Anticipation in Ipswich

Written by: David Mews, Curator, The Workshops Rail Museum

Whenever I drive over the Bremer River bridge on the Warrego Highway, I imagine the little paddle steamers as they chugged their way to Ipswich or back to Brisbane. This year celebrates the 150 years of Queensland Rail and my imagination takes me back in time trying to picture what it must have been like.

Ipswich residents had witnessed the turning of the first sod on 1 February 1864 at North Ipswich to mark the beginning of construction of a railway from Ipswich to the Darling Downs. Regular updates on construction progress would appear in the local newspaper, the Queensland Times.

There was a significant increase in traffic on the Bremer River as the many paddle steamers busily plied back and forth between Brisbane and Ipswich transporting the material and equipment necessary to build a railway and the hundreds of migrant workers from Ireland and Britain to act as navvies to build the railway. Skilled engineers were also to be found amongst those coming from the Mother Country.

A busy industrial complex appeared almost overnight during 1864 as the first railway workshops were built on the north bank of the Bremer River where the Riverlink shopping centre now stands. It would have been a hive of activity with the paddle steamers arriving at the Railway Wharf to unload their cargo of railway material. Buildings were erected while workmen assembled the locomotives and rolling stock needed for the railway. The first of the four locomotives had arrived from England in November 1864 aboard the Black Ball Line ship Queen of the South. This locomotive was first placed in steam on 11 January 1865.

The Queensland Times for 17 January 1865 reported on construction progress for a number of bridges including the major bridge over the Bremer River which would create a rail and road link between the Ipswich central business district, North Ipswich, Toowoomba and the Darling Downs.

Paddle steamer, ‘Emu’, docked at the wharves at Ipswich around 1870. Image sourced from Picture Queensland, State Library of Queensland.

The regular steam whistles of the paddle boats had by now been joined by the whistles of the four small A Class locomotives as they were tested and placed in service to transport track and bridge material from the Railway Wharf at North Ipswich to the head of track construction as well as the many navvies working on the new railway.

The anticipation of the Ipswich population must have been building by May 1865 as the time was approaching when the first section of railway in Queensland was expected to be opened. The public must have been disappointed when the Queensland Times on the 29 June 1865 announced that the railway would not be ready for the proposed opening date of 11 July as had been previously announced. The reason given was the rate of progress was slower than expected. Construction continued with the local population keen to be present on the opening day.

During those early years of railway construction, the ceaseless journeys of those paddle steamers between Brisbane and Ipswich and the toil of the navvies and early railway engineers live on only in my imagination. The opening of the first railway was to be a major event for Queensland.