31 December 2011

Grain silos and storage facilities

Yes, it has been more than a little while between posts.  I have been preparing what was to be a monster posting covering the transport of grain from Eumungerie, and the facilities used in this task, but have now decided to break the posts into a series of at least three.  So, today's post is about the transport of wheat in the first dozen years of the branch line's operation.  

A simple description of the railway infrastructure specifically provided in those early years is easy - as nothing was provided by the railway's administration.  Farmers and their agents had the glorious task of unloading their bagged wheat from drays in the railway yard, sometimes directly into the railway truck but more usually straight onto the ground.  When railway trucks were provided, the farmer then had the job of lugging the bags up and across the wool bank if the trucks were conveniently located.  If the wool bank was unavailable it would have been a perilous walk up a plank and over the side of the railway truck.  Tough and dangerous work.

Still, the growing and sale of grains, predominantly wheat, has been the sustaining rationale for the existence of the Coonamble branch line for its entire existence.  This truism is no truer than when applied to Eumungerie.  The history of transportation of grain out of the Eumungerie district is typical of the growth in the industry throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.  

The earliest separately-recorded season of wheat transport at Eumungerie was 1912/13, though undoubtedly wheat was being bagged and brought to the railway yard from the very first trains.  Evidence in support of this practice can be gleaned from none other than that august journal of record – the Sydney Morning Herald.  Indeed, given the number of times Eumungerie appears within the pages of this newspaper in the period from 1905 to 1915, it is just possible that one of the working journalists had strong ties to the district.

As noted elsewhere, the coming of the 20th century brought widespread and severe drought, of a type never seen by Caucasian in this continent.  And even though the line had been opened in the midst of the worst ever drought experienced in NSW (a description penned by the Railway Commissioners in their annual report), some crops were still being raised successfully along the Coonamble railway. 

By 1905, the Herald could report on 30 June that the drought was well and truly over, with 15,209 acres under crop in the Coonamble Road, Coalbaggie, Brocklehurst and Talbragar districts.  By 25 November of 1905 the same newspaper reported that:

Samples of wheat received in Dubbo from some portions of the district indicate a very fine crop so far as fullness and bulk are concerned.  Experts consider that the best crops are about Eumungerie, Goonoo, and along the Coonamble Road towards Gilgandra... Nearer Dubbo the crops are not quite so promising, but a general estimate made by an expert is that the whole area will go from slightly below four bags up to seven or eight bags to the acre in tho most favoured spots... It is estimated that the district wheat will make about 60lb to the imperial bushel.

This initial report demonstrates that the wheat industry was developing well, but doesn’t tie an inextricable link between farmers and markets through the railway.  However, a series of articles appearing from 1910 onwards certainly did make this connection.  In May 1910 the Herald editorialised that:

The question of cross-country lines is ever present in such centres as Wellington and Dubbo. There are few better examples of what a railway can do than that which runs from Dubbo to Coonamble. Before the railway, there was little farming done.  Now there is an increasing area each year... If the railway is put through good country, settlement will follow.

On 16 June in the following year the Herald published a detailed article on the value of rural ‘branch railway lines’, in which Eumungerie was show-cased:

The value of our branch railway lines for development of the country largely compensates for any slowness of speed, which is often condemned.  Of all branch lines that run, Dubbo to Coonamble is the best evidence of the value of railway communication as necessary to settlement. Opened a few years ago, the Railway Commissioners anticipated a loss, but that has never yet been experienced...

After commenting on Talbragar and Mogriguy, the Herald’s correspondent reflected on Eumungerie, in the following passage:

At Eumungerie further on, there is all evidence of a settlement in the making.  There are a number of farmers engaged in mixed farming, sheep and wheat, and the results are generally proving satisfactory. Most of them have taken up land on easy terms and are meeting with a fair measure of success.  There are some too who possess freehold, and the district must eventually assume large proportions.   As it is, the yield of wheat each year is on the increase and the crop this season should be, if a favourable winter and good spring is experienced, very fair.

Success of this type quite often brings troubles of another type, and so it was with the transport task at Eumungerie.  On 22 January 1912 the Herald reported under the byline of Railways trouble: Shortage of trucks that:

... like other places in the wheat belt, the Eumungerie railway yard is becoming blocked with the quantities of wheat which are being daily drawn in and stacked there.  At the time of writing there must be in the neighbourhood of 4,000 bags awaiting the arrival of trucks to carry them to their destination. The Commissioners seem powerless to cope with the difficulty.  The wool bank, from where the wool is loaded on to the trucks drawn up along-side is crowded with stacks of wheat and the bags are now being piled up on Government sleepers, wherever these latter are available.

One farmer has drawn up a quantity of old telegraph poles, on which he has built up his bags, and has received the sanction of the inspector for his action. Considerable friction and unpleasantness has been caused between farmers as to who shall secure the first trucks. As soon as one is left on the siding it has a dozen claimants and the fortunate man is he who succeeds in first getting a bag of wheat on to it, as that establishes his title to its temporary sole use.

The situation reported by the Herald on this occasion is somewhat difficult to comprehend fully.  In the days before publicly-owned grain handling authorities, individual farmers booked railway trucks through agents to transport bagged crops to markets (usually Darling Harbour or Newcastle).  If some enterprising farmer was to sequester a railway truck for his own use, it is difficult to understand how he would have maintained title to its contents – short of riding alongside the bags atop the wagon.  However, I am never one to doubt the veracity of reports in the Herald, except the weather forecasts.

Whether or not the report above was entirely accurate, it seems it was pretty clear to the authorities that something had to be done with the situation at Eumungerie, and so it was.  During 1912/13 Eumungerie ‘grew up’ – it obtained its first full-time staff member (note, singular!) and commenced reporting its passenger, goods and livestock transactions in the Railway Commissioners’ Annual Reports.  And thus it can still be read, a century later, in 1912/13 31,829 bags of wheat were loaded at Eumungerie into wagons for dispatch to various mills across NSW and beyond.