GOING . . . going . . . gone. Despite a past government promise that the former Newcastle rail corridor would stay in public hands, the last portion of the land is for sale next month.
The long 4125-square metre block, opposite the inner-city's Crown Street, has been named Rail Bridge Row. It's in memory of the former iron bridge that once stood there more than 150 years ago. It carried suburban coal wagons to the waterfront.
Built by the pioneering Australian Agricultural Company (or A.A.Company), the iron bridge (pictured), however, wasn't unique. It's now apparent it was the last of three coal bridges (two of them timber) spanning Hunter Street and the now removed railway lines there.
This remarkable photograph is extremely rare as it shows two of these bridges in the one shot. The historic occasion marked the opening of the imported riveted iron bridge in April 1865 as witnessed by a bevy of officials, bystanders and horses. The lower, former timber bridge used for hauling coal, is seen alongside before it was demolished.
The new 1865 bridge built over Hunter Street was a three-span structure assisted by several massive brick piers.
The higher iron structure came from England, from our sister city, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and was fabricated by Robert Stephenson and Co.
The new bridge was said to be "about 20ft (6m) away" from the earlier timber bridge it was replacing. However, through the camera lens, it seems much closer.
The sturdy metal bridge was "about 7ft" (2m) higher than the older timber one so traffic wouldn't be obstructed. And a steam locomotive has replaced the teams of horses formerly used to drag the coal skips to the port.
Below the stationary engine on the new high bridge are five gentlemen sporting top hats and standing on the soon-to-be-removed wooden structure. They are said to include prominent Newcastle identities of the day, Mr E.C. Merewether and Dr James Mitchell.
The iron bridge was built strong to support the weight of two parallel rail tracks carrying a locomotive hauling probably a dozen heavily-laden coal wagons.
The new bridge had to be high enough for road traffic to easily pass underneath.
One frequent complaint, which went on for decades, was that the old timber bridge was too low. Tall riders on horseback had to duck while passing under it, but it was just high enough to allow steam trams to trundle down what is now Hunter Street West, but once known as Blane Street.
Rather interestingly, remains of old timber bridge footings were found during excavations for Newcastle Light Rail.
The A.A. Co once had a monopoly on coal and mined it on land it owned at Cooks Hill and Hamilton. For after the early penal settlement closed, the township of Newcastle ended at what is now Crown Street, city.
The A.A.Co owned all the land west of here going towards Broadmeadow and even had a wall and gate erected on Wharf Road to keep unwanted visitors away from its coal exporting facilities on the harbour's edge.
Today, all trace of the scene in the picture is gone - almost.
Opposite Crown Street, only a truncated remnant brick pier with rounded ends survives. Attached, but almost invisible on this low wall, a bronze plaque commemorates the official opening in 1865 of the iron bridge.
Timber sleepers fixed to the top of a wall to form a bench seat and a second interpretive sign completes the scene.
On the footpath behind the new Crown Street light rail stop, the dark rectangular brick base is surprisingly long, more than 50ft (16m).
This rare physical evidence of the A.A.Company's coal-carrying facilities is also obviously skewed: reflecting the odd alignment of the bridge route down Crown Street from pits at Hamilton. It then went north via the bridge spanning Hunter Street and the Great Northern Railway to the harbour coal staithes (elevated coal-loading platforms).
Before the company's coal operations moved into Cooks Hill and Hamilton, it operated its 'A' pit off Church Street, The Hill, above Hunter Street, from 1831.
Earlier, the company had been granted 2000 acres in Newcastle to undertake mining.
The 'A' pit was the first privately owned colliery in Australia and its gravitational railway down to the harbour front via a timber bridge was the nation's first railway.
And according to ongoing research by the NSW Heritage Office, this initial timber coal bridge from 1831 - a light timber viaduct - was probably replaced in 1841 by a better timber structure, which in turn was replaced by the more solid iron bridge in 1865.
However, it too eventually disappeared as the city expanded.
Demolition of Crown Street's big metal bridge began in 1921 to allow electric trams to begin operating in 1923.
Crown Street was also no longer the boundary between the town and the A.A.Company.
There was a proposal to recycle the iron bridge further down Hunter Street, near the former Bank Corner, but it never eventuated.
WILD TIMES AT WALLSEND
Out Wallsend way, the name Hell-fire Jack was once a legend. He drove a steam tram between Brush Creek Junction, near today's Crossroads at Glendale to 'Westy' (West Wallsend).
It's said that Hell-fire Jack's real name was Alf McVie and passengers often complained that he drove too fast. Being a keen churchgoer, Jack would always reply cheerfully, "Don't worry. The good Lord rides with me."
One day, however, a carriage came off the track, taking the motor with it and, sadly, Hell-fire Jack was scalded to death. Or so the story goes.
"Actually, there were two steam tram drivers with the same nickname," Wallsend author and former teacher Cath Chegwidden revealed recently.
"The original was John Brown, a Welshman known as 'Jack the Restless'. He then also became known as Hell-fire Jack after he and his stoker Alf McVie set a speed record of 45 minutes between the steam tram terminus in Parnell Place, Newcastle, and Wallsend terminus," she said.
Brown retired and Alfie, a Salvation Army captain, took over his mantle. Driving the steam tram though proved fatal.
He was killed when his motor left the rails and exploded at Young Wallsend in January 1928.
A witness told police McVie wasn't speeding when he died, but that the rail lines had simply spread.
The tale is but one fascinating yarn published last month in Chegwidden's 250-page book 'Wallsend Proud - Then and Now', which documents the rich history of the former mining suburb.
Retailing for $50, the book took her three years to research and write.
Enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations meant she then sold 50 copies pre-publication.
The book gave Wallsend historic bragging rights and has now sold more than 700 copies. But Chegwidden says they'll be no reprint as she has other projects to tackle.
"The reader response has been wonderful," she says.
"The book is available through newsagencies at Glendale, at Wallsend, at Jesmond, Elermore Vale, Lambton, Blackbutt, Kotara and at McLeans bookstore at Hamilton."
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