07 March 2012

Moving the golden grain: 1912 to 1918

The post on 31 December 2011 covered the storage and shipment of wheat from Eumungerie during the first decade of railway operations on the Coonamble branch line, and further postings were promised in a fit of new year’s resolve.  However, it is now two months hence and the job of writing up the history of wheat in Eumungerie is becoming an even larger task than that envisaged at that time. 

The major reason for this further delay is that since the last posting on wheat, the National Library of Australia’s Trove newspaper database has since been augmented with the Dubbo Liberal.  This has opened up another great source of provincial information about grain haulage, Eumungerie and various tangential matters.  Of course, this is all good news but it does slow down the writing somewhat!

Back to the story at hand….As noted in previously, the first decade or so of the railway’s operations saw the development of promising but still embryonic farming communities all along the Coonamble line.  In the districts between Dubbo and Gilgandra the emphasis was on wheat growing, with the districts further north finding greater success with the raising of livestock – principally sheep. 

The recovery from the effects of a debilitating drought of the 1890s in all districts along the railway line meant that the freight task was at capacity by 1910.  From this point onwards, stories of bountiful produce struggling to get to Sydney’s market through a scarcity of adequate rolling stock was the story of wheat production in the Eumungerie district.  The difficulty of this freight task was exacerbated by the lack of adequate infrastructure to receive, store and trans-ship the grain at Eumungerie.  The story of the period from 1912/13 to 1918 continues this story of struggle.

The year 1912/13 brought the first major expansion of the Eumungerie railway yard.  Although it increased the trackage available for the loading of wagons, remarkably it made no specific accommodation for the storage and/or loading of bagged wheat.

The year 1912/13 also brought a funding allocation for a porter, who commenced the responsibility of recording the passenger and freight comings and goings from this location. It was this officer who recorded that 31,829 bags of wheat were loaded at Eumungerie into wagons for dispatch during that financial year.  This was a major effort and amounted to approximately one-third of the 92,525 bags of wheat moved from the entire branch line that year.  It was also the harbinger of what was to come over the next six seasons.

All of those six wheat seasons from 1912/13 onwards were bountiful, placing continuing strain on the capacity of the railway to meet demand for goods wagons.  This strain came as much from the vagaries of estimating demand for grain transport as the actual growth of wheat farming in the district.  While the 1912/13 year had produced nearly 32,000 bags of wheat, in the following year this nearly tripled.  This sort of increase, especially when mirrored in hundreds of other districts across the State, could not be catered for by the railway system. 

The Railway Commissioners did what they could to assist in Eumungerie, by sending a second porter.  Of course, the porters went nowhere near the loading of railway trucks – but they did get to count them!  The Commissioners’ publications on railway activity did not give a tally of the number of wagons needed to move the 84,622 bags of wheat from Eumungerie in 1913/14, but working on a maximum loading of 188 bags of wheat being loaded in a 15 ton S wagon, over 450 such wagons were needed that year.

The bountiful harvest of 1913/14 brought immediate criticism of the administrators of the State’s railways.  In April 1914 the Liberal reported that:

… the farmers of the Eumungerie district complain of the want of a grain shed at the railway station. This year the wheat for shipment has had to be stacked in the open while the agents are waiting for trucks. When the trucks will come along is, of course, a problem which no one of experience will attempt to solve.
Meanwhile what is happening at hundreds of stations is taking place at Eumungerie. Scandalous waste is going on. Bags are rotting and bursting, and the golden grain, which it cost so much to produce, is being spilt all over the place. The people are indignant, and they intend to voice their indignation when the Railway Commissioners come along.

And so it seems that the Railway Commissioners did ‘come along’, and they did listen to the indignation.  In the following year, further improvements were made to the railway precinct at Eumungerie.  These enhancements did not come in time for the 1914/15 wheat harvest, which had produced a more modest but still sizeable 56,400 bags of wheat from local farms.

