TRANSPORT - RAILWAYS - GERMAN NEW GUINEA (1884 - 1914)
RAILWAYS AND GERMAN NEW GUINEA (1884 - 1914)
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.
Part 2 of 2
... continuation from Part 1
In 1905, Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) established a settlement and wharf at
Simpsonhafen (Rabaul) on Blanche Bay. The German administration moved their
headquarters to Simpsonhafen in 1909 and a flourishing town soon took shape
as a trading and service centre for the colony. The town plan included wide
tree-lined avenues which provided space for footpaths, a tramline and
roadway under the shady trees. The Neuguinea Kompagnie (NGK) built a jetty
and large warehouse 300 metres north of the main NDL wharf, while Hernstein
& Company established a smaller jetty 150 metres south of the main wharf. A
coaling jetty, copra wharf and Tobai wharf on the western shore were also
built during German times.
A narrow gauge tramway network was constructed to connect the wharves of the
NDL, NGK and Hernsheim & Company to their business houses, administration
offices, post office, Chinatown and hospital. The purpose of the Rabaul
tramways was to facilitate the transport of goods to the German business
houses. As urban street tramways, it appears that the lines were built to
the German standard narrow gauge of 750 mm.
Records suggest that wagons were hand-pushed on the tramway. The role of the
local Tolai people in railway operation was to provide the manpower for
pushing wagons. In 1914 the Sydney Mail reported.:
it is a curious fact that each residence in the settlement has a
line like this [photograph of a hand-pushed wagon conveying mail]
connecting it with the wharf, so that goods can be conveyed direct
from the boat side.
As the seat of German administration and the focus of Australian
occupational forces, the Rabaul tramway system is well documented in
photographs. They depict a complex pattern of light rail lines on the
wharves and into large warehouses, with lines along the sides of most major
streets. A recently located photograph provides evidence that the system
included a branch line up Namanula Hill to the Governors residence. In
1996, a section of this line was uncovered by erosion associated with
Rabauls volcanic eruption of 1994. Reconstruction of this evidence
indicates that the line from the NDL wharf, along Namanula Street and up
Namanula Road to Government House was 3.3 km in length, while other street
lines added 1.3 km, making a total system of 4.6 km.
In September 1914 an Australian Expeditionary force captured Rabaul. German
New Guinea became an occupied territory. This brought a reordering in the
relationship between colonial masta and Tolai labourer, as evidenced in this
description of unloading operations from ship to tramway trucks:
Above - Maps of Rabaul tramways
Top - Railway lines from Neu Guinea Kompagnie wharf to wharehouse, Rabaul
Bottom - Japanese Naval officers inspecting Australian guard of honour on
Rabaul wharf amid railway tracks in 1914.
Australasian Post, 22 September 1960
One fatigue party has been detailed to take out the cargo, and
another to transport it to the stores. They are - unaccustomed to
wharf lumping - battling with heavy boxes of foodstuffs - dragging
along heavy truck loads of necessaries - perspiring till the sweat
runs in streams almost down into their boots, but, nevertheless,
cheerful - shouting, yelling, and cracking jokes at the stupid
kanakas , who are supposed to help, but can do nothing from
amazement at seeing so much kai-kai - much more than they ever
dreamt could possibly exist - and taken completely off their feet
by observing the funny white fellows from Australia doing manual
During the occupation no further development of railways took place. The
Rabaul tramlines continued to operate for the next 12 years under German
ownership, but without any more capital investment. Because the Germans were
unsure of their future they were both unable and unwilling to make any
improvements to the capital assets of their businesses. The assets were
eventually expropriated for Australian companies and new lines were built by
the administration. The subsequent history of the system is discussed in
The port of Kavieng was the second most important after Rabaul, shipping
about 1000 tonnes of copra per month from plantations on both the east and
west coasts. A short section of narrow-gauge railway was established from
the wharf to the customs house and bulk copra store in Kavieng township. A
set of railway wheels recently located in Kavieng which were used on the
railway are of 600 mm gauge.
Photographs of the Kavieng wharf in the 1930s depict a double tramline with
branches, operated by hand-pushed flatcars. Another photograph, dated 1937,
shows a labour line standing on a tramline leading away from a jetty.
