The ghost train

The Railway Hotel is crowded, fluorescent and boisterous.

It is made for gambling. A dozen screens compete for patronage – bright lists with titles like Randwick, Flemington and Ipswich. It’s a profusion of obscure information, punctuated by muted screens of salivating horses and flashing dogs, keno tables and lotto numbers. 

Creased old miners and young roosters cradle their Boags Draughts and goad each other in a jovial fashion. Couples whisper in corners. 

This is the hub of activity in Queenstown on a Saturday afternoon. Outside the streets are quiet. Eerily so. It is a town half empty, a place built for more than 5,000 but now holding fewer than 2,000. In central Orr Street, many shopfronts are empty, and grand hotels stand derelict and tired. 

The crowd at the Railway is like a community sheltered against a storm. The gregarious cheer, in contrast to the bleakness outside.

As the publican, Karen, serves me a beer, we discuss the decline of the west. “Crotty came out of the water (in 2016),” she says, finding a positive. “We all went down there to see the old buildings.”

Crotty was a town on the southern bank of the King River that was ultimately submerged when the Hydro-Electric Commission created Crotty Dam as part of the King River Power Development.

The result was 54 square-kilometre Lake Burbury, which left Crotty and nearby Darwin under water. 

In 2016, after prolonged low rainfall, Burbury dropped to historically low levels, and the sun rose on the buildings of Crotty for the first time in many years. 

The town’s patronym, James Crotty, was an Irish prospector who founded the North Mount Lyell Mining Company. He and his company were in fierce competition with the Mount Lyell Mining and Rail Company, which was based in Queenstown. Each had their own rail to Macquarie Harbour, own port towns, own smelters. Presumably there was some pride at stake when North Lyell football teams ventured over the mountain to challenge Queenstown on their infamous gravel oval. They say, on one such occasion, an umpire from Gormanston was left to walk back to the eastern slopes when locals sent his horse bolting after a less than popular whistle-blow.

. . .

Behind the bar at The Railway, a simple printed A4 sheet displays a list of hotels that once flourished in the surrounding area. It’s a long list. Drinking was traditionally big business in these parts. 

Crotty had three hotels to service its 700 thirsty inhabitants – The Crotty, The North Lyell and The Minerva. Linda, today a ghost town, was the northern terminus of Crotty’s rail line and had four hotels to serve a similar population: The Royal, The Linda Valley, The Democrat and, somewhat confusingly, The North Lyell. 

Remains of the Linda Hotel

The concrete remains of The Royal are all that’s left of Linda. The skeleton is drab and weather-stained, even more so on the day of my visit as a cold mist rolls down from the naked peaks to fill faceless windows. Her roof and timber floor have long since collapsed, rotted, or been cannibalised. The hall is carpeted with blackberry and glossy oyster plants, jostling in choked doorways. The bar is flooded to ankle height, like some poorly maintained bath. The long-extinguished fire places stretch their chimneys defiantly almost seven metres above, the pilasters punctuated by the upper floor ingles. In 1916 the publican was fined, in default of 24 hours of imprisonment, for allowing one of these chimneys to catch fire. 

Standing in this ruin, as a fine drizzle disturbs the mirror of the liquid floor, one feels the contrast to the raucous establishment it must have then been, as miners and entrepreneurs quarrelled over prospects and local events, warmed by fire and liquor against the bleak exterior.

In the October of 1925, quarrelling turned to violence when a brawl erupted between 80 Italian migrants and a group of young locals, known as “Britishers”. The Britishers later converged on one of the Italians’ homes and broke windows. The melee reignited and by the end, one Britisher, William Quinn, was dead, stabbed by Farini Fillipo, with many others injured.

Fillipo took flight. According to a report in a South Australian newspaper, The Register, “He is thought to be in the vicinity hiding, and his countrymen are anxious that he should give himself up. Owing to the shortage of police, it is difficult to make a search. Phillipo [sic] has a gun and a knife with him.”

It was a tough town that in its prime boasted a fire station, butchers, bakers, police station, grocers, four football teams and a town hall, where Dame Nellie Melba is thought to have performed.

It was home to one of the busiest train stations in Tasmania. The terminus of a line that ran through forest, wild rivers and rugged terrain to Macquarie Harbour, 35 kilometres to the south. 
Steam and the blowing of train whistles would fill the air as supplies were offloaded, to be replaced by ore. Men in suits and fedoras and corseted women would bustle into luxurious Pullman coaches, destined for ships in the harbour.  