Late in 1915 the goods siding at Eumungerie was extended at the northern end, creating what became known as the Wheat Siding.  Although no NSWGR track plan has been obtained to show this extension, a 1920 Ewenmar Parish Map clearly shows this addition.  The relevant Weekly Notices also state that on 23 November 1915 the siding at Eumungerie was extended at the northern end.  The siding could then provide standing room for 63 four-wheeled trucks.  Given the demand for ‘four-wheeled trucks’ right along the Coonamble branch during harvest season, it is unlikely that Eumungerie ever sequestered a complement to fill its Wheat Siding at any time.

Importantly, the increased track space was augmented with an improved facility for the storage of wheat.  Although it was likely only a rudimentary affair, a specific wheat stacking site was provided.  This facility was almost certainly composed of a wooden platform, raised slightly off the ground, with the capacity to be covered by tarpaulins.

These improvements brought praise from local farmers in due course.  While criticising the NSW Government Railway’s administrators in the local media probably wasn’t in one’s self interest, the opposite appeared to occur on at least one occasion.  In January 1916 an esteemed member of a local pioneering family, a Mr J Wheaton, took time to brief the journalist at the Dubbo Liberal of the good service now being provided to farmers in the district.

            Mr. J. Wheaton of Eumungerie, was in town (Dubbo) yesterday, and speaks in a very optimistic strain of the possibilities of the Eumungerie district. This year's wheat crop has been a good one, and everywhere a ‘prosperous and healthy outlook’ is in evidence, Mr Wheaton this season has handled about 36,000 bushels of golden grain as buying agent for James Bell and Co., but this does not represent nearly the full yield from the great Eumungerie district.

The facilities for getting the wheat to market are very satisfactory, and as far as the railway is concerned there is nothing to complain of. Mr. Wheaton predicts a great future for Eumungerie and we can guarantee that he knows what he is talking about!

Mr Wheaton’s proved true – the 1916 harvest produced just over 68,000 bags of wheat from the district that year.  While still below the level achieved in the bumper year of 1913/14, it was a 21 per cent increase over the previous harvest.  Transporting the harvest in 1916 doubtless had its logistical issues as with earlier years.  Perhaps it was the wartime exigencies; perhaps Mr Wheaton’s view was shared by many others; or perhaps the Herald’s ‘correspondent’ had moved away, but it seems that the Railway’s efforts went uncriticised that year.

The 1915/16 harvest was also a promising indicator of what was to come over the next two harvests.  The 1916/17 harvest produced 97,865 bags of wheat and the following year the total effort was a mammoth 131,800 bags of wheat.  This bounty was a four-fold increase in just six years, which surely taxed the wits of the railway planners at Eveleigh 300 miles away from this otherwise quiet village.

Of greater difficulty for those charged with the responsibility of moving the golden grain was that, for the first time, Eumungerie was not alone along the Coonamble line in experiencing great growth in wheat production.  The branch line’s total production of wheat in four of the five harvests prior to 1917/18 was below 200,000 bags.  Indeed, the total production in the three previous years seemed stuck around the 200,000 bags mark.  However in 1917/18 this exploded to 373,463 bags – an 85 per cent increase over the previous harvest which was a record itself.  Approximately 2,000 of the ubiquitous ‘four wheel S truck’ wagons would be required to clear the line of its accrued bounty.

The growth in wheat production in 1917/18 was generated in three locations – Curban and Gilgandra joining Eumungerie as the three grain ‘powerhouses’.  The production at Eumungerie remains the standout – over this six year period farmers in the district delivered 470,500 bags of wheat to the railway yard.  This was achieved within 20 years of the settlement of the district.  Gilgandra, the home of a larger and longer established wheat farming community, managed just 12,000 more bags in the same period. 

These volumes of grain production forced railway planners to consider new and innovative ways to store and transport the produce of the land.  Larger and more powerful steam engines were needed, to haul longer trains with larger goods wagons, faster and more frequently.  Improved safe-working technology was needed to expedite goods trains, not just at Eumungerie but across the entire system.  But above all of these innovations, one decision alone would revolutionise the Railway’s grain freight transport task – bulk handling of grain.

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