ABOUT every two weeks, a vintage steam locomotive rumbles over the rails and sounds a shrill whistle, shattering the stillness of the bushland surrounding the Hunter Valley Railway Trust museum at North Rothbury.
With a few expert flicks of the shovel, the fireman piles more coal onto the flames, then clangs the door shut.
Here, on the former Ayrfield Colliery land, the outbound train - that carries 12 crew accelerates on its way to pick up more than 400 passengers.
This section of the Huntlee Estate is the hub of a $10 million heritage railway collection, made up of 100 carriages and 10 steam, diesel and electric locomotives, that has been on the site since 1990.
Such scenes on the Rothbury riot railway are a step back in time, a story from history dating back to the early 1900s.
But their days could be limited.
In January last year, the owners of the massive Huntlee site issued the Hunter Valley Railway Trust (HVRT), a not-for-profit charity run by Maitland's Chris Richards, with eviction notices.
If the developer gets its way, the heritage steam and diesel locomotive tourist trips from the North Rothbury site throughout NSW will be no more.
Mr Richards said considerations of progress and money, could result in the end of HVRT's ageing heritage railway collection.
"There is huge tourism interest in railway heritage," he said. "The trips we run are quickly sold out and that's not even considering the boom for the little towns like Werris Creek and Dungog that we pull into, injecting 400 people and tourism dollars."
Just a kilometre away, Huntlee is striving to sell house-and-land packages and develop the Hunter's first new town in more than 50 years. Already 1200 lots have been sold in the first village, 600 homes built and 2000 people have moved in.
Developer LWP Group's executive chairman Danny Murphy said his company had "endeavoured to work" with Mr Richards over an "extended period of time" regarding the future of the collection. He said ongoing negotiations with HVRT had included options to relocate the rolling stock.
But for those involved in the railway museum, they fear the housing development might be at the loss of much of the site's uniqueness and heritage.
Reece and Byron Muter have been volunteers at the site for almost 20 years, after their father, the late Michael Muter, got involved. The brothers have spent countless hours helping restore heritage trains at North Rothbury, and both went on to follow careers as train drivers.
Reece said the importance of preserving heritage items was instilled in the pair from a young age by their father, who inherited his passion from their grandmother.
The Maitland resident said he was "extremely hopeful" a compromise could be found to keep the valuable collection at North Rothbury and allow the volunteers to continue their work.
"You see the look on the next generations' faces when they see these trains for the first time, it's absolutely priceless," he said. "I don't know how anyone could say that we should not be working towards preserving things from the past. To lose history like this is the same as saying that you would be happy for your own history to be wiped out."
For 30 years, chugging locomotives have been a feature of the North Rothbury landscape. The trust has built machine, locomotive and carriage sheds, much of the work funded through government grants, and established a museum that used to attract 20,000 visitors each year before it closed in 2012 during a culling of the collection.
The trains have carried hundreds of thousands of passengers over their lifetime.
Conscious of the valuable drawing power of railway heritage, especially steam locomotives, Mr Richards - who with the National Trust founded the Hunter's annual Steamfest celebration in the early 1980s - began the collection in the 1970s. Maitland's Hunter Valley Steamfest, that celebrates the region's steam and industrial heritage, attracts more than 60,000 visitors each year.
Mr Richards bought his first rail carriage after walking into a rail yard following a sign for firewood, which turned out to be cedar from a demolished train. He bought the next carriage on the chopping block.
Since that time he has spent millions of dollars buying and moving trains to the North Rothbury land he bought from Coal and Allied in 1990 in an attempt to maintain and restore them. But Mr Richards fears his collection could pass into history if he loses a battle in the NSW Supreme Court against the eviction notices.
Former general manager of Victoria's famous Puffing Billy steam railway Alan Gardner described the collection as "crucial to preserve". An engineer with 40 years experience working in heritage rail, Mr Gardner called for a solution to be found to ensure its survival.
"It's very rare and is a crucial part of the history of NSW travel," he said. "It's a very valuable piece of our history and it would be terrible if it was lost forever."
Mr Gardner described the recurring battle between progress and preservation as "all too familiar". "We need to stand up and fight for this type of thing," he said. "As a community we need to make sure it is preserved. We are talking about a collection that has been put together over decades, we have to make sure it has a place."
Big steam trains were once the lifeblood of the Hunter Valley. The noisy, grimy, hissing engines still spark fond memories among train buffs, historians and tourists.
The ancient huffing, puffing locos hauled coal mostly from the valley to the Newcastle waterfront.
Towards the twilight of the era, their rarity attracted international visitors.
South Maitland Railways was the last commercial steam operation in Australia. That era officially ended in late 1983 when the last commercial coal steam locomotive rattled across the vast expanse of the Hexham Swamp into the record books.
At the time, Mr Richards was instrumental in lobbying to have the NSW Heritage Act changed to include "moveable objects". He then purchased seven of the South Maitland Railways steam locomotives and moved them to North Rothbury.
In 2013, facing massive financial pressure, HVRT sold the locomotives to the Dorrigo Steam Railway & Museum.
"I was forced into a very awkward position," Mr Richards said. "To keep the collection together I sold them to Dorrigo, I could have made much more money if I sold them separately."
HVRT specialises in collecting original working sets of carriages, preserving trains as they ran at their peak. The collection contains more than 100 historic railway carriages, steam, diesel and electric locomotives, rail motors, electric passenger trains, steam cranes and other railway items.
IN THE NEWS:
- Michael Daley withdraws from NSW Labor leadership race
- COVID-19 vaccination campaign launched by ACM calling Australians to get with the program
- Two arrested at Lake Mac over alleged $900 million drug haul
- $1.72 million residential sale second-highest for Islington
- Former Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile appointed as new University of Newcastle chancellor
- Newcastle Jets boss Shane Mattiske says search for new coach already underway
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: