Australia’s Longest Wooden Tramway

Image: Wooden trestle bridge over Wey River looking north on the Emu Bay and Mount Bischoff tramway, 1878? (Source: Burnie Regional Museum)

Tasmania’s Emu Bay to Mount Bischoff horse-drawn wooden tramway – is it the longest wooden tramway ever built in Australia or indeed the British Empire?

Chapter 6 of my book ‘Fires, Farms and Forests’ goes into detail about the construction of a wooden tramway from Emu Bay to the western boundary of Surrey Hills that serviced the tin mines at Mount Bischoff. The tramway only lasted seven years before it was converted into a railway and called the Emu Bay Railway, which still exists today. This blog provides a summary of the chapter.

James ‘Philosopher’ Smith discovered tin at Mount Bischoff on 4 December 1871. Several tin mines were established, but the main one run by the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company became the biggest tin mine in the world. Mount Bischoff was located just outside the western boundary of Surrey Hills in a very isolated location some 40 miles inland from the coast.

The Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Co.) owned all the land between the Emu and Cam Rivers on the north-west coast from its fledgling port at Emu Bay (now named Burnie) to within 3 miles of Mount Bischoff. The directors of the VDL Co. were keen to secure for Emu Bay the traffic to and from the mine to avoid the Government establishing a competing port nearby. In November 1873 the VDL Co. agreed to spend £1,000 to repair and improve the old dray road originally surveyed by Henry Hellyer. The road ran from Emu Bay through the company’s lands not far from Mount Bischoff. The track was first built in the late 1820s but had been abandoned for over 40 years. It was little more than a muddy track shaded by rainforest canopy and an almost impassable quagmire for most months of the year. Bullocks and horses were known to sink to their bellies in the mud. Workers cleared the scrub on both sides of the road, removed fallen timber and straightened it as much as possible after previous users had cut new side-tracks to avoid large, heavy trees that had fallen across the track. Nearly £6,000 was spent improving the road.

As many as 90, mainly six-bullock teams hitched to wagons or drays, carted supplies from Emu Bay and back loaded with Mount Bischoff tin ore. After the first winter hauling goods to and from the mining area, it quickly became evident, as production increased, that a bullock and dray track would not meet the transport requirements of the mine.

One visitor described the track as:

“…perhaps the worst road in the colony…It would be a difficult matter to find a worse road than the one that has been formerly used as the highway to the richest portion of Tasmania, as far as its tin resources are concerned.”

Until the track was passable in drier conditions, the mining companies stockpiled ore at their mines. As the stockpiles grew in size, so did the pressure on the Government to fund an alternative, more reliable route to the mines. The most popular suggestion was a macadamised road from a port at Table Cape just west of Wynyard.

The fear of competition spurred the VDL Co. into action. In August 1874 the VDL Co. decided to survey a line for a horse-drawn wooden tramway to service the mine. Charles Sprent, the Government Surveyor, was hired to carry out this work and completed the survey in February the following year. The VDL Co’s Chief Agent in Tasmania, James Norton Smith, initially believed the tramway could be built for a total of £5000. However, after consulting more qualified and experienced people, the estimate increased to £250-300 per mile for a 40-mile line. The specifications from Sprent’s survey increased the forecast to £400 per mile. The VDL Co. invited tenders for the construction of the tramway, and three were received. They all differed widely and were excessive at more than £30,000 (or £666 per mile).

Meanwhile, John Climie, the engineer for the Launceston to Hobart railway (‘Main Line’) project, approached Norton-Smith and offered his services to oversee the construction of the tramway for a fixed salary of £350 per annum plus a 10% commission on what he could save on the lowest tender. Climie supplied a schedule of works, and Norton Smith decided to re-tender the work in July 1875. The tenders once again were much more than what the VDL Co. thought was a reasonable cost. Climie believed the tramway could be built for less than £20,000 and was prepared to stake his reputation on achieving this. The directors decided they could make more significant savings if they built the tramway themselves and clearing operations started in September 1875. 

The line was resurveyed by Climie with an engineer’s eye to improve Sprent’s grades. He achieved considerable savings on the steep rise immediately out of Emu Bay for the first four miles and reduced earthworks for cutting and embankments by improving grades and lessening the radius of curves.

The VDL Co. decided to use timber rails instead of steel to save costs and utilise the enormous supply of timber within easy distance of the route. Timber sleepers were 6 feet by 6 inches long by 6 inches wide, mainly split from stringybark (E. obliqua and E. delegatensis). Myrtle (Nothofagus cunninghamii) rails were cut from at 14 feet long 6 inches deep and 4 inches wide fixed by wedge-shaped wooden keys into notched sleepers. Iron bars held the rails on tight curves. The bridges and culverts were built substantially of wood. Ballast was made from machine-broken basalt, and the gauge was a narrow three feet. Arrangements were made with a local sawmiller to procure the timber for the rails and keys, saw and deliver them to the line. The VDL Co. initially supplied the sawmilling machinery on advance with a plan to recoup the outlay by deducting a fee from their output to pay for the machinery. The sawmiller never provided any sawn material, and the contract lapsed. The VDL Co. decided to retain the machinery and contracted out the sawing work. They initially located the sawmill at Pigeon Hill (7-Mile marker) and later in 1877 moved it to the 25-Mile in the heart of the notorious ‘nine-mile’ rainforest at Ringwood.  

The tramway was completed to the western boundary of Surrey Hills in February 1878 at 45 miles, 5 chains and 35 links (equivalent to 45.066 miles or 72½ kilometres). The total cost of the tramway was £42,770 or around £940 per mile. Debentures raised £29,000, and the remaining £13,000 came from calls on the shares. No sooner had the tramway been completed than the rails began to warp, split and burn. The replacement of the rails occurred on a rolling three-year program. The most significant cause of deterioration was the ballast stones being kicked onto the rails by the horses and then ground into the rails by the following bogie truck wheels. 

A three-horse team drew two bogie trucks at a speed of about 3½ miles per hour. Each team of horses travelled 20 miles per day, 10 miles out, and 10 miles return. Teams started at each end every morning at met roughly halfway at Hampshire Hills. Every ten miles, the necessary sidings were provided with cottages for the horsemen, stables and goods sheds, as well as resting paddocks.

What is remarkable for those times was the use of private capital to fund the construction of the tramway to the equivalent value of over 5.7 million in today’s dollars. Initially, the VDL Co. did not want to construct or own the tramway. They offered to grant the necessary land to any company who would take on the responsibility. The VDL Co. were wary of spending funds on a project that could only guarantee returns from the traffic on the line. The VDL Co. decided to build a wooden and narrow-gauge tramway that was navigable in all seasons and capable of meeting the steep grades and sharp curves as a relatively low-cost alternative to the dray road, without even more considerable expense of constructing a railway.

The one unheralded aspect of this wooden tramway, however, was its total length. I have been unable to find any evidence of another wooden tramway built elsewhere in Australia that is greater in length.  I believe it is the longest ever built in the world. There may be other longer wooden tramways built in Canada or Russia, but if there are, they are not well known.

The tramway was converted to a railway with iron rails and locomotives between 1884 and 1887. The gauge was subsequently widened to three feet six inches. It became known as the Emu Bay Railway. In 1900 the line was extended from Guildford Junction south to Zeehan on the west coast, and in April 1939 the Guildford to Waratah section to the Mount Bischoff mines ceased operating. The railway through to the west coast still exists. Its primary purpose is to transport mine produce to the port at Burnie.

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