Australia’s First Railway
It is often said that Port Arthur became, in modern terms, a maximum security gaol because it was isolated. In fact Port Arthur was chosen to replace two other places of ‘secondary punishment’ - one on the west coast of Van Diemen’s Land and one on the east – because it had huge resources of timber and it was much closer to Hobart than these earlier settlements. However, some transport difficulties remained. Although we are in the South-East corner of Tasmania, once a ship coming down from Hobart entered Storm Bay, it was exposed to the prevailing westerly winds and swells coming all the way from Antarctica. In good weather a passage to Port Arthur might be accomplished in less than a day, but when the wind blew hard South-West, a sailing ship could be held up for days, sheltering under Bruny Island.
In 1836, the penal settlement at Port Arthur was under the command of Captain Charles Booth an energetic officer and a great builder. To alleviate this communication and logistical problem Booth had his convict work-force construct an 8 kilometre railway from Norfolk Bay (present-day Taranna) to the northern end of Port Arthur at Long Bay. Now ships did not need to enter Storm Bay to reach Port Arthur: at the bottom of the Derwent they could turn to port and stay in the sheltered waters of Norfolk Bay till they reached its southernmost point. Goods and passengers were loaded on to trucks for the rail journey and then to boats for the trip up Port Arthur to the settlement.
This is sometimes called Australia’s first passenger railway, and technically it was, but that phrase conjures up visions of steel rails and steam locomotives – nothing could be more misleading. The railway was, in reality, a tramway with wooden rails and trucks pushed by convicts. It was a clever adaptation of timber-getting technology that required a great deal of maintenance and large manpower to run.
The gangs of men who pushed the trucks were housed in a camp half-way along the track, and about fifty were needed to work the trucks in relays. One description of travel on the railway, by a Col. Mundy, mentions the clanking of the convicts’ chains, but it is hard to see how men doing this job could have worked in chains, they had, at times, to run, and leg-irons were designed to restrict movement – indeed that was their purpose. In at least one drawing of the railway in operation, there are no chains evident.
Mundy also reported that the occasional de-railings may not have been all accidental, but used as a chance to pick the pockets of the passengers. Again, this may be a bit of ‘colour’ on Mundy’s part, but where he can be wholly believed is when he describes the discomfort of the ‘quality’ (especially the ladies) brought into much too close contact with the convicts when the men jumped aboard the trucks to free-wheel downhill “and the d . . .. l take the hindmost”.
The original jetty and the Convict Station (now a Bed and Breakfast)