By Jonathan Porter
The story of Peterborough in South Australia is a rag-to-riches and back-to-rags one that perhaps was the greatest story never told. Nowadays it is being told as part of the Heritage Rail Trail experience.
It is a story of pioneers, of guts and courage and tenacity and the true spirit of a mighty long-lost breed of pioneers and warriors and, yes, even robber barons – who helped forge a mighty industrial nation out of a seam of riches in the middle of nowhere.
It’s also a story of political bungling on a titanic scale, that caused the short-sighted burghers in neighbouring NSW’s capital city to miss out on the biggest minerals bonanza of all time – plus ça change… the more things stay the same.
“And NSW missed out,” says Peterborough Tourism Manager Pat Kent.
“The town began to die in the 1970s when the diesels came in,” he says.
It is now being reborn with visitors self-driving for 395km, following the remains of the Broken Hill to Port Pirie railway, passing through 15 towns that once supported the lines; some that still flourish, others are barely a dot on the map.
Peterborough welcomes visitors with one of the nation’s finest heritage experiences, the Steamtown rail museum.
This is where you can see the old Roundhouse and its locos and rolling stock – amazing by day and an emotional experience by night when it’s the setting for the Peterborough Sound and Light Show.
To begin, in 1883 a wildcat syndicate of seven well diggers and boundary riders sunk what little they had into mining leases.
They began bringing up high-grade ore near Broken Hill, and formed a new company – the Broken Hill Proprietary Limited – later known as BHP Billiton.
This is where the bungle comes.
The NSW government refused to build a measly 50km of track to get the ore to port, and the sovereign subjects of NSW were not allowed to own a railroad.
They could, however, own a tramline, and so the 3-foot, six-inch line they built eventually became the busiest tramway on the planet, carrying the wealth of silver, zinc and lead, not to NSW, but to the closest port – in South Australia, Port Pirie at the head of Gulf St Vincent and the giant smelters therein.
“For six years the Silverton Tramway carried millions of tons of ore – mainly silver- to Port Pirie and without the 14 communities on the track – including Peterborough – that grew up to keep the trains running, Australia’s greatest industrial story would never have happened.”
“The 3’6” line was an engineering triumph. It went up steep gradients, had to cope with sandstorms, floods and even plagues of locusts so thick they caused the locomotives to slip.”
“But as a commercial venture the line was a minor miracle, turning at least £17m in 50 years and quickly becoming one of the most profitable stretches of railway in the world.”
“More and more powerful locos were brought in and Peterborough became the nation’s steam heartland, marshalling so many engines that it is said the local climate was actually warmed by their heat.”
By 1892 Australia became independent of foreign smelting, which was hugely important as we went into World War I.
“The ingots of lead, silver and zinc went to all corners of the British Empire, marking the end of the line for the ore and the beginning of Australia’s transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy
“Today the little railway line has almost disappeared from sight and the railway towns are in decline or gone altogether.
“But the legacy is a powerful one. In its heyday, Broken Hill-to-Pirie kept the railways profitable and helped carry South Australia through the depressions of 1890 and 1929; it also financed the continued business of building railways in challenging arid lands. In 1927, Australia finally had a string of rail lines connecting Sydney with Perth.”
“It (the Heritage Rail Trail) gives people a chance to slow down, to stop and engage with people in these towns.”
On the ground, a digital guide gives visitors background on the towns.
In Peterborough – the coldest place in South Australia at -3C in winter, (rising to 45C in summer) – the Sound and Light show is projected on a silver screen while visitors sit in first class carriages to be taken back in time against the backdrop of 23 bays containing old locomotives and rolling stock.
The Steamtown heritage rail centre is a 4-acre tribute to the men and women and families of Peterborough who used to work 24 hours a day to maintain the locos and tracks.
“The Sound and Light show brings to life what you have seen during the day and the history of these towns – including Jamestown home of RM William’s and Haigh’s Chocolate.”
The men worked three shifts a day and they could tell by the sound of the hooter how busy their shifts would be.
“If it was loud that meant they would have a relatively easy shift, if it was drawn out it that meant there was a big demand for steam.”
The men were drivers, shunters, engineers who made sure the world’s busiest railway line continued to function.
“The Sound and Light Show helps you get close and personal with the times – it’s not unusual for people to have bit of a weep – it’s such a powerful story of rags to riches and back to rags again.
“They worked in incredibly harsh conditions at a time when work health and safety was non-existent.
“Imagine being a fireman stoking an engine in 45C heat. In the towns where they stopped for water, the water was from bores and of terrible quality so the locos had to be descaled in Peterborough.”
People love seeing on the big screen how things actually were Kent says.
“There were no couriers to get things overnight they had to make things, which meant there were skilled trades and blacksmiths.
“Not only did they get on with it, they excelled.”
Now travellers can cruise through the red countryside from Broken Hill to the agricultural plains and finally the cool, pure waters Gulf St Vincent in safety and comfort.
“They can have a big slab of T-bone in Broken Hill and a few days’ later prawns in the Spencer Gulf.”