The steaming Shay and Avonside locomotives would power up through the Linda Valley, its desolate slopes known at the time as The Valley of Dry Bones, before skirting Mount Owen and descending into the south-west rainforests. The train would rattle through a corridor of ferns, sassafras and ancient, moss-trunked celery top pine. Clearing from the forest, a 50-metre iron truss bridge spanned the King River, its tannin waters boiling and frothing below.

On the King River’s southern banks was Crotty. As the Avonside steamed across Governor River, which bisected the town, timber buildings and grander, two-storey, stone dwellings, clustered around white gravel roads, came into sight. Where the train hissed to a stop, a well-built bridge crossed the Baxter River, leading up McKinley Street. To the left was the police station, post office and school house. A Yankee Doodle Tobacco billboard covered the entire side wall of a store across the road. Farther off was the obligatory grand hotel, and farther still, at the foot of Mount Jukes, stood a hulking smelter-works, belching smoke from a row of towering red brick stacks. 

It all now lays as ruins beneath frigid Lake Burbury, while the King River bridge rusts like a ship wreck, still spanning that trench between the wraithlike skeletons of trees.

Remains of the Linda Hotel's main bar

Also submerged was the small, hard-drinking, township of Darwin, a town of woodsmen and limestone miners. In 1899, a Cascade Brewery representative arrived from Hobart, testimony the town’s prowess for indulgence, given that at that time the commute generally required travelling by ship to Macquarie Harbour, then by train from Kelly’s Basin. 
Presumably the Boags representative had already ensured his merchandise was on tap.

The Macquarie Harbour anchorage used by that intrepid Beer merchant was at Pillinger, the Crotty’s rail line’s southern terminus. At its height Pillinger was a bustling port town of about 1,000 and its streets stretched over the western and eastern shores of Kelly Basin, with a regular ferry service linking the two shores. 

Locals, known as Basinites, sailed and fished on the harbour, or competed in wood chopping competitions at the purpose-built arena. Cricket was played at a recreation ground in West Pillinger, while the more energetic joined the Kelly Basin Athletics Club. There were four hotels, The Shamrock, The Terminus, Finnigans and The Macquarie, as well as illegal sly grog shops and gambling dens.

There was a library, police station and a school. Three wharves saw the arrival of large steam ships, their maritime flags in colourful lines, snapping in the breeze. 

All that remains are ghostly, grainy photographs, newspaper clippings or records written in the language of another era.

The moss-carpeted ghost rail arrives at overgrown brick-kiln ruins, temples from a time passed.

The West Pillinger Recreation Ground hosts a copse of adolescent eucalypts, and the wood chopping arena is given back to the trees. European garden-plants struggle on, oddly alien amongst the ancient native flora.

. . .

Back in Queenstown, I’ve left the rowdy Railway. Walking the silent streets, I find a cluster of well-dressed folk loitering around an old Edwardian bank building, a building with nonchalant decorum that is distinctly city. It’s an art gallery opening – Q Bank Gallery. One of the owners, Stephen Brockway, greets me with a choice of wine or Boags, and introduces me to one of the artists, Shawn Lu. They’re both based in Melbourne, but Shawn has been living in Queenstown to create this exhibition. His intricate pen and ink drawings feature derelict buildings, rugged landscapes, and clapped-out utes. Most have red dots to indicate they’ve been sold.

Brockway had been visiting Queenstown when he fell in love with the Edwardian bank building and decided to buy it. He is optimistic about Queenstown’s future. 

“It’s a rugged, dilapidated, frontier sort of place,” he proclaims in his native San Francisco accent. “It’s that mining mentality – there’s money to be made in this town. Not that that’s necessarily why we’re here.” 

He’s more interested by the affordable 19th century architecture and the reinvention of the town. QBank Gallery is indicative of the gradual evolution of this region, the transition from mining to tourism.

Brockway talks of the rejuvenation of Hunters Hotel by an Adelaide couple, and rumours of a foreign-funded redevelopment of the Mount Lyell Hotel. 

These grand old buildings have seen towns and rail forged through the Tasmanian forest, and seen that world of thousands swallowed again by wilderness. 

They may also live to see the west flourish once more.

Jonno Blood has been chased by angry gypsies in Hungary, arrested by soldiers in the Ukraine, and slept in a three-metre wide bed with a Red Yao chieftain and his five wives in China. He has also lived in London and Melbourne, before easing back into life in his native Tasmania. While still scratching itchy feet often, he loves his island digs, its often hidden stories, and the characters and capers that make it lavishly singular.

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