Trans-Australian Railway

The West Australian Wednesday 11 February 1914

Due east along the thirty-first parallel of latitude—well, nearly due east; a curve here and there to avoid an infrequent rise, but that is all. The gleaming steel of the western section of the national railway hurries to the rising sun. Four hundred men speed the road to the dawn—men of various callings and degrees, whose work is carefully dovetailed under the directing eye of Mr. Smith, the supervising engineer. At the depot near Kalgoorlie draughtsmen prepare plans guided by the data which the surveyors in advance of the road have gathered. Here, too, half-a-dozen iron sheds, workshop, running shed, storehouses, shelter a busy crew of drivers, cleaners, fitters, storemen, and labourers.

Here the railway material, transported from the coast over four hundred miles of narrow gauge track, is delivered to the Commonwealth. The sleepers and rails, stacked in orderly rows, make imposing aggregations of wood and steel; seemingly countless truck wheels and body frames attract the eye; a fussy five-ton locomotive crane, snorting diligently swings the heavy impedimenta of a railway with ease. Interesting as is the work at the depot, one fumes to be along the road. The depot is but an ordinary railway yard, with, perhaps, a little more than ordinary significance. It is out, further out, that things are doing.

Out along the thirty-first, parallel the

Clearing Gangs 

have cut a two-chain swathe through the poor remnants of salmon gum forest which the firewood cutters for the mines have suf- fered to remain. The first sixty miles of the track pass through forest country which has been depleted of timber. Back in the distance, as our train hurries onward, one sees the mighty masses of tailings on the Golden Mile; sees the soft smoke curling from the stacks to drift together into the only clouds that dull the radiant blue of the summer sky.

The mines are eating 1,600 tons of firewood daily for strength to win the golden treasures hidden beneath the surface of the ground. East and west, and north and south, 400 acres of forest land are, between sunrise and sunset, harvested to feed the ravenous engines. The crop has been ages in the ripening ; the garnering is speedy. Thus it is that so far as the rails are laid the country repels the eye. It has lost the crowning glory of its woodland locks; and the dry calloused stumps are left to tell that here the bushland was.

It is a rich soil nevertheless. Bare and dry beneath the Austral sun, shorn of its native dower of scanty comeliness, it gives to the discerning eye the unmistakable signs of latent wealth. The red and friable loam offers bushels of wheat to the acre—for water. Our generation cannot give it this. But the rains of winter can be conserved for pastoral purposes. The country will carry stock. The irrepressibly vital saltbush covers the plain to right and left,and seems to invite the grazing herds to come and be fattened—as assuredly they will.

But our train is swallowing the distance. Ahead, ten miles, straight as the bee flies, the rails stab the horizon. A mirage dances Slightly upon the gleaming, polished steel, and spreads alluringly before us a shimmer- ing sheet of aqueous fancy. We are rush- mg at thirty miles an hour into a lake. A group of fettlers who have been lifting and repairing the line jump aside as we dash towards them. Our engine leaps to the translucent expanse that laves the dry lips of the parched soil—leaps, and never reaches it ; for, ever as we hasten, it ripples mockingly ahead, calling unavailingly to us, as it has called with cruel meaning to the stricken bushman, to come and slake our thirst in the wafers of nothingness. Thirty miles from the depot we pull up at the first "crossing."

The head of the road is twenty miles further on; but here the loaded material trains pass the empty rakes returning to the depot. As the line will be a single track to Port Augusta, loops will be necessary about every thirty miles to allow trains to pass ; and as the work of construction progresses it will probably be found that the speed-in delivering material to the workers ahead will diminish with the increase of crossings as well as owing to the greater distance. At the 30-mile the first considerable

Camp of Navvies 

is found. A huge square iron tank, with "C. of A." (Commonwealth of Australia) emblazoned on it, stands close to the line. Besides rails and fastenings, sleepers and tools, water must be brought to the men from the depot. Attached to each engine is a water tender in which the precious fluid is conveyed. Ten additional water waggons, each of.a capacity of 2,400 gallons, are being erected at Kalgoorlie. No risks can be taken in the dry interior of Australia.

The camp is the usual navvies' conglomeration of tents, boarding house, and hop beer saloon. It is a miniature hessian and canvas town. It has sprung up in a day, and, when work here is completed, it will disappear as quickly, to rear itself some miles nearer the South Australian border. But so far as living conditions on a construction job may be made good, they have been here. The boarding house is "run" under a permit from the Commonwealth authorities.. The framework of the hessian restaurant is composed of sawn oregon pine. The structures are neat and attractive to the eye. The rough-hewn saplings, the forks driven into the ground to support uneven slabs upon which the boarders' food might be served, which were characteristic of the camp of aforetime, are conspicuous by their absence. The tables are placed on symmetrical trestles, the tops being covered by a wholesome oilcloth pleasing—for pleasure is comparative—to the eye, and conducive to cleanliness. The place is spotlessly clean. In this respect it might serve as an object lesson to many establishments of greater pretensions.

