Reminiscences Of Helensburgh Railway Station

Mr Donald Robertson was in his seventies when he wrote these reminiscences in October 1979. Donald Robertson was the second son of Mr D. A. W. Robertson who was the manager of the Metropolitan Colliery in the early years following the turn of the 19th Century.

Standing at the entrance to the old railway tunnel, which penetrated the heavily timbered hillside of a lush ravine, I looked around.  It was cool in the shade of the rough corrugated iron structure, extending out beyond the tunnel entrance, but it was rather untidy beneath this old iron shed. There were benches and containers and cases of mushrooms ready for transport. I noticed too, electric lights extending far into the darkness of the tunnel, as did a narrow gauge rail track, apparently for the Mushroom Express! Looking down and along these rails, I remember the original tracks, standard gauge, glistening in the sun, years ago, as they emerged from the tunnel and then entered and disappeared in another tunnel on the opposite side of the ravine, barely a train length away.

I stood in the past, motivated by memories, and wondered, could it be nearly seventy years ago?

The silence, the peace of the ravine, gently activated my dormant memories. Slowly at first, then accelerating, as if all circuits to my memory cells had been switched on at once. My thoughts raced back through time, back a lifetime in minutes. It can happen.

Reliving past happenings, tumbling down the path of time, conscious of past joys and surprises, and sadness too. Experiencing the tremendous interest of living and of puzzling over the mystery of Life.

And then, once more, I became aware of this ravine in which I now stood, stood in two periods, Past and Present. And in the past I remembered it was about 7.30 am. My childish interest was alert and excited as I listened to the “clop” “clop” of horses’ hooves as these animals led the old coach in which we were travelling, down the hillside. The iron tyres of the coach wheels ground hard on the stony road as the vehicle made slow and crunching progress. The brakes, blocks of hardwood, were sizzling and scraping against the iron tyres as they steadied the load down the grade.

The Driver clucked and uttered at the horses, and held a tight and commanding rein as we descended into the ravine. On his high seat, a man to be looked up to, in more ways than one, by the little boys of the villages. But I was unimpressed. I wanted to be an Engine Driver!, and stirred impatiently as we approached the little railway station of Helensburgh, nestled picturesquely below us, with a tunnel at either end of the platform.

Even now I vividly hear the crunch of coach wheels on road metal and feel the stirring of the few passengers as the horses swung into the station yard.

Entrance to the station was via a small waiting room. Inside this were hewn floorboards, and walls surrounded by wooden bench seats, painted, I remember, a very dark maroon red.

My Mother, a petite figure, her long skirt unhygienically sweeping the waiting room floor, made off in the direction of the ticket window. I followed, and then with fingers on the ledge of this window, stood, tip toe, to watch proceedings.

A small country town is usually a friendly place, and most of the inhabitants know about you, your life, and movements. So, on the other side of the window, the Station Master, his supreme authority obvious by coat trimmed with gold braid, stood, and looked down at Mother, and gave a friendly wink to me. This I appreciated, from the man that operated the ticket punching machine. Then without any instructions from Mother, he reached towards the ticket rack and selected two returns to Sydney. I was always keenly interested in the next operation, the date punching machine and its distinctive noise, …. I would have dearly loved to operate that thing.

The Station Master then inserted into this machine the two tickets he had selected. I can clearly recollect the whole procedure and hear the loud “kerplonk, kerplonk” as the device thudded heavily on the tickets. A large pair of nickel-plated pliers were then picked up and my half fare ticket had a big ‘V’ snipped out of its centre.

With the transaction completed the tickets were handed over to my mother, and with a few parting words, perhaps about the “fowls laying well again now”, we moved back into the waiting room.

It was a pleasant day, so Mother decided we would stroll outside onto the station platform. Quite a number of people were intending to travel on the early morning train and the sound of conversation rose and fell above the silence of the ravine.  Too, the crunch of boots, it was boots in those days, up and down the gravel paved platform as folk paced expectantly and impatiently, eyes glancing, every now and then, towards the tunnel mouth.

Young though I was, I had already achieved a perception of ‘atmosphere’, and too, found excitement a catalyst, activating my imagination and plans.

This ravine, the dark tunnels, the glistening rails, were a foundation on which to construct ‘Castles in the Air’, a stage set for drama! And the World was on the other side of those tunnels. It appeared a grand World too in the early morning light, and the Universe was across the surrounding hills, a dazzling blue through the clear Antipodean sky.

The ravine was lush and green. Varied and interesting were the shapes and colours worn by the trunks of the native Australian trees.

So early in life I had come to love this wild country, and now realise that to the day I pass on my love will always remain with this vast and empty land, appreciating its beauty and its freedom, and grateful of its enormous wealth and resources.

But these sentiments had not, of course, evolved in my mind at the time of these reminiscences, years ago. My thoughts then were for the excitement of the hour and for the interesting possibilities the day ahead might offer.

More people were arriving on the platform. I could hear the ticket machine emitting its “klunky” sound. I ran over to the door of the Station Master’s office to have another look. The hum of conversation accelerated a little as people realised the approach of ‘train time’. Some were looking towards the tunnel mouth.

This hole through the hill was over a mile long; over 1 5/8 kms if you want to speak in the present tense, and the glances of intending passengers took in the white spot at the far end. I watched the spot too, having learned the system very early.

