For the past four decades, the Richmond Vale Railway Museum has been preserving and celebrating the Hunter’s rich railway and mining heritage.
But a devastating bushfire in September 2017 almost stopped the not-for-profit organisation’s work in its tracks, ripping through the historic site and causing $1 million worth of damage to the railway and historic rolling stock.
The fire destroyed two kilometres of track, as well as stainless steel passenger cars, a 100-year-old break van and at least 30 coal hoppers.
It was a devastating blow to the scores of volunteers who, since the organisation was formed in 1979, have dedicated their time to preserving and restoring the legacy of the J. & A. Brown Company on the site of the old Richmond Main colliery at Richmond Vale.
Driven by their passion for the project, and a generous outpouring of support from the community and businesses, the volunteers have worked tirelessly since the fire to repair the damage, with the site officially reopening to the public on March 2018.
Now they are gearing up to celebrate its milestone 40th anniversary in 2019 and Richmond Vale Railway Museum secretary Tracey Hamilton said it was an exciting time, with plans for a public party as part of the Family Fun Fest on September 28 and 29.
Before then it will be almost business as usual as the volunteers continue to open the site to the public and work behind the scenes to repair or replace what was damaged by the fire.
“The day after the fire we were on site to assess the damage. Several of us were doing media interviews, and we all said the same thing: ‘This will not stop us. We will be back’,” Tracey said.
“The timber sleepers on about 2.5 kilometres of track were burnt, making the track unusable. We also lost a rail bridge. Twelve of the 16 restored non-air coal hoppers were damaged to varying degrees, and a 100-year-old brake van was destroyed. There were more unrestored hoppers and freight wagons that were destroyed. These cannot be replaced as there simply are no more in existence.
“The response (from the community) was incredible. Other railway organisations offered us rollingstock and help. Many businesses held fundraising events on our behalf. Kennards Hire Rail Division loaned us track maintenance equipment free of charge. We used our fundraising funds to purchase ballast at a discount.
“Used concrete sleepers were donated and continue to be donated. Track mounted excavators, and other vehicles have been provided free of charge to help with track repairs.
“Swietelsky Rail Australia have provided labour and equipment to rebuild the track, free of charge. They plan to help us rebuild all of the track to Pelaw Main and possibly extend the track further, following our long-term plans.
“We have rebuilt, with help, the Mulbring Road branch line. The last 400 metres was recently accredited so that we can run the full length of that line – 1.4 kilometres.
“The train trips along this line are only short shuttle services, but at least we are running trains. That was our priority to be able to reopen.
“We re-opened on 4th March 2018, six months after the fire. I think we surprised a lot of people by re-opening so soon. But that is evidence of the amount of support we received.”
For those looking for something to do with the kids these school holidays, the Richmond Vale Railway Museum offers a fun and exciting insight into the region’s rich coal mining and railway heritage. Visitors can take a ride on its restored steam or diesel locomotives on the first three Sundays of each month and every Sunday during school holidays.
There are also miniature train rides, outdoor mining and rail exhibits, and a souvenir shop, as well as a fascinating mining museum, which is set up in the former colliery administration office. The museum showcases a large range of artefacts, maps and photos, which documents the history of the Richmond Main Colliery, the development of the South Maitland Coalfields, the equipment used and the social impact of coal mining on the local communities.
The site is ideal for a fun family day out, with shady picnic areas and a canteen selling hot and cold food, as well as drinks, ice creams and snacks.
Gates open at 9.30am and close at 4pm. For more information visit www.richmondvalerailwaymuseum.org