Missionaries were a key force in the efforts of colonialists to forge their
subjective people into their own likeness. While their attention was focused
on pastoral care, education and health, a commercial base from plantation
development or exploitation of forest resources served to fund Gods work.
Thus, missionaries followed as their commercial competitors and established
railways to transport their produce from field and forest. From 1901 through
to the Second World War, sawmilling in New Guinea was dominated by
missionaries who were prepared to work for higher goals than mere commercial
profit. Isolation from external markets limited sawmilling activities to the
small domestic market. Under these circumstances, the returns to logging and
sawmilling were not attractive and few commercial ventures lasted for more
than the initial period of hope. Logging and timber enterprises were left to
The movement of large logs from the forest to a central sawmill and the
dispatch of sawn timber required efficient transport. The use of rivers to
float logs downstream was rarely practical because of New Guineas shallow,
fast flowing streams, while some of the most valuable species ( kwila for
instance) were too heavy to float. Railways were therefore indispensable for
the early timber operations. Compared with the plantation railways, the
missionaries chose heavier lines of 700 mm gauge for hauling heavy logs.
However, they initially relied on manpower for the haulage task.
Methodist missionaries were the first to establish themselves in New Guinea.
George Brown founded a station at Port Hunter in the Duke of York Islands in
1875. They established Ulu plantation to generate income for their work. A
light railway, about 300 metres in length and of 600 or 610 mm gauge was
constructed from the copra shed to the wharf. Plantation workers pushed flat
trucks over the line. The construction date of the railway is not known,
although the plantation is believed to date from 1875. It was probably
destroyed by heavy fighting in the area during 1944. The line was rebuilt
during the 1950s and was still in operation in 1982.
Lutheran Immanuel Synod;
The Methodists were established prior to the German proclamation, but were
seen as foreigners. A more German spiritual presence was favoured. In 1886
the Lutheran Immanuel Synod of Adelaide sent Johann Flierl to commence
mission work in Kaiser Wilhelmsland. He initially established a station
(Simbang) at Finschhafen. Despite suffering from malaria, Flierl stayed on
after the NGK withdrew its administration from the area. To escape the
disease problems of the coast, Flierl established an inland station on
Sattelberg mountain in 1892.
The primary intent of the Lutheran missionaries was evangelical, although
coconut plantations and sawmills were also established. A photograph exists
of the Rev. Pilhofer with "mission-helpers" posing in front of a light
railway line at Sattelberg. No further information on this operation has
German Lutheran missionaries in Morobe established a small sawmill at
Butawung, near Finschhafen in the early 1920s. It operated through the
1930s, cutting 15-30,000 super feet of timber per year. A railway for the
transport of logs and/or timber is reported.
Sacred Heart Mission Railways;
The first Catholic missionaries, from the French Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
order, arrived at Matupit Island in Simpsonhafen in September 1882 and
established a mission station at Vunapope, near Herbertshoehe (Kokopo) in
1889. Under the leadership of Monseigneur Couppe, the Vicariate Apostolic of
the Bismarck Archipelago, they actively sought commercial ventures. The
mission established plantations, undertook sawmilling and investigated the
possibility of starting a brewery. By 1900, they had planted 460 ha to
coconuts on three Gazelle plantations and they dominated the sawmilling
industry in the Islands region for over 70 years. Sacred Heart missionaries
also played an important role in mobilising labour for other plantations. In
1902, the German administration reported:
Thanks to the service of the Mission of the Most Sacred Heart of
Jesus, a large new area has been opened up for labour recruiting
in the territory of the Sulka tribes around Cape Orford.
At the Sacred Heart Mandres plantation at Weberhafen, in the Wide Bay area
of New Britain, it was reported in 1901 that the "the jungle is full of
magnificent Eucalyptus trees" and that the Bishop planned to start a sawmill
there. The Toriu River sawmill and a 700 mm gauge timber logging railway was
operational by 1902.
