RAILWAYS have always been important to Hunter Valley life. Oddly enough, one rail line once also played an important role even in death in late 19th century Newcastle.
For about 50 years, it was a tradition for funeral trains to travel along the Great Northern Line out to isolated Sandgate Cemetery.
A humble mortuary station was even built at Honeysuckle Point and from 1881 (when Sandgate was opened) funeral trains started to travel daily out west towards Hexham.
Near Sandgate, a one-kilometre line branched north-west off the main railway into the very heart of the cemetery and an unloading platform. When motor hearses were introduced from the 1930s, the popularity of this rail line declined, until finally it closed on October 13, 1985.
The NSW Railways continued to run two trains for cemetery visitors each Sunday afternoon until the end. At the time, it was supposedly the last rail service of its type in Australia.
It all seems such a strange era today, but there was more pomp and ceremony accompanying funeral trains in Sydney. Down there, the coffin unloading platforms were more grand and imposing, representing almost temples to death.
Sydney Central Railway Station's surviving sandstone mortuary station is at Redfern. It is restored, but closed to the public. The Gothic inspired design, from 1869, is a rare physical remainder of former funeral customs of that period. For it served an actual cemetery, not the present rail terminus.
Central Station sits on what was once the Devonshire Street Cemetery until it closed in 1890. All the bodies were exhumed in 1901 and reburied elsewhere.
Sydney's grand mortuary station, however, lasted as a terminus for funeral trains, to transport caskets by vehicle to other cemeteries until 1938. Ten years later, the unusual train service on the cemetery line ended.
Much earlier, around 1901, when funeral trains serviced distant Rookwood Cemetery, there were four separate platforms, imposing buildings and two miles (3.2 kilometres) of track inside the graveyard. After 1948 the tracks were dug up and the ornate stations deteriorated. Today, Central's impressive Gothic mortuary building survives as an oddity; probably the only intact example on the NSW Rail network.
But there's another impressive former Sydney mortuary station, which although greatly altered, would give it a run for its money. This large sandstone building is, however, not where it's supposed to be.
It's in Canberra where, since 1959, it's become a bit of a tourist attraction. Sometimes it's even claimed to be the second oldest building in the ACT (although it originated in Sydney).
Welcome to All Saints Anglican Church (pictured) in suburban North Ainslie. It began life 151 years ago as a sandstone railway station, as part of the huge Sydney necropolis ('city of the dead') of Rookwood, in Lidcombe.
It's a fine church now, but, despite appearances, it was never really one before. When it was saved at the last moment in the mid 1950s, it was fire-damaged, without a roof and unwanted.
It was the beautiful and original Number One station at Rookwood, designed by colonial architect James Barnet, the man behind Newcastle's elegant Customs House.
Local newspapers reported that the Rookwood site was once the haunt of undesirables who held "metho drinking orgies at night surrounded by thousands of graves". There was even a move at the time to have all the stone in the structure crushed for road fill.
Instead, the church's first rector, the Reverend Edward Buckle, saw the potential in resurrecting the gloomy ruin at Rookwood, 17 kilometres from Sydney, on a spur line from Sydney to Parramatta.
At the time, Rev Buckle's congregation were worshipping in a local hall. The NSW railways department had advertised the station for five years without success when Rev Buckle offered 100 pounds (maybe $200) for the building's demolition and removal. The money came from the ladies' tea club fundraising
The government accepted the offer, but little did Rev Buckle know that the enormous project would take more than a year to complete and eventually cost more than 24,000 pounds. Although it opened in November 1, 1959, it wasn't consecrated until 16 years later, in 1975, when all debts were paid.
By then, there had also been substantial changes to the former mortuary station. Its bell tower had switched sides and its massive entry portal sealed, with pews inside where the tracks once ran.
Made from Pyrmont sandstone, the original building (1868-1948) was never intended as a church, despite its richly decorated carvings. To give dignity to 19th century funerals, elaborate Italian Gothic 'necropolis receiving houses' were constructed for funeral trains to discharge mourners and unload caskets for burial at Rookwood Cemetery. After funeral trains fell out of favour, a grassfire in the 1950s destroyed the structure's wooden roof.
But buying the old, unused station now haunted by vandals was the easy part. Master builder Stan Taunton, who bravely took on the venture, put a year of voluntary service into the project.
"Some said we were mad, idiots in fact, to think we could relocate the stone successfully," he said later.
But they did, dismantling the structure stone by stone and numbering each one so that by winter 1958, 83 semi-trailer loads of masonry, or about 700 tonnes, had safely been transported to Canberra.
Today the former Rookwood mortuary station relocated to Ainslie is again a gem of a building. The cavernous interior is flanked by seven pairs of columns, more than 52 arches and a reported 365 carvings, including several gargoyles, one for each day of the year.