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Railways In The Australian Territory Of Papua
(Partial chapter excerpt)

Note - This is a chapter from the book by McKillop and Pearson "History of Railways in Papua New Guinea" - it is obtainable from University of Papua New Guinea Press.

Railways in 19th C Australian Society
Public utility / nation-building

Australia has played a dominant influence in shaping Papua New Guinea’s development since the 1880s. Those Australians who came to Papua (and later New Guinea) brought with them development values shaped by the industrial revolution. As elsewhere, railways had provided Australians with the means to transform their relationship with nature and created the basis for an industrial society. But the relationship was more pronounced in Australia where the desire to conquer the tyranny of distance across a vast dry continent brought railways to a level of dominance in government, the economy and social relations unmatched elsewhere.

Given the low population and capital base, railway construction and operation became a government responsibility for the public good. When the NSW Government took over the bankrupt private company building the first railway in 1854 and the Victorian and South Australian Railways followed soon afterward, the first government railway enterprises in the British Empire had been founded. Through her railways, Australia created the modern public corporation, which came into existence not to control capitalism, but to provide the basic transport infrastructure necessary for more profitable forms of investment. They helped create cultures in which the state was seen as a vast public utility whose duty was to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The politics of the railway era were dominated by the demands of communities to gain a share of the cargo, which was mostly seen in terms of access to the railway network.

Australians built more railways per capita than any other country. Governments borrowed heavily from overseas for their railways and employed vast armies of workers to maintain and operate their systems. To meet the needs of the railways, foundries and the capacity to build locomotives and rolling stock were built up. Australian railways generated the engineering and operational skills necessary for a modern industrial society and developed an ethos among railway families as a way of life. By 1890, the NSW Railways employed 12,000 people and had become the largest industrial enterprise in the country. Through strong railway unions, the mateship and solidarity of Australian nationhood was nurtured. Construction of the transcontinental railway from east to west was the essential platform for the federation of the colonies into a single nation

Railways shaped Australia's settlement patterns and helped create one of the world's most urbanised nations. They provided the efficient transport necessary to develop agricultural industries and exploit mineral fields. While railways provided isolated communities with a link to the outside world, they also served to funnel produce and wealth back to the capital cities and ports. Suburban railways and street tramways provided the base for rapid expansion of these cities.

Mining Railways

Bulky minerals required cheap and efficient transport. Private companies and individual entrepreneurs played a significant role in building the railways which enabled the exploitation of Australia’s mineral resources. On the wet and rugged West Coast of Tasmania, for instance, 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge lines were built by private enterprise to the Mt Bischoff field in 1878, while the famous Mt Lyell mine attracted competing railways in the 1880s. Other mines in the Zeehan area were served by 2 ft (610 mm) gauge lines worked by small steam locomotives. Australia’s railway entrepreneurs also built railways to open up the Broken Hill mineral field in New South Wales and mineral fields in North Queensland. The use of narrow-gauge railways in rugged terrain was to provide models and equipment for mining railways in Papua.

Agricultural Railways

In addition to the construction of government railways to serve agricultural areas, light railways played an important role within individual agricultural enterprises. The most important of these applications was in the sugar industry where large volumes of cane are transported from the field to central crushing mills. Since 1880, extensive networks of light railways, predominantly of 610 mm gauge, have played a central role in developing the Australian sugar industry into the world’s most efficient.

Australian attitudes to tropical agriculture in Queensland and Papua were shaped in the sugar fields. In New South Wales, the sugar industry was established on a central milling system based on individual family farms linked to central crushing mills by extensive sugar railway networks. In Queensland, however, the plantation system was initially tried. The plantation regime was characterised by large farming units, vertical integration of the farming and milling process, and extensive human capital investment using low-cost indentured Melanesian labour. Opinion leaders in the north saw plantations worked by coloured labour as an essential element of their economic future, but it was a vision dependent on the continued supply of cheap labour.