Photographs of the Toriu River operation depict a substantial steam-operated
sawmill. One photograph shows at least 14 local labourers hauling a "record
Eucalypt trunk" by rope over a bridge on the railway. Four Europeans pose in
front of the log dressed in white safari suits and pith helmets. The Toriu
River operation closed in 1917. The railway and sawmill was moved to
Kurindal a few miles north. This mill cut 800,000 super feet of timber in
In 1928 the operation moved west again to Ulamona mission, in the shadow of
Mount Ulawan, an active volcano known as The Father. Here, a 700 mm gauge
logging railway was constructed from the sawmill inland behind Sule for
approximately 10 km. A line of lighter construction was laid over 100 metres
from the mill down to the jetty to carry the sawn timber for loading onto
Top left - Road through Tunnel Hill Top right - Kavieng wharf with
at Rabaul. This was to form part of tramlines and flat cars.
an extensive light rail network on
the Gazelle Peninsula.
Courtesy: Burns Philp.
Historishes Bildmaterial our dem
Archives des staatlichen Museums fur
Volkerkunde, Dresden. PNG National
Library photo 332.
Bottom - Boluminski Highway, New Ireland 1914.
MacKenzie, p. 294.
Sacred Heart Mission Logging Railways
Top - Mission labourers hauling a record Eucalyptus deglupta log on the
Toriu River logging railway, c. 1910. German missionaries supervise.
Historishes Bildmaterial our dem Archives des staatlichen Museums fur
Volkerkunde, Dresden. PNG National Library photo 314.
Bottom - View of the Toriu River sawmill, c. 1910.
Ibid. PNG National Library Photo 313
A steam locomotive was imported for the Kuriendal logging tramway in 1928.
It was transferred to Ulamona with other equipment shortly afterward. A
second steam locomotive, reported to be Arn Jung Locomotivfabrik B/No.
8644/1938, arrived in 1938/39. This was an 0-6-0WT of 700 mm gauge supplied
to "Emile Nolting Oliva". A diesel-powered locomotive was reported at
Ulamona in 1943. It is known that the Jung locomotive was converted to an
0-6-0 diesel mechanical unit. It was still in service at Ulamona in 1986.
Post-war, a steam locomotive was reported to be abandoned with shrapnel
holes in the boiler.
By 1966, logging was taken over by tractors, skidders and trucks. The
logging railway was abandoned, but railway operations continued at the
sawmill. The diesel locomotive and about 500 metres of track remained in
operation into the 1990s.
At their Vunapope headquarters, the Sacred Heart Mission established a
sawmill and timber dressing shops where timber from the Toriu River,
Kurindal and Ulamona operations was prepared for the domestic market. The
complex was in operation by 1921, and was progressively expanded over the
years. It was served by a 700 mm gauge railway system from the jetty to
copra sheds and timber yards, over which trucks were hand-pushed. The
origins of the railway have not been identified, but it was reported in
A new jetty, some 100 metres in length, was opened in 1962. Field
inspections by the authors 1980 and in 1991 identified some 550 metres of
railway with several branches serving a ship repair yard, timber dressing
facilities, timber storage sheds and a copra store. In 1980, a bogie wagon
was still in use for moving timber around the yard and there were four
wagons in storage. Two flat wagons were still there in 1991, although the
railway was no longer in use.
Above - Map of Vunapope Railway
Top - Ulamona sawmill, West New Britain. Diesel 0-6-0 locomotive built on
frame of Arn Jung steam locomotive and logging trucks, c. 1960.
PNG National Archives
Bottom - Timber stacks and railway yard, Ulamona sawmill,c. 1960.
PNG National Archives
Societas Verbi Divini
The most commercially active mission was the Catholic Society of the Divine
Word (Societas Verbi Divini, SVD). Bishop Eberhard Limbrock arrived at
Friedrich Wilhelmshafen in 1896 as Apostolic Prefect. The SVD combined
commerce with missionary work in order to make their operations as
independent as possible from overseas financial sources. Limbrock believed
that the mission could not fulfil its spiritual aims without the
"civilising" influence of industrial work habits. By 1914 the SVD had 18
mission stations in the Sepik-Ramu area with more land under coconuts than
the NGK. They also operated significant sawmilling ventures.
