There’s no question coal was the driving force behind the growth of the Hunter Valley. But despite the popularity of the annual Steamfest event, which attracts tens of thousands of steam locomotive lovers to Maitland each April, many people don’t realise the crucial role the railways played in the development of the region.
Late in the 19th century, Government geologist T.W.Edgeworth David discovered a vast coal reserve in the area south-west of Maitland.
A syndicate of Maitland businessmen were the first people to capitalise on the rich natural resource, forming the East Greta Coal Mining Company in 1891 and opening the East Greta Colliery in an area near the suburb now known as Gillieston Heights.
But it wasn’t until the company built a private railway line in 1893 to facilitate a connection between their mine and the Great Northern Railway, which was owned by the Government, that the potential of Australia’s newest coalfield began to be realised.
The line initially ran between East Greta Junction (now known as Telarah) and the nearby East Greta Colliery, but by 1904 it had been extended further south to Cessnock, with the towns of Kurri Kurri, Weston, Abermain, Neath and Aberdare quickly emerging to service a slew of new coal mines.
Each new section of the railway line was built by the mining companies using it to transport their coal, however ownership of the entire line was combined in 1918 when Hebburn Ltd and the East Greta Coal Mining Company merged to form a new company, known as the South Maitland Railways Ltd (SMR).
During the 1920s, around 45 per cent of all coal produced in NSW travelled along the SMR lines before being distributed for local consumption or delivered to the Port of Newcastle, where it was shipped overseas.
With its headquarters at East Greta Junction, where fully equipped workshops were built to maintain, repair and rebuild the locomotives used on the line, SMR became the most intensively operated private railway in Australia.
Aside from coal haulage, SMR also operated passenger services for almost 40 years, with the first service travelling between East Greta Junction and Stanford Merthyr in June 1902. The last passenger train ran on the SMR lines in May 1972, with the service having been variously operated by SMR and the NSW Government’s Department of Railways.
While SMR eventually became synonymous with steam-driven engines, the railway line to East Greta was initially worked by gravitation and horse traction.
The first small steam locomotives were introduced in 1895, but as the amount of coal being transported along the line grew, more powerful steam engines were soon required.
Purpose-built steam tank locomotives, known as the ’10 Class’ engines, were manufactured in England and first arrived in Maitland during December 1911, with a total of 14 units delivered by 1926.
The private railway network continued to operate steam locomotives until June 1983, when they were replaced with diesel-electric locomotives. By the time steam was discontinued, each locomotive had travelled between 1.6 and 2 million kilometres.
SMR’s switch to the more modern locomotives attracted much interest, as at the time it was the last operating steam haulage service in Australia.
In a bid to celebrate the Hunter’s long-running use of steam engines and the important role they played in the development of the region, the National Trust of Australia, The State Rail Authority and the Heritage Office organised the inaugural Steamfest event, which ran as the grand finale to Heritage Week in 1986.
Now one of the biggest events on the local calendar, the two-day Hunter Valley Steamfest attracts around 50,000 to Maitland each year.
While South Maitland Railways continues to operate a flourishing open access private railway network, the SMR steam locomotive workshop at East Greta Junction is now protected by a Permanent Conservation Order under the NSW Heritage Act.
The Maitland Rail Museum has been established at the site to highlight the role SMR played in helping to establish Maitland and Cessnock as one of the world’s most important coal producing areas of the mid-20th century.
The museum includes interpretive displays, equipment, tools and other artefacts used by the railway, with entry via prior arrangement. For more information visit www.maitlandrailmuseum.com
Information thanks to South Maitland Railways and the Maitland Rail Museum.