Echoes of an integral piece of local history

Scenic: The Noojee line cut through some of the steepest terrain imaginable. One of the trestle bridges has been preserved as a tourist attraction.



“THE famous towering trestle bridges of the Noojee railway were celebrated as engineering masterpieces and were among the largest timber bridges constructed on the Victorian Railways.”

So writes Nick Anchen, rail historian and train driver (he still drives trains around Victoria, including along the Gippsland line to Bairnsdale) in his new book, Whistles Through the Tall Timber – a history of the Warragul-Noojee, Powelltown and Warburton rail lines, with a special look at Warragul, the railway capital of West Gippsland. The line played an integral role in getting farm products to market for decades.

The book is a mixture of rail history, social history, enlivened with interviews with workers whose experience covers many decades, written by a rail expert with the common touch, which makes his books accessible to the general reader.

The countless photos, many from the Warragul and District Historical Society, are phenomenal.

The 45 kilometre Warragul-Noojee line, which has achieved almost mythical status, was built in two parts: the Warragul-Neerim South section opened in 1892, with further construction curtailed due to the Depression of the 1890s. It was not until March 1917 that the first train reached Nayook and another 25 months later, in April 1919, that the first train rolled into Noojee.

“The Neerim South to Noojee section is phenomenal, incredible,” said Nick in an interview with the Express.

“Leaving Neerim South, it was incredibly steep, incredibly windy and some of the bridges were spectacular bridges, the most spectacular timber bridges in Australia’s history, actually … no exaggeration.

“From Nayook to Noojee, it drops nearly 700 feet (214 metres) in seven miles (11km). Most of it is inaccessible now on private property, very hard to see – you have to know where to look.”

This section contained 28 curves as well as the towering timber bridges. There were seven bridges in total; two were quite small, three were large, but the similar Bridges 2 and 4 were the real giants. Both were almost 200 metres long and 25-30 metres high.

The Noojee railway ran through a mixture of lush farmland and thickly-timbered country, and was a challenging line to operate, Nick writes. Even from Warragul, the line climbed 320m in 35km on grades as steep as one in 30 with sharp radius curves.

Agitation for a rail to the Neerim district had begun a soon as the main Gippsland line was completed in 1878. Poor roads meant farmers had no economical way of getting their produce to market. Two hundred labourers were employed to build the line to Neerim. The first official train on May 12, 1890, carried 25 passengers to Jindivick (later renamed Rokeby).

The trains became well used, transporting dairy products – milk, cream and butter – plus potatoes, onions, livestock, superphosphate, farming supplies, sawn timber and general goods.

Construction of the link to Noojee began on January 11, 1915. A total of 1919 men were employed on the project, including boys as young as 16. It took almost 53 months to build the extension.

“The work was hard and dangerous, with several workers being killed during construction,” writes Nick. A man and his son died as a result of a botched blasting exercise, and another fell to his death from one of the tall bridges.

Once the Noojee line fully opened, timber dominated traffic.

“Many thousands of tons of lumber were riled out to Warragul, and Noojee became one of the state’s most important timber towns,” writes Nick.

The Warragul-Noojee journey took a leisurely three-and-a-half hours. Except at holidays, passengers were few; only 230 passengers were recorded for the whole of 1929.

Nick said it was often difficult to tell the bridges apart in photos. The surrounding landscape formed a clue, as well as being a history of bushfires, as thick forests were denuded to empty, black sticks.

‘Whistles’ is Nick’s 27th book, several of which are quite small, but his last Victorian Railways. Spirit of Blue and Gold is a glorious history that also features a whole chapter on Gippsland.

Nick, 52, has worked in rail for 25 years – 19 years driving suburban trains and six years with V/Line. He has been writing books for 15 years, conducting about 150 interviews over this time with rail people all over Australia, timber workers for ‘Whistles’, tobacco farmers and people in aviation.

His books, mainly rail mixed with local history, have been on the Dandenongs, Yarra Valley, other parts of Victoria and further afield to the Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania.

“They were successful and popular, and I enjoyed doing it,” he said.