The SVD expansion into plantations included the venture at Saint Anna
mission, near Aitape in todays West Sepik Province. In accordance with SVD
policy to become self-reliant, the station head, Br Edward Irlenbush
initiated a program to clear virgin forest at St. Anna on July 27, 1903, for
a large plantation.
Plantation railways, probably to the SVD "standard" gauge of 700 mm, were
constructed to service the fields. A 1935 photograph of the plantation
depicts a substantial railway line through well-maintained coconut palms.. A
1 mile (1.6 km) line running from the St Anna boathouse to the plantation
drier was reported in 1939. There were four 4-wheel light trucks.
German New Guineas most ambitious industrial enterprise was established in
1905 by the SVD mission at Alexishafen, on Sek Harbour, 15 km north of
Friedrich Wilhelmshafen. Father Limbrock purchased what was described as
swampland at Alexishafen, where a large steam-powered sawmill was in
operation by the end of 1905. Its initial purpose was to cut timber for
mission houses and schools for what was to become the SVDs headquarters in
1909. A school for catechists was established, together with a boarding
school for boys and girls. A huge timber cathedral was completed in 1932.
The equipment for the sawmill and railway, including a steam engine, were
ordered from Germany. They arrived in Friedrich Wilhelmshafen in October
1905 and were transported to Alexishafen on lighters borrowed from the NGK.
The steam engine, weighing 4.5 tonnes, was the centre of much attention when
it commenced operations on 5 December, 1905:
the utmost excitement prevailed amongst the black helpers ...
though they had no idea what the strange objects were for. They
were especially bewildered as to what the "great pot" - as they
called the locomotive - would do. All were gathered about this
enigma, when suddenly the whistle sounded for the fist time. At
first they opened their mouths and eyes to their utmost, holding
their ears, while some ran away in terror. The astonishment,
however, reached its height when the locomotive was set in motion,
and all the other machines were likewise started. The natives
regarded it as a great honour to be assigned to assist at a
machine, and made it their ambition to learn everything necessary
about it as quickly as possible.
At first logs were cut within the immediate area of the mill, but it was
soon necessary for a 700 mm gauge railway to be constructed some 4 km into
the forest to haul logs to the mill. There were a number of substantial
bridges including a roofed bridge spanning the Biges River. Log bogies were
hauled by oxen. Other photographs depict German colonial officials riding on
4-wheel flatcars hauled by donkeys or mules, while buffalo are shown hauling
V-hoppers for the haulage of sand and gravel for construction projects. The
SVD owned 37 railway trucks in 1919. In 1921-22, the sawmill cut over a
million super feet of timber.
Passenger transport on the railway was improved in the 1920s. In 1929,
District Officer AJ Hunter travelled from Alexishafen to Danip, the mission
outstation, on a ...
Top - This classic photo depicts a group of SVD missionaries on a flatcar
hauled by a donkey team crossing a substantial bridge at Alexishafen, c.
Courtesy, Missionaries of St. Michael, Germany
Bottom - A buffalo-drawn hopper wagon transports material from a
construction site at Alexishafen.
Word - SVD Mission
rail car provided by Bishop Wolff. In 1935, the SVD imported an aeroplane
from MIVA in Germany to service its outlying mission stations. An airstrip
was constructed 3.8 km from Sek and was linked to the station by a tramline.
The rail motor was presumably a boon to those with the privilege of
travelling by air.
Alexishafen mission, the sawmill and the railway were destroyed by bombing
during World War II. The railway was not rebuilt, any salvageable equipment
being transferred to Marienberg.
Above - Map of Marienberg Railway
Marienberg Sawmill and Railway;
SVD missionaries, led by Father Franz Kirschbaum, established a station at
Marienberg on the lower Sepik River in 1913. They selected a prominent hill
overlooking the mighty river, about 60 km from the mouth. It was the first
European settlement on the Sepik. The station was in its infancy when an
Australian flotilla sailed up the Sepik and captured the German stations at
Marienberg and Angoram. A sawmill was established to cut timber for station
construction from an early date. A first-hand report in 1922 found an
operating sawmill, a number of permanent houses. a large church and farm
produce, including goat and mares milk. .