The search for labourers by Queensland sugar plantations in the late 19th century impacted on Papua. In 1862 the new colony of Queensland passed a Coolie Act which provided conditions under which Asiatics could be indentured to work in the colony. Captain Robert Towns, a former Sydney merchant with far-ranging Pacific trading interests, was the first to take advantage of the new Act, when he proposed to employ Indians for growing cotton on the Logan River.

When Indians proved unavailable, Towns sent his schooner Don Juan to recruit labour in the New Hebrides in 1863. The labourers proved their worth and before long others recruited Pacific Islanders for cotton and sugar plantations at Cleveland, Caboolture and Maryborough. Widespread recruiting of kanaka labour from the South Seas resulted. Most came from islands in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, but there was also some recruiting in south-east Papua, Bougainville and the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago. It was public concern over the activities of the more notorious of the recruiters, particularly the massacre of Buka Islanders on the Carl, which led to pressure in Queensland for a government presence in the islands to control the trade.

Most Melanesians came to the Queensland canefields out of a sense of adventure. Although they played a key role as the founders of the Queensland sugar industry, public opinion in Australia was turning against the plantation system and its use of South Seas labour by the 1880s. The indentured labour system achieved low productivity, while technological advances meant that erection of sugar mills now required large-scale capital. Following a Royal Commission into the traffic in Pacific Islanders in 1885, legislation was introduced for cessation of the recruitment of Pacific Islanders after 1890. At the same time, the trend to central milling stepped up. By 1894 it was estimated that all but 110 of Queensland's 1,387 cane-growers were smallholders with less than 90 acres each. Most of the remaining plantations were subdivided over the following decade. As the central mill system developed, farmers confined themselves to cane growing, sending their cane to a milling firm which dealt exclusively with crushing and refining.

With Federation, the Commonwealth Parliament became dominated by spokesmen for the White Australia policy. In October 1901, legislation was passed prohibiting the introduction of Pacific Islanders after 31 March 1904. Attitudes against coloured labourers hardened in the white community and in the summer of 1906-07 the majority of Pacific Islanders were repatriated.

Efficient railway transport played a key role in the development of the central milling system. Although early locomotives and rolling stock for canefield use were imported from Great Britain and France, Australian industry was providing rails, rolling stock and locomotives from the 1920s.

Colonial Expansion

The expansion of German imperial power in the South Pacific in the later nineteenth century generated considerable concern within the Australian colonies, particularly Queensland which had become dependent on indentured labour from the region. John Robertson, Premier of New South Wales urged the British Colonial Secretary to take possession of New Guinea, New Britain, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides "in the highest interests of civilisation."  On 3 April, 1883, the Union Jack was raised in Port Moresby by a Queensland magistrate in an abortive attempt to annex New Guinea on behalf of Britain.

In 1884, the German colonisation of New Guinea brought action by Britain to annex the southern part of the island as British New Guinea (BNG). The protectorate was primarily an Australian interest. The colonies contributed to the budget, the majority of officials came from the Australian colonies and the Administrator of Lieutenant-Governor reported to the Queensland Governor-in-Council. Full responsibility for administration of the colony of BNG was transferred to Australia in 1902. However, implementation of the changes stagnated until September 1906, when the name was changed to Papua.

Colonial Development Policies Development policy in British New Guinea was chiefly concerned with the protection of native society. When gold mining attracted Australians to the new territory, officials attempted to restrict the employment of villagers by miners and planters. At the same time they sought to instil a work ethic on the local population using such measures as the forced planting of coconuts and head taxes.

A Crown Lands Ordinance was enacted in 1890 to make land available to potential investors. The Hall Sound Company was floated by Australian investors, including Burns Philp & Company, with the intention of developing 80,000 hectares for agriculture, but only 2,025 ha was granted at Cloudy Bay.

Following a period of stagnation and conflict within the administration, a Royal Commission was established to enquire into the conditions in the territory. The Commission made optimistic recommendations for the rapid development of resources through the application of imported capital and the employment of native labour in agriculture.

