Timber quest for Main Northern Line

Hard work: Cutting hardwood railway sleepers in the forest for the Main Northern Line.
Hard work: Cutting hardwood railway sleepers in the forest for the Main Northern Line.

Amos Brothers estimated they needed in excess of 121,000 ironbark sleepers for the extension of the Main Northern Line from West Tamworth to Uralla. Sleepers were required to be hewn rather than sawn with each being 8 feet long, 9 inches wide and 4½ inches thick.

Advertisements placed in June 1879 sought tenders for sleepers “in lots not less than one thousand and delivered to any railway station between Maitland and Tamworth”. A later advertisement said the contractor would accept delivery “at the stump” at a reduced price.

Amos Brothers and the Railways Department inspected the sleepers before payment, with the railways inspector reserving the right to reject sleepers that split after being put into service.

The Australian Town and Country Journal of July 9, 1881 stated: “Many thousands of sleepers, over which the iron horse has eventually to travel, are stored at Swamp Oak. Some 12,000 are stacked ready for use with upwards of 30,000 more waiting to be ‘slotted’ at the rate of 700 per day.”

The “slotting”, or “gauging” as it was called, was the cutting of a groove at each end of the sleeper into which the lower flange of the rail was seated during track laying to ensure the standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches was maintained. A steam powered machine was used to trim and plane the sleeper and cut the grooves.

Difficulty was experienced in getting sleepers owing to the lack of suitable trees. Some were obtained from Nundle and “Never Never” and “Black Jack” mountains, the former 26 miles and the latter 12 miles from Swamp Oak. These sleepers were frequently slid for two miles down the side of the mountain, during which they gathered stones and debris, making it very rough on the saws and planing knives.

The shortage of ironbark added to delays and saw alternative species being used. An Amos Brothers advertisement in the Maitland Mercury of January 1, 1882, said: “Wanted, about 30,000 hewn sleepers of ironbark, grey gum, black butt, red gum or spotted gum, delivered to Maitland, Greta or Branxton. Sleepers inspected on the second week of each month and paid at six shillings and sixpence per pair, loaded into rail trucks.”