By 1939, Marienberg was the service centre for a string of eight mission
stations along the Sepik. Their timber needs were met by a steam sawmill
located in the bush at Nazareth behind Bonam village. A 700 mm gauge
railway, about 6 km in length, transported sawn timber from the mill to
Marienberg station for shipment. Motive power was by buffalos. However,
grades were in favour of the load. Wagons were allowed to free-wheel
downgrade and the buffalo were hitched up again at the bottom. Oral sources
indicate that two trips were made from the mill to Marienberg each day.
In 1942, Japanese military forces occupied the Sepik region. They occupied
Marienberg and Nazareth, although the sawmill was not made operational.
Fierce battles and Allied bombing in 1944 resulted in the complete
destruction of Marienberg station.
The SVD missionaries returned after the war and set about rebuilding their
station. A new sawmill was established on the river bank adjacent to the
station using salvaged equipment from Alexishafen and Japanese operations in
the region. The logging railway survived the war, but all draught animals
were killed. It saw limited post-war use, with local villagers employed to
operate the line. They hauled log wagons up the grades, then rode them
free-wheeling down the grades. Forestry officers visiting the mill in 1951
report that most logs were brought in by truck or floated down the river,
but the railway was used to bring in heavy kwila logs. The sawmill complex
at Marienberg was expanded into an extensive industrial enterprise during
the 1960s. A network of railway lines was established to serve the various
facilities: a log pond on the river, sawmill, joinery shop, workshops,
timber storage sheds and jetty. However, rails from the Nazareth line were
taken up to construct power poles at the station.
The missionaries sought to install industrial discipline among the local
workers. Time discipline was promoted through strict working hours signalled
by a siren. In the joinery shop, volunteer lay workers from Austria trained
local workers in carpentry skills. For a brief period, Marienberg became an
enclave of Western energy and efficiency, with 60-70 people employed in
industrial endeavour. Ships regularly called at the jetty to load timber for
mission houses on the Sepik, the Wewak Hospital, private houses in Wewak
town, mission stations in the Wewak Islands and Wuvulu Islands.
The thriving industrial operation at Marienberg came to a sudden end shortly
before Independence. The Sepik area was a focus for rising nationalist
sentiments and long-standing resentments over the hierarchical power
structures at Marienberg surfaced in a claim for increased wages. A strike
resulted and management called in government Labour Officers to help resolve
the conflict. Workers returned, but the underlying resentment of landowners
over their lack of involvement in management and decisions affecting their
The mission offered to hand over the business to the landowners. A 12 month
trial period was initiated for landowners to carry out logging and operate
the sawmill. However, they had not developed the expertise to manage such an
enterprise. The sawmill and related industries collapsed.With the failure of
the sawmilling enterprise, relations between the mission and surrounding
villagers deteriorated. Claims were made for the return of mission land,
stealing of mission property occurred and sabotage of mill equipment was
alleged. In 1989, the sawmill, equipment, remaining railway lines and a
single railway truck stood rusting as forest regrowth gradually reclaimed
the area. Two Polish priests tended the spiritual needs of a declining flock
and guarded the remaining mission property against an increasingly hostile
community. On the manse walls, faded, fungus-ridden photographs and pith
helmets bore testimony to the hopes and values of a colonial era. The
mission community, despondent and reduced to bare subsistence living, hoped
for an industry revival which might once more generate employment
On the island of Bougainville the missionary zeal was in the hands of the
Marist order, which had Franco-German origins and had links with Oceania
rather than the rest of New Guinea. The Marist missionaries entered
Bougainville from the Solomons and they generated a sense of affinity among
their followers in the two areas. Several short railway lines were
established by Marist missionaries in the 1960s and these are covered in
Top - Donkey-powered train on the Alexishafen railway. The train has just
crossed the covered bridge over Biges River on the line to the airstrip.
Allied Forces South West Pacific, Geographical Section, Terrain .Study,
Madang No., Vol. 2, photos
Bottom - Labourers pushing a log from the Sepik River to the sawmill at
Marienberg, c. 1955.
PNG National Archives
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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