The Junction’s railway history

Saturday, 13. July 2019

Route: John Shoebridge shows where Watkins Street coal rail tracks once crossed over Glebe Rd at The Junction. Picture: Mike ScanlonHUNDREDS of motorists drive daily through The Junction, near Merewether, but few would realise its secret history. Once best known for its rail tracks, not roads, it was where the coal lines of four main mines on the Burwood Estate (modern Merewether) converged.But that was at around its peak of activity, some 130 years ago, in 1887.
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And from the early 1900s, The Junction was even often referred to by another name. It was popularly called Howley’s Junction, or Howley’s (rail) Siding in Watkins Street, after well-known mine owner Thomas Howley.

Howley operated the now closed Glenrock Colliery and revived the beach railway, but he was a latecomer really to the local coal industry. He died in 1942 and within two years, his colliery, railway and rail sidings at today’s Junction were all closed.

Coal rail network: This map shows the various railway lines around Merewether in 1887 which all converged on The Junction.

Perhaps another reason he’s remembered today is because of his large (now demolished) corrugated iron shed that stood roughly where the back gate of The Junction School now is in Watkins Street, Merewether.This tin shed (later a horse stable) could accommodate two aged locos. As well, the remains of Howley’s original, legendary ‘Coffee Pot’ loco – with its vertical boiler – lay behind the engine shed becoming a well-known sight for residents from 1925 to 1949.

But how did this now largely unknown railway saga begin?To learn more, let’s journey with respected Hunter coal historian and former mining engineer John Shoebridge, of Lake Macquarie.Shoebridge revealed the complicated saga of a vital 1854 coal railway here as guest speaker at Bob Cook’s Heritage Hunter event last weekend at The Junction.

His talk, titled Secrets of the Junction, outlined pioneering businessman Dr James Mitchell eventually acquiring 1834 acres of land south of Newcastle, including land belonging to A.W. Scott in 1849.Mitchell named it the ‘Burwood Estate’ after his wife’s family home in England.

“Was a dowry involved? It seems so,” Shoebridge said. Mitchell’s wife was a daughter of the landowning Scott family.

“Dr Mitchell once owned all the land from Glebe Road, then known as Lake Macquarie Road as was Darby Street, south to the shore of Glenrock Lagoon,” Shoebridge said.

“The other (northern) side of Glebe Road was all owned by the Australian Agricultural Company right up to Newcastle waterfront.

“The Newcastle Copper Company, founded by Mitchell, then opened a small coal mine behind the present Merewether Baths dressing sheds,” Shoebridge said.

“Mitchell decided to build a tramway from his mine and beachside railway towards The Junction via Watkins Street. He realised the AA Company’s embargo on other companies carrying coal across its land north to the port couldn’t last. It didn’t, but a special government act had to be passed to allow it to be built in 1854.”

Before that railway finally came to link The Junction directly to Newcastle Harbour, coal was carried in horse-drawn drays along Lake Macquarie Road to the harbour.

Shoebridge said besides Dr Mitchell’s 1852 beach mine, his Burwood Estate leased a coal mine site to allow Mr Donaldson’s 1848 wooden rail tram road to go down today’s Mitchell Street.

“Donaldson’s mine was behind The Ridge, Dr Mitchell’s family house and much later a maternity home,” Shoebridge said.

Then there was J&A Brown’s 1853 mine at the end of present day Merewether Street and the Victoria Tunnel (from 1853) owned by Joshua Llewellyn Morgan. This coal tram road went down Glebe Road to the west. The mine was in the Glebe Valley, below present City Road.

“And at The Junction, all the coal rail lines converged. It was so busy there was once a signal box on the northern side of Glebe Road. There was also a passenger platform, plus a loco water tank and about 12 area potteries connected by rail,” he said.

“Mitchell sold them coal to operate, but he gave them the local clay for free. At that time there were even rail excursions out to Glenrock,” Shoebridge said.

But who would ever now imagine, there was once a large lagoon at The Junction with a windmill pumping water into a big storage tank for use by steam engines?

Shoebridge said the lagoon (later filled in for future homes) stretched from about Watkins Street about half way down Bar Beach Avenue to where a stormwater drain now exists under the road.

Mitchell died in 1869 and his son-in-law E.C. Merewether continued the Burwood Estate business.

And why was Patrick Street, which crosses Watkins Street, so named?

“Patrick was a steam engine driver on the Burwood Estate when the line went along Watkins Street from Merewether beach to the port,” he said

The intersection of Patrick and Watkins streets was also once the site of the Burwood Estate office. From this cottage, estate rents were collected and Merewether land was later also sold.

Shoebridge also said a rail route bridge across the Parkway Ave drain was once called ‘Chinaman’s’ because Chinese market gardens were once there.

And now, there’s even pseudo parallel rail lines in the footpath outside the Arrivederci Restaurant across the road from the Eastpoint centre at the heart of The Junction.

This widened footpath incorporating the fake rail track (pictured) indicates the old route of the Watkins Street coal railway across Glebe Road long before Eastpoint was built.

“The coal railway went across Glebe Road here and north on a narrow strip of land between the old Hunter Theatre and a service station which had both existed there,” he said.

Shoebridge said there were eight different rail eras from 1852 locally, including even BHP and the Howley coal interests towards the end.

“Initially there were four rail lines into The Junction. In the last years, there were only two lines,” he said.

The last coal train ran through The Junction in August 1954 because the Joint Coal Board had closed the last four small pits in the Glebe Valley. Four years earlier, railway land along Watkins Street was donated to Newcastle council.

In 1956, the Merewether Estate relinquished its rail rights and most of the track was lifted. Two years later, the AA Company even sold the Burwood Tramroad right-of-way over its land to Newcastle council.Finally in 2006, family descendant John Merewether donated Merewether Estate railway land along Merewether beach to Newcastle City Council.

“Mr Merewether had come to me. We did our own research, finding out that he still did own the beach land,” a surprised Shoebridge said.“I told him jokingly that if we put up a toll gate to the beach he’d make a killing financially, but all he wanted was that no one ever built on the land.”

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