Australian attitudes to tropical agriculture and the role of coloured labour were shaped in the canefields of Queensland. The assumption was that agricultural development would be based on a plantation system with Papuans as the source of cheap labour. From 1907 to 1914, Papuan agricultural policy was dominated by E Staniforth-Smith, a former federal senator, who was appointed Director of Agriculture, Commissioner of Lands, Director of


Top - Burns Philp wharf at Port Moresby in 1897 with 1067 gauge railway.
PNG National Archives

Bottom - Unloading copra on the Port Moresby Government wharf tramway.
Camera Press


Mines and Director of Public Works. Staniforth-Smith, who viewed himself as a specialist in tropical agriculture, sought to establish an Australian-dominated plantation economy in Papua. Although the area under lease rose to 364,088 acres by 1911, viable crops were not forthcoming. Only 15,880 acres of the leased land were planted. Between 1911 and 1914, 48 per cent of the leases were forfeited.

Coconuts provided the mainstay of the small plantation economy. The British connection provided the opportunity to import natural rubber planting material from Malaya, while sisal offered brief hope following the First World War. However, by 1922, Hubert Murray lamented the stagnation of Papuan agriculture due to low commodity prices and transport problems. As the vision for plantation agriculture receded, the administration promoted a village-based agricultural system. There was a limited response from Papuan villagers.

Public Railways

Australians coming to the new colony brought with them cultural values regarding the role of the state and railways in the economy. It was therefore inevitable that they looked to the government to provide railway infrastructure to meet their transport needs. Despite the low level of economic activity, there was a surprisingly generous response by the colonial administration.

Port Moresby Wharf Tramways

Port Moresby attracted pioneer settlers on account of its fine harbour. An Australian trader, Andrew Goldie began operating at Port Moresby in 1875. Initially infrastructure was provided by the Australian trading firm, Burns Philp & Company (BP), which purchased Goldie's store in Port Moresby to gain a base in the new colony. BP were to play a dominant role in Papua New Guinea’s economy over the next 100 years.

In 1891 BP were granted the right to construct a new jetty with a tramline running up to the store. The wharf and railway were completed by 1895. The gauge was 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) and the gradient 1 in 6. The trucks had to be hand pushed over the 200 metres length of the line. While labour was cheap, pushing railway trucks did not have the status of a canoe voyager or even a carrier, and was heavy work. The line operated until 1910, when a new store was built.

Government involvement in the provision of public railway infrastructure was an early assumption. In 1891, Sir William MacGregor, Administrator of BNG, initiated the purchase of rails from Cooktown for use in construction of tramways at Samarai and Port Moresby. They arrived in 1894.

Work commenced on a new government wharf near the Burns Philp jetty. Prisoners were employed on this project from 1896. In 1902 a temporary tramline was in use on the wharf for handling cargo and stores. Three years later a new 2 ft (610 mm) gauge tramline, some 120 metres in length, connected the government store to the wharf. Two trucks were constructed for the line and a derrick was erected on the wharf. Further improvements brought the length of the wharf to 638 ft (200 m), of which the first 138 ft was stone work. This public work was undertaken by prison labour. The wharf tramway was double tracked by 1912. This wharf suffered from the effects of marine worm (Terrilis novelis) and had to be replaced. A new wharf was built adjacent to the existing one in 1917. . It was 777 feet (250 metres) long. A timber-framed receiving shed was constructed in 1923-24.

The wharf and railway were the scene of frenzied activity during the early stages of the World War II. In 1941 there were many complaints of congestion, including a claim that rail trucks were being used to store heavy materials and machinery because they were not being lifted off them by a crane. It was proposed that a third set of rails be provided on the wharf to give two sets for full trucks and one set for returning empty trucks. Approval for extension of the wharf and a third rail line was given by Public Works in April 1941.. Photographs dated June 1941 depict congested conditions. With the arrival of United States forces in January 1943, extensions to the wharf were constructed. The tramline was replaced by motor trucks and the tracks lifted by March 1943.

