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david ellis
THE Mt Lyell Mining Company had good reason for the motto it affixed to the front of the first locomotive it ran from Tasmania’s western port of Strahan to it’s copper mine thirty-five tortuous kilometres away in the wild coastal hinterland.
It read “Labour Omnia Vincit,” Latin for “We Find A Way Or Make It.”
It was March 1897, and today there’s every chance that even with 21st century technology no company would be foolhardy enough to even contemplate a railway like that of the Mt Lyell Mining Company.
For here was a line whose locos using the then-revolutionary Abt Horizontal Cog-wheel System to traverse tracks that in places climbed mountains at almost-impossible 1-in-16 inclines, crossed some of the most ingenious hand-built bridges in railway history, and ran through cuttings hand-dug 20-metres deep through rock and clay – one alone requiring the removal of 80,000 barrow-loads of rock.
And all this amid confronting conditions that included torrential rain, ice, bushfires, floods, countless snakes and millions of leeches.
But somehow despite it all, when Mt Lyell in the early 1900s became Australia’s largest mine at the time, the unique little narrow-gauge railway chugged away for 67-years, “truly earning its keep” the company said, before finally being closed in the 1960s.
Today it is running again, the line having been re-opened in 2002 at a cost of $30m from the Federal and Tasmanian Governments and with huge public support – and with two of its original five Abt locomotives internationally recognised as the world’s oldest restored working steam locos.
It took a special breed to build the Mt Lyell Railway, both in the field and in the boardroom. Surveyors cut 500-kilometres of tracks through the wilderness before finding a suitable route for the line after gold, silver and then copper were found by adventurous prospectors who followed river courses into the seemingly-impenetrable hinterland.
Those surveyor’s reports back to the boardroom told of impassable mountains and rainforests so dense the sun never touched the earth, of sudden floods washing away camps and equipment, of lightning-strike wildfires, and of ravines just twenty metres wide and little deeper, that would take a day to cut a track down one side and another day to climb the opposite.
But company directors, dubbed by one historian as “lion hearts fired by wild optimism,” were determined to press ahead, and announced their railway on November 24 1892.
Vast teams of navvies contracted to build the line were mostly inadequately outfitted for the weather and terrain, and to compound their misery lived for weeks on end on a monotonously unbroken diet of canned food; hundreds became ill and walked away as soon as they had enough money for a steamer fare back to the mainland.
Thousands of trees were felled by axe and cross-cut saw and turned into timber for hundreds of thousands of rail sleepers – and over forty bridges that made up over six per cent of the length of the line.
And the longest bridge, a 110-tonne, 43-metre iron structure was shipped out from England.
To get it into position across the King River it was lowered from the ship onto a high trestle mounted on a barge, which was then towed into position and weighed down with thousands of sandbags that sank it low enough for the bridge to settle on its concrete abutments, and for the barge to float free.
Today thousands of visitors from around the world ride the restored Mt Lyell Railway that originally hauled copper ingots from smelters at Queenstown in the mountains, and also carried hardy pioneer passengers, 35km to Regatta Point at Strahan on the coast.
Now dubbed the West Coast Wilderness Railway it’s one of the world’s great wild-country train rides, with stops at several historic stations and sites along the way, and in places seeming to cling precariously to vertical cliffs that overlook wild rivers raging hundreds of metres below.
Onboard guides tell the history of the original railway, the unique Abt system, the restoration of the line, engines and passengers carriages, and point out places of historical importance: one-way by rail and the other by coach takes approximately five hours and costs from $123pp. Book through Federal Hotels 1800 420 155.
[] STANDING at the station, high in Tasmania’s wilderness.
[] WORLD’s oldest restored working steam locomotive.
[] (Inset: Clinging to vertical cliffs overlooking wild rivers hundreds of
metres below.)
(Photos: John Crook and Tasmanian Tourism)

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