Have our historic tracks disappeared forever?

The way we were: An old postcard shows the once famous Glebe Pit in its heyday when it used the old Burwood Railway to get its coal to harbour.
The way we were: An old postcard shows the once famous Glebe Pit in its heyday when it used the old Burwood Railway to get its coal to harbour.

So, parts of Hunter Street have finally re-opened to traffic after 10 months of constructing light rail tracks towards Newcastle’s East End.

The wraps have come off two long blocks between Union and Darby streets, with more roadway east of Darby Street planned to be re-opened in September or October, before new Spanish-built trams arrive in town. 

But in doing so, the project has ironically probably erased almost the last traces of a famous, earlier rail line whose tracks once crossed Hunter Street near the Darby Street intersection.

This was the former private Burwood coal railway, originally called Dr James Mitchell’s Burwood “tramway”, built in the 1850s to service his Burwood Estate (modern Merewether) mines.

INTACT: Workers unearthed remnants of the old Burwood line last year.

INTACT: Workers unearthed remnants of the old Burwood line last year.

The pioneering old coal line, which ran through Civic Park, Cooks Hill and The Junction to Merewether and the Glebe, formally ceased 64 years ago next month, in August 1954.

This long-overlooked rail line, which once ran down Burwood Street beside the “new” Newcastle court complex, came into the news late last year.

Last October, while preparing the new light-rail route, workers unearthed intact remnants of the old Burwood line. The rail was shallow buried under the road tar but was immediately recognisable as a 19th-century line, complete with rails and wooden sleepers.

First pinpointed by workers back in July 2017, a small part of the old line was then poking out of the tar on the northern side of Hunter Street where it once crossed over towards waterfront coal-loading facilities.

Not being a listed heritage item, the rail remains (pictured) were archaeologically surveyed and recorded before being removed as being in the way of the new light-rail tracks along Hunter Street.

Away to the south, outside an Italian restaurant in Glebe Road at The Junction opposite Eastpoint, more of these ancient rail lines once also stuck up out of the bitumen.

The Junction here was so named because it was where four main suburban coal lines originally converged. As coal measures became worked out, Burwood Estate (Merewether) mining gradually wound down, until finally in August 1954 the Joint Coal Board closed the last of the small pits in the Glebe Valley.

At the time, there was a growing resentment by Hunter Street motorists at having to be regularly held up by trains hauling coal wagons as the hissing, clanking steam trains with their noisy convoy of coal hoppers slowly crossed to the waterfront.

Earlier, the biggest and most famous pit in this same Glebe Valley (below present City Road) was the Glebe Pit, or No.1 pit, a very busy 19th-century enterprise as illustrated here on this old, hand-tinted postcard (pictured).

Today the site is difficult to identify as it is smothered in residential development at the western end of Morgan Street, Merewether.

After coming across the old postcard recently, I was reminded of some interesting background to the Glebe Valley pits in an interview I did some 24 years ago with retired pit workers. My article appeared in the Herald in August 1994, almost on the eve of the last train using the Burwood line 40 years before.

Reminiscing back then about the “good old days” was former pit worker Tom Winton with relatives Ken and Norman Leigh. They vividly remembered the last day a coal train used the old Burwood line in 1954.

At The Junction school kids gave the locomotive crew a rousing cheer as it trundled past.

In the city itself, as the train passed through Civic Park, workers left their desks to witness the event. Some marked the occasion by waving flags and streamers.

For about the previous 50 years, the Glebe coal train had been a familiar sight carrying coal from the small, now forgotten pits of Hillside, Hillside Extended, Glebe End and Glebe Main.

Tom Winton, then 73, of Carey Bay, remembered when the coal-laden train made two daily trips into Newcastle, then one trip, then only two or three times a week.

“I remember that last train trip as if it were yesterday,” Winton said.

A former pit deputy at Hillside Extended, Winton believed the real reason behind the mine closures was indeed the inconvenience caused by the train as it crossed Hunter Street, blocking all car, tram and bus traffic.

The trio of former miners met to reminisce at the former Hillside mine site at Myamblah Oval, below Scenic Drive.

“Someone once asked me to give a talk on the place – early mining days, the pit horses etc – so I went back, but I hardly knew the place. It took me a while to get my bearings,” Winton said. 

 “Where the oval is now was a gully. They just made the banks steeper and pushed the dirt back to form the playing field.

“Hillside was a little drift working producing maybe 80 tons of coal a day with two workers on the pit top and 12 underground, 14 all up.

 “They said back then that there would never be any houses there, but now you’d be hard pressed to find a spare building block.”

Winton said many young people did not know about the Civic Park railway or about the four pits it served to the end.

“The coal railway used to run down Morgan Street once. The Glebe Main pit was about where Takari Place is now and the Glebe End pit was almost opposite, into the hill below present City Road,” he said.     

Meanwhile, some time ago, David Barrow from Merewether Historical Society passed on to me the following information about the now relatively “unknown” passenger traffic on the old Burwood line.

He dropped me a note last year saying that in the 1860s, Christ Church Cathedral clergy used the coal line to convey Sunday school pupils out to Glenrock Lagoon for picnics.

Similar Sunday pupils at St Augustine’s Church, Merewether, used the line to get to picnics there also.

But the most famous passenger to ever use the line apparently was a Brit, a Lord Brassy, who visited Newcastle in June 1887.

“At the time of his visit, he had been the first secretary for the Royal Navy, or in other words, the most powerful man in the then British Empire. He was also Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria and was Governor of Victoria, I believe,” Barrow said.