leongatha railway station. A rope and pulley were attached to the tree to stop it falling on nearby tents. Unfortunately, this tree caused a second tree to fall on the two men. William Holm died instantly and Denis Maher suffered a compound fracture of one leg. Johann Horn, who lived nearby and had some first aid experience gained while serving as a stretcher bearer in the Franco-Prussian War, dressed the wound and Peter Johnson set out on horseback to bring the doctor from Drouin. It took Peter Johnson 12 hours to get to Drouin and another 10 hours to return. When they arrived the doctor from Foster was already there but sadly Denis died the next day. Both men were buried in the newly surveyed Leongatha cemetery.
The railway was completed to Leongatha in 1891 and marked the end of the pioneering days. It was cheaper to bring in goods as they no longer had to come on wagons pulled by bullocks on rough muddy roads. Dairy farmers no longer had to take produce to Mirboo North or Inverloch to have access to the city. Cattle, sheep and pigs were able to be sold at yards near the railway and taken off to market. Farmers benefitted greatly by being able to sell their potatoes and onions in Melbourne. Dairy factories and businesses in the towns prospered and the region quickly became a well-known source of important food products.
Much of the information in this article comes from John Murphy’s No Parallel