As a result of one of my very many loyal readers emailing me persistently for details about the composition of the first train to Coonamble, I have made my best endeavours to identify what rolling stock would have composed that initial outing on 18 February 1903. Sadly, the passing of time and tide appears to have removed the details of such working from history, if it was ever recorded. So, I intend to do what all historians do when faced with a lack of source information – make it up.
What is known of that first train? Three things are known.
First, the passenger accommodation was composed of more up-to-date carriages than the ancient examples provided by the Department of Public Works during the construction phase.
Second, Mr George Emilhaing was likely to have been the guard on the train, though the identity of the locomotive crew remains a mystery. A great name for a guard, of anything.
Third, as the train ran as a mixed service there was likely a collection of stock wagons, conveying sheep into or out of the region. There would also be open wagons, travelling empty, to convey anything from timber to wool bales on the return journey. Perhaps too there would have been covered wagons – otherwise known as louvre vans - to convey manufactured goods from the city and internationally for the citizrenry of the Castlereagh. As Cobb & Co had already lost its mail contracts to rail, provision within the coaching stock would have been made for mail bags to be carried within the guard’s van.
Apart from the coaching stock, all vehicles would have been of the four-wheeled variety, with screw couplings. This would have ensured a very jerky ride for those in the coaches at the rear of the train, even across the best parts of the new line.
The coaching stock may have been of the bogie variety. Passenger comforts were likely to have been few. Sparsely covered seats and side loading, without toilet facilities, were likely the order of the day. Still, these would have been a great improvement on those accommodations provided by Cobb & Co. or the Public Works Department.
So what hauled this first train? In the absence of a photograph or a contemporary report, one must make deductions based on the secondary evidence available. Two such sources are reference publications authored by Leon Oberg and Alex Grunbach. Both are excellent publications – Oberg’s covering the nation’s railways and Grunbach’s the locomotives of New South Wales. From these publications it is possible to identify a number of likely candidates.
It is conceivable that a G23 class 2-4-0 locomotive pulled that first train to Coonamble. These locomotives were already 38 years of age by the time of the opening of the branch line in 1903, and were built of sturdy Beyer Peacock stock. Oberg notes that they had been stored for much of the 1890s for a decade when, at the turn of the century, they were re-boilered and then ‘transferred to the western depots where there were few grades’. So, the first candidate is the (G)23 class, which were later renumbered as the 14 class.
A second class of candidate is the D255 class 4-4-0 locomotives, which were introduced in 1882. Grunbach notes that these elegant locomotives carried the nickname of the ‘Peacock High Flyers’, in recognition of their maker (Beyer Peacock) and their large driving wheels which could produce a turn of speed unneeded on the Coonamble line. These locomotives were also rebuilt in 1901-02 with Belpaire boilers, then sent to the country depots where they continued well past 1924 when they were renumbered as the 15 class.
It is less likely that the D261 class 4-4-0 locomotives were available for service on the Coonamble line in 1903. Just like their sister-engines (the D255/15 class), they entered service in 1882. By the turn of the century this class too had been displaced by newer, more powerful locomotives. Unlike the 15 class, however, the D261 class were sent north to work the increasing number of branchlines radiating out from Werris Creek. While this class also survived past the 1924 renumbering – becoming the 16 class – it is less likely that one its representatives headed the first official train to Coonamble.
A firm candidate for hauling the first train is the H371 class 4-4-0 locomotive, which had commenced operations in 1887. Oberg notes that the ten representatives of this class were sent to Wellington in 1890s for branch line working. As Wellington was the major western-most depot at the turn of the 20th century, it is highly possible that an example what was to become the 17 class left Dubbo on the first train.
A sentimental, though less likely candidate for that first train is the L304 class 2-6-0 locomotive which were 18 years of age at that time. Oberg notes that this class of locomotive were working from Orange to Dubbo and beyond in the 1890s. This class had a lengthy association with the Dubbo area – Oberg again recording that (what was to become) 2106 was a Dubbo engine as late as 1919.
Two relatively newer classes of locomotive are also in the reckoning. The K 294 class 2-6-0 was principally a goods brought into service 1885. Apparently not a popular engine with the administration, by the new century it was consigned to the coal roads in the Hunter area. As a further mark of its unpopularity, this class of locomotive was withdrawn and scrapped prior to the 1924 renumbering.
While the K 294 class is therefore a less likely candidate, another 2-6-0 locomotive is a greater possibility. The L 436 locomotive entered service 1890 and went on to become the 22 class. Grunbach records that these locomotives, dubbed the ‘Scotch Yankees’, were re-boilered between 1916 and 1919, and assigned to light branch line working. So, while a theoretical candidate, the 22 class also appears to be in the ‘dark horse’ category for working the first train.
The classes of locomotives described above are all possibilities for the inaugural service. All were represented on the earliest ‘working timetable’ for the Coonamble branch-line identified by this author, though that dated from 1916 – 13 years hence.
It is for the same reason that other classes of locomotive have been discounted – including the A93 class 0-6-0 (the 19 class), the O 446 class 4-6-0 ‘little Js’ built by Baldwin (the 23 class), the B55 2-6-0 class (the 24 class), the B205 class (the 25 class) and the ‘big Js’ – the Baldwin-built J 483 class 2-8-0 locomotives (the 29 class). All were to feature in the Dubbo area in years to come, but probably not in 1903.
There is one other candidate, and it is this author’s pick for the locomotive class which headed that first train to Coonamble. It is none other than the C 79 class 4-4-0 which had been introduced to service as early as 1877. Of mixed parentage, this class of locomotive was ubiquitous relative to others. In all, 68 were built; 26 by Dubs & Co., Beyer Peacock contributing 34 and the local Atlas Engineering Works assembling another eight of the class. By its very numbers it was more likely than any other class to be at the head of that first train.
There other reasons to favour the C 79 class, which became the 12 class in the 1924 renumbering. Oberg notes that prior to the 20th century this class had begun ‘... an exciting career on the State’s many light branch lines’, without specifying just how exciting that life was. Grunbach notes that this class of locomotive ‘... handled the major portion of the traffic on the easier graded un-ballasted branch lines, being equally at home on passenger, mixed, stock and goods trains’.
Thus, while it could have been any one of the 13 classes of locomotive listed above, until better evidence emerges it is reasonable to conclude that in all likelihood a C 79/12 class locomotive did the honours in that February day in 1903.