Sapphire Creek Railway

The Astrolabe mineral field near Port Moresby, declared in 1906, brought fresh hopes of development for Papua. The first mine, the Dubuna was operational by 1910. However, ore had to be brought to the coast over an 18 mile track by mules at a prohibitive cost. Construction of a railway to the area was seen as necessary precondition for exploitation of the field.

In 1910, The British New Guinea Development Company (BNGDC) was founded to establish plantations, undertake trading activities and to construct light railways. The BNGDC entered into negotiations with the Government to construct a railway from Port Moresby to Sapphire Creek if it could also negotiate the rights to the hydro-electric potential of the Rona Falls on the Laloki River.

Construction of a public railway to stimulate the economy of the colony was soon being promoted by Administrator Murray, who claimed "the railway would justify its existence with sisal hemp and tobacco as well as copper." The Australian Government did not require rigorous justification, and in July 1913 the following radio message was sent by Atlee Hunt to the Administrator:

It is impossible to say definitely when money will be found for railway to Sapphire Creek before Parliament has considered estimates. The Treasurer has authorised survey of line and request made to Govt of Queensland land surveyor for that purpose ....
By June 1914, the Engineer in Chief of the Commonwealth Railways was preparing a design for a railway from Port Moresby to Rona. The administration estimated that 60,000 tons of ore would be transported over the railway annually. The engineer was apparently influenced by the light 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge railways then being constructed by the Victorian Railways, the 2 ft gauge (610 mm gauge) Dundas Tramway on the West Coast of Tasmania and the Goondah-Burrunjuck railway in New South Wales which provided low-cost lines in rugged terrain. The survey was completed during 1913-14:

The route adopted for this railway is practically that which the existing road now takes, with the exception of deviations in order to obtain a suitable grade. The maximum grade laid down is 1 in 40 and the minimum radius for curves is 2.5 chains. It is anticipated that under these conditions suitable engines will have no difficulty in drawing 80 to 100 ton loads at an average rate of 10 m.p.h.

The starting point for the railway mentioned is on Ela Beach, and the terminus Sapphire Creek at a point contiguous to the surveyed township of Rona, the total distance is 19.25 miles. The object to the line being to facilitate the transport of ore and commercial products from the several mines and plantations in the vicinity and it is hoped that it will also be the means of further opening of the more outlying and remoter districts of Sogeri and Brown River.

Top - Typical departure scene at Samarai wharf in the 1940’s. Railway tracks are clearly visible on the wharf, with the classic Customs House in the background.
Nelson, H. Taim Bilong Masta, ABC Books, p.58

Bottom -Samarai Railway : tracks leading to Burns Philp warehouses, c. 1930.
Courtesy - Burns Philip

It is proposed that a branch line be extended from the Ela Beach terminus on to the proposed new jetty to enable all exports to be shipped directly into the various steamers trading to the port.
Construction of the line was authorised in July 1913, when the Australian Government made a 50,000 pounds loan available for the project. Advertisements were placed in Queensland for a suitable eight-coupled 2 ft gauge locomotive, either new or second-hand, with a maximum axle load of 6 tons.. The Port Moresby to Rona Railway Ordinance 1914 was passed on 19 August 1914. Construction work commenced in 1914 at Ela Beach. A contract was let to Elder Smith & Company and George Wills & Company for the delivery of 1200 tons of 35 lb rails, and fish plates on 16 February 1915/. However, with the outbreak of War, work on the line was suspended indefinitely. The huge cost of the war effort in Australia meant that this project in far off Papua was not resumed. The Laloki Copper Mine was soon to construct its own railway to develop the mines, thus bringing to an end the prospects of a government public railway in Papua.

