Historic Gulflander celebrates 125 years

A 12847

On Wednesday, July 20, 1891 at precisely 8.30am the first train left Normanton Railway Station and chugged along the newly laid steel track to Croydon Station where it arrived at 1.30pm to collect its first shipment for the port of Normanton. On Wednesday, July 20, 2016 it will be 125 years since this historic journey.

When the first steam locomotive pulled out of Normanton Railway Station in 1891, the Norman as it was then called was heralded as a safe and efficient way of getting mixed goods from Croydon’s rich goldfields to the waiting ships in Normanton.

The clouds of steam and the goldfields have long since gone, but the Norman’s spirit lives on with the Gulflander rail motor retracing this historic journey two days a week from mid-February to mid-December and taking some 5000 people a year on a nostalgic trip through the Savannah grasslands of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The world may have moved on in the past 125 years, but the immaculate Victorian architecture of the Normanton Railway Station shows that history has been carefully preserved in this remote part of Tropical North Queensland. Within the building is a museum with a collection of intriguing paraphernalia giving an insight into the region’s early pastoral and settler history, and showcasing the historic development of the railway in the Gulf.

Fortunately for station master Ken Fairbairn, who has to maintain the Gulflander, many of the original tools used to work on the old trains are contained within the museum as he occasionally has to borrow them to keep the old girl in good working order.

“There is quite a collection of tools in here for old machinery. The old blacksmith forge is still workable and I had to use it once on an engine component. The copper irons, which you don’t see any more, I need for soldering the brass windows of the Gulflander. On one occasion when I couldn’t find my own specialised spanners for the job, I remembered there was a full set of Whitworth spanners in the museum, which came in handy,” he says.

A fitter and turner by trade, Ken’s career has focused on antique machinery giving him an arsenal of skills that apprentices no longer learn. “I have a crew on the ground and I teach them what I know so there is a succession plan to maintain the Gulflander. We spend a couple of days a week doing maintenance on the train to ensure it is reliable.”

A few of the items in the museum, which would be considered ancient history in most railway workshops, have only recently been added as memorabilia because they were still in use in recent decades.

“The old scrub cutter that was basically a big blade sticking out from the side of the train to cut scrub away from the line so it wouldn’t scratch the train, continued to be used into the 1990s. The carbide lamps, also used until the 1990s, are the same ones the original settlers used. They are very practical as they work by using carbide, a rock mineral, which is mixed with water to introduce acetylene gas that comes up through an element enabling the mantle to be lit. The result is a bright white light.”

Ken gets plenty of questions from visitors wanting to know more about Gulflander and its history, but there is one he won’t answer. “We have a baby Gulflander, a 300kg train sitting in the middle of one of the museum rooms. It is bigger than the doors and windows, so how they got that into the museum is the question,” Ken laughs.