About 2300 copies of ‘Whistles’ have been printed. His research unearths gems. In ‘Whistles’, for example, there is a report of a train journey from Warragul to Noojee in 1922 written by a Warragul High School female student (name unfortunately unknown), who wrote:

“It was a calm, still morning. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the trees; not a sound was heard except the musical whistling of birds as they hopped and fluttered among the branches, and the lowing of cattle as they grazed on the green grass.

“The train started from Warragul in the morning at a quarter past eight … and as the train passed slowly through the beautiful scenery, we waved handkerchiefs and colours from the windows to every man, woman and child we passed, getting in return an answering wave.

“As we drew nearer our destination, the hills became higher, and the train went slower. The scenery became more beautiful, and among the lovely scenes I think the most beautiful were the gullies and bridges. On reaching the bridges, the train would slow down and creep slowly across … winding in and out among the hills and valleys, like some great snake….”

Later, stopping at a water tank with cameras ready, “away down in the gully a little stream gurgled and tricked over mossy stones, bordered on each side by slender fern trees … and green undulating hills covered with undergrowth, sheltered by tall gum and wattle trees …too pretty to describe, and only those who have seen them know of their real beauty”.

Another character, Arthur Armstead, who was a World War 1 veteran spending time at Gallipoli as a 15-year-old, ended up as station manager at Warragul. Every morning he took the 10.25 train to Noojee to liaise with all the sawmillers.

“But he was afraid of heights,” said Nick.

“He chose a bad job. On the Noojee line, whenever the train went over the big bridges, he lay down in the guards van so he could not see out the windows!”

Ray Johns, an engineman at Warragul, tells of the “awe-inspiring” section from Nayook to Noojee, especially crossing the big bridges, but not all drivers were so happy.

“Sometimes you’d look over at the driver, and you could always tell a Catholic driver from a Protestant driver – the catholic drivers would be counting their rosary beads!”

Warragul was the rail capital of West Gippsland in those days, employing more than 200 people.

“There was the butter factory and there was the railways, and that was it,” Ray said.

When Ray started at Warragul in 1946, there were about 85 men working at the loco depot – “drivers, firemen, cleaners, steam fitters and fitters’ mates, four blokes on the coal stage, the chargemen, and the office staff”.

“Then there were 24 guards and nine shunters, three signalmen, two signal fitters, three train examiners, four porters, two in the parcels office, three ticket clerks, and four blokes in the goods shed,” he says.

“There were also about 43 in the refreshment rooms, and it added up to somewhere around 200 employees.”

The refreshment rooms – another Warragul railway institution.

“The refreshments were really only a sideline – the refresh was actually a marriage bureau in disguise!” quips Ray.

“Over the years, seven or eight of the firemen … married refresh girls.”

As Nick notes, the girls were busy enough at work.

“In the steam days, the train from Melbourne stopped there for an engine change or crew change, taking 15-20 minutes. A telegram came from Drouin that the train was on its way. The beers were lined up; 100 beers were poured, especially for the footy trains on Saturday evening,” he said.

“People charged in and it was bedlam getting a beer, cups of tea or something to eat. There was also the train from Traralgon – then it was dead quiet again.”

Several factors killed off the Warragul-Noojee line.

“The 1926 and 1939 bushfires burnt down and damaged some of the bridges; they had to be rebuilt. Bridge 7 – that’s the one that’s currently there – was destroyed in 1926, rebuilt, destroyed in ’39, then rebuilt. The line was shut for several months. VR would have been extremely happy to see the end of the Noojee line, it was so expensive to maintain,” he said.

“Then, like the rest of the state, as soon as road transport got going, generally after World War 2, with better trucks and roads – as soon as that happened, the more marginal and difficult railways like Noojee went by the wayside. The passenger trains finished in 1930, it was so slow. The minute the roads could handle the bus, no one travelled by train, it was incredibly slow and uncomfortable.”

The last train between Nayook and Noojee ran in March 1954, and the remaining section to Nayook staggered on until October 1, 1958, when the Warragul-Noojee line was officially closed.

Different era:
Construction of the trestle bridges presented a dangerous occupation.
Volume of work: Nick Anchen with his new book detailing the history of the famous Warragul-Noojee line. Photographs supplied