Suddenly, bells without tone went “ping, ping” in the little signal annex adjoining the Station Master’s office. Some sort of telegraphic machine whirred and sounded important. People stirred. Conversation ceased, then rose and fell.

Suddenly, as I looked, the white spot at the end of the tunnel disappeared. Conversation, or perhaps just words, raced a little faster and louder. Then ceased as people gathered together their belongings and groups sorted out, positioning themselves for the invasion of the carriages.

There was an awareness of a rather tense atmosphere. Mother clung to my hand. Everyone waited. A station hand manoeuvred a trolley of luggage towards the anticipated position of the luggage van.

It was a long two or three minutes we waited, or it appeared to be. But now there were sounds emerging from the dark oval of the tunnel mouth.  Deep and ponderous, the rapid panting of a mechanical monster. The rails sang. Voices ceased. The train was coming. My young eyes and ears had awareness only for the drama maturing in the tunnel’s darkness. I was unconscious of my Mother’s protective hand; the curtain was about to rise to the accompaniment of the beat of the drums of power, a medley of steam, smoke and sound.

So, about to observe this approaching crescendo of mechanical fury, I stood spellbound. Then from the darkness, clad in swirling robes of black and white, there leapt onto the stage a black monster, snorting, lurching and announcing its arrival with the high pitched shriek of the steam whistle of that period.

As it thundered past us with a roar of wheels from the following dark red carriages, we heard the screech of brakes and the clanking of couplings. Then the whole long line of rolling stock lurched to a stop. Up front the black monster panted softly, then sighed.

There was a renewed babble of voices. People rushed and intermingled, collided and juggled their belongings.

Mother and I found a compartment, and along with the other occupants, stowed our belongings up into the racks. Casual conversation was exchanged. Ahead, the locomotive continued panting intermittently, and beneath the car floor there was a hiss of air and a slight creak and groan as the tension on the couplings eased.

Outside, the usual shouting and a few running footsteps. The Guard’s whistle shrilled above the activities. The locomotive yelped, again air hiss along the carriages. Steam blew loudly as the locomotive snorted. One big snort, its wheels slipping, the mass of machinery shuddered and moved ponderously. The carriages quivered, then lurched as the couplings took the strain.

The locomotive, its wheels now gripping the rails, began to move the train. It snorted more contentedly as the long train began to gather pace.

In moments we were in the tunnel at the other end of the station. Our ears thrummed and windows vibrated as the carriages entered the darkness, pounded by the heavy beats of the locomotive exhaust confined by the tunnel walls.

Apart from the small yellow glow from the pilot burner of the ceiling light, it was gas light at that period, all was darkness. To converse, it would have been necessary to yell. The thunder of the exhaust overpowering all normal sound. Passengers remained dormant, enduring temporarily the smoke and fumes finding their way through the ventilators and crannies. Gritty little cinders teased the eyes and nostrils. We pounded through the tunnel. The rhythm of the wheels was pleasing, its tempo increased, the train was on the downgrade to the tunnel exit.

Grey white, fogged all over, the windows, through the darkness, now appeared a little whiter. Figures took shape in the compartment. It became apparent that the stout lady opposite was wiping pollution from her eyes. Pollution!, we knew not the word in those days!

The opacity of the windows was decreasing, then an awareness of the grey tunnel wall rushing past. We were travelling now, the carriage, like myself, appearing to enjoy its merry progress, and it rocked rhythmically. Now there was good light through the windows and suddenly the train stormed out of the tunnel, whistle shrieking, before emerging from the walls of the cutting to wind around the hills ahead.

Underneath we heard the air hiss as the brakes came on to ease the speed for the curve ahead.

Passengers were now busy opening windows, with a bang, to clear the compartment of smoke and fumes.

Green, once more, was the outlook. The hills were high and the valley deep. I took it all in from my window seat, facing ahead. It was all so lovely, so exciting. I watched as the track wound hither and thither through the trees, and cuttings with sandstone walls, and I listened as we rumbled over little bridges. Rounding a sharper curve I could see the locomotive snuffling along quite happily, its valve gear cushioned nicely to handle the level going, this technicality I was to learn later in my young life. I was already in love with this handsome terrifying monster with its little plum of mist trailing back from the funnel.

And later I was to learn what a wonderful locomotive these Beyer and Peacock breed turned out to be. Known in New South Wales as the ‘P’ Class, and later as ‘32s’. They operated many important trains, including the Sydney to Melbourne expresses, and were in use right up until the time Diesels took over a few years ago.

Our line of carriages trailed along around the hills. It was restful travelling and I was already tired with the excitement. Trees, rocks, colours flitted past the window. The yellow walls of the sandstone cuttings came and went. The country levelled off and opened out a little. Beside the track, telegraph wires rose and fell, rose and fell, glistening occasionally in the sunlight. The rhythm of the wheels, the chant of the locomotive. The carriage swayed, beautifully, it seemed, as I leaned back comfortably in the corner. It had been exciting. There was an ebb and flow of conversation, mainly unintelligible to a little boy. The carriage swayed. The rhythm of the wheels. Up and down, up and down, went the telegraph wires. Up and down, up and down. The locomotive snuffled gently, merrily along. The wheels on the rails ………. The wheels on the rails ………. The wheels ………. The wheels ………. The …