Samarai Island

The small island of Samarai, in today’s Milne Bay Province, was an early focus for the establishment of a colonial station. An initial task was to fill a swamp area, a project which was to extend over several years. Prisoners were employed on the project using a light railway to transport fill. Some 75,000 cubic yards were moved in 1893-94 and completed in 1898. By this time, Burns Philp had constructed a slipway and a local trader, Whitlen, a wharf and store on the island. Work on reclaiming Samarai swamp was reported completed in February 1895. The report of completion was somewhat premature. In 1899, Samarai residents petitioned for completion of the swamp reclamation project. Work continued for a number of years. By 1905, prisoners were employed in the construction of a new jetty at Samarai. This involved the establishment of tramlines to assist the easy loading of steamers.

During and after the First World War there were several public meetings called by the Europeans of Samarai to protest over the state of the wharf, the tobacco duty and the need for a local railway. Their pressure brought results. A new wharf opened in 1923 served by a 610 mm gauge railway. The railway was gradually extended. Burns Philp, in conjunction with GA Loudon & Company, relaid the tramway from King’s warehouse to their bulk stores in 1925. They installed a turntable which proved satisfactory and the Collector of Customs requested similar facilities for the wharf tramway in 1925. This was installed in 1928, when the Steamships Trading Company (STC) laid portable track from this point to their copra store. Other lines were also laid, although problems were reported in obtaining rail lines for the tramline from the Quarry to Dart Street in 1929. All wharves and facilities were destroyed by bombing early in 1942. However, some lines survived or were reconstructed, as tramways were still in existence on Samarai in 1962.

Daru Island

In the far west of the infant colony the administration established a station on the island of Daru, about 60 km south-west of the mouth of the Fly River, as one of the earliest European settlements. However, the shallow sea around the island made the transfer of cargo to and from ships difficult. Whaleboats were used for lightering cargo to ships. By 1896, construction of a jetty had commenced using prison labour. It was to be an extended public works project which continued over the next 20 years to provide a stone causeway 174 metres long and a wooden pier, 143 metres in length, enabling ships to be unloaded safely at high tide.


Above - maps of Samarai and Daru tramways


Top - Aerial view of Daru and old wharf, c. 1958. Railway trucks are visible in the street in front of the of the Government offices.
PNG National Archives

Bottom - View of Daru from wharf showing railway, c. 1958.
PNG National Archives

Top - Sisal drying operations, Fairfax Plantation with railway and trucks in foreground, c. 1915.
PNG National Archives

Bottom left - IC powered locomotive Bottom right - Loading sisal onto and wagons at Fairfax Plantation, railway truck, Bomana Plantation. c. 1918.
Staniforth Smith, Handbook of PNG National Archives Papua, 1912

In 1917, rail was purchased for a railway on the wharf. The rails were 18 pounds/yard and were laid out as 2 ft (610 mm) gauge. Mangrove sleepers were used. A single line was laid over 500 metres from the end of the wharf to the government store wharf without any passing loop.

About 1945, Mr George Tabua was asked to repair and extend the wharf, which had fallen into disrepair. Using 300 labourers, the height of the wharf was raised and it was extended by another 50 metres. At this time the line branched on reaching the island at Wyborn’s gas shed. The "main" line ran past the post office to the government stores, while the other branch served the Burns Philp store.

A dozen 4-wheel flat trucks, each with a capacity of one ton, operated on the railway. They were hand-pushed by two labourers. Mail was unloaded from steamers and railed direct to the post office, where it was unloaded under the shelter of the verandah. Unusual cargo included an extra large crocodile, caught by Mr Craig, which required four trucks to carry it, and new generators for the Daru powerhouse. On the latter occasion, a tractor was used to pull the trucks.

In 1963 it was decided to build a new wharf. In the process the railway was dismantled in favour of motor lorries. Despite the poor condition of the railway track, the new arrangement offered few advantages. Only one lorry could negotiate the wharf at a time and the poor condition of the roadway meant that they were slower than the hand-pushed rail trucks. Breakages were common, while the local employment generated by the railway was no longer available.
.... to be continued

Note - This excerpt is from a chapter of the book by McKillop and Pearson "History of Railways in Papua New Guinea" - it is obtainable from University of Papua New Guinea Press.


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