The food is superior in quantity and quality. Your navvy works hard. He is the heavy human engine that, if its task is to be accomplished, must be well-stoked with fuel. Meat and vegetables are in abundence ; the table is decked with pickles, sauces, and jams. Here seventy-eight men eat three times a day ; and each mealtime seldom extends over an hour. Considering the rush that this number of men being fed within the short space of sixty minutes implies, it is wonderful to note the smallness of the board ing-house staff. Long experience in "follow ing up railway" enables the proprietors to develop a system which attains the maximum of result for the minimum of effort.

It is not within the power of the eating-house proprietors to charge extortionate prices. They can purchase their goods in Kalgoorlie at the rates obtaining there ; a Government considerate of the interests of the men carries stores free of charge over the line ; therefor the prices charged to the railway workers by the boarding houses and storekeepers must be Kalgoorlie prices. Excellent board can be obtained for

Twenty-five Shillings a Week, 

and, should a man "batch," as many of them do, he can live comfortably on less than £1 a week. A huge marquee houses the soft drinks vendor. It is the council chamber of the workers; their club. Here the railways of Australia from Queensland to Tasmania and round to Port Hedland are re-built. The attentive stranger may drop in and follow, with these men, Joey McDowall from Nor- tham to Southern Cross ; can "lift the road" withf Wilkie Bros. across the sand-plain to Boorabbin ; can work under "Dublin"— What, never knew "Dublin?"—from Mullewa to: Cue. A wiry, weather-worn Irishman, hard and knotted, a little stooped from many years of "hands high-ing" countless rails, and "wid hair on his chest dat 'ud gap an axe," can fetch us further back. "There was the line from Bendigo to Heathcote which O'Keefe built. A tough job. Y' 'member—well, yev heard—the cove as shot at O'Keefe on the Mall, and then blew his own lights out?" Sheu ! Romance is dead. Navvying is not what it used to be. Nobody is shot at now- days. Many there must be who deserve it. The time is out of joint. In the distance of years a soft glamour surrounds even the jobs of the navvy. A score of years hence to have worked on the Trans-Australian line. will be a distinction among the men who will then build iron roads.

Swopping stories of the past is not, however, the only amusement of the men. There are euchre and crib to assist the passing hours when work is done. And hazard and "two- up." Ah! the latter. The pennies spinning in the air, the spinner standing with the "kip" half 'outstretched, the eager eyes the crowd following the rise and fall of the coins, the silver, notes, and gold thrown carelessly in the dust and awaiting the phlegmatic call of the "ring-keeper" 'Two heads;" '"two tails," ere ownership is decided—human nature is very human in this gambling school of the bush.

The "Spieler'" and the "Gun" 

are round the ring. They toil not, or but very little. They live upon the genuine worker ; and he, strangely enough, knows it, and suffers it. A magsman captured in the act of exercising his disreputable talent is "dealt with." But so long as the sharper is not actually discover- ed ringing in the "nob" or the "grey" he may, however much suspicion might be excited against him proceed to amass the hard earnings of the toilers, afterwards spending them in the city in such fashion that as a conscious victim ruefully de- described it: "Sollermun in all 'is glory wouldn't—couldn't—you know—couldn't 'old a blanky candle t' 'im."

And there is another vehicle in which the navvy hurries laggard Time to the rear. It is The Bumboat A landward relation, on the sinister side, of the craft immortalised by Marryat, it steals out from Kalgoorlie laden with beer and grog. Unobtrusively by bush tracks it visits the camps, carrying "concentrated hell" among them. Little appears to be done by the police authorities to stop the evil traffic. Circumstances, fortunately, will kill it. When the distance to the head of the line becomes too great to al- low of a profitable transport of illicit liquor to the camps per bumboat, the pernicious traffic will be brought to an end, as it will he impossible for the bumboat men to carry liquor on the railway.

The whistle shrieks, and we leave the thirty-mile. There are nearly twenty miles to cover before the head of the road is reached. There is another camp to pass. It is a replica of the one we have left. More frequently we see groups of navvies at work, lifting and packing the line. But the pivot of industry is ahead. A number of minute black dots spring into view. As the train rolls on the dots grow, and take on the shape of men. A train stands in the road before us, its engine at the rear, and a cumbrous derrick frame rising from the leading truck. We are with the construction gang. We pull up a quaiter of a mile behind the head of the road. The line from here on is not yet fit to travel over. The straight road we have covered is succeeded by a sinuous track that stretches between us and the construction train. Along this crooked way scores of men are working and around the wag- gons ahead many more are pulling, and levering, and carrying. At last we are among the navvies at "graft."

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