Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 3]: The Might and Muscle of Queensland’s extensive infrastructure system with Jen High

All aboard the Museum Revealed podcast train! In episode 3 Jen High, Senior Curator of Transport, Energy and Science, takes us through the new Might and Muscle exhibition at our regional campus The Workshops Rail Museum.  

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Let’s meet our guest: Jennifer High

Jennifer High joined Queensland Museum in 2017 as Senior Curator of Transport, Energy and Science, based at The Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich. She worked across a variety of transport histories in her previous roles as a curator at the National Museum of Australia from 2005 to 2017 and as curator of the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach. Jennifer’s interests in museums was fostered during her time as a volunteer at Cobb+Co Museum in high school and then at Queensland Museum during her university studies.

Read more here.

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RB: Welcome to Museum Revealed podcast brought to you by the Queensland Museum Network. Join me, Dr Rob Bell, as we talk to the people that make museums so fascinating, from curators to scientists and researchers, dive deep into conversations with these storytellers that inspire us to be curious about our past, make sense of the present and help us consider our future. Today, we’re at The Workshops Rail Museum speaking to senior curator Jen High. Jen; tell us about this new exhibition. The Might and Muscle of Queensland Transport History.

JH: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Rob. The new exhibitions, quite exciting. It brings together some mighty and muscly objects from Queensland’s history to help us to understand how some of these things came to be our road and rail networks, the machines that we used to build them and the people who are involved. So it’s kind of history that we drive on every day. We travel on every day. And it’s interesting to get behind the scenes on some of that history.

RB: And so what sort of period of do we span, I suppose, in the exhibition? How far back does it go and how current do things go?

JH: Sure, we start really at the beginning of real history in Queensland. So the 1860 is when they are breaking ground, 1864 for the beginnings of a rail line in Queensland, and then we really come up to almost the present day. So it’s an effort to try and get across many decades of history. And, yeah, it’s a lot of fun to run then through, I guess, manual labour. And which is also the way many things were powered, let alone built. But going through steam power, petrol, power and exploring those various technologies.

RB: Yeah. Excellent. Now I gather this also some tractors in the exhibition. Is that right?

JH: Yeah. That’s where a lot of the petrol power comes in. We’ve got a great collection of tractors in Queensland Museum, which, you know, draws on the collective history of the Thiess family. And it’s great to be able to display four of those tractors to really talk about the beginnings of the Thiess company in Queensland. And those four tractors tell us a lot about what that work entailed and why machinery of the ever increasing size and power was required in Queensland.

RB: Just getting back to the rail side of things.  Can you tell us a bit about some of the different trains there? What’s the what’s the mustly train or the mightiest train that you’ve got in the collection.

JH: Yeah, well, we’re lucky enough actually to have literally the mightiest steam locomotive ever used in Queensland, Queensland Rail has been very generous in loaning for the exhibition the Bay Garrett Locomotive, which was the largest type of locomotive ever operated steam locomotive that is ever operated on a Queensland rail lines. And it is quite a sizeable machine and it really does literally form the centrepiece of the exhibition. We have a piece of rail through the middle of that building. And that’s where we have parked the Bay Garrett locomotive. And it it’s a very impressive sight.

RB: Can you give me an idea of the scale of it? How long, how wide that sort of thing?

JH: Yeah, it’s effectively the size of two and a half regular steam locomotives. It’s got an extra water tank, obviously, to allow it to travel further and with more power. And weighs 137 tonnes. So we can only move that one well, easily on rail. And yeah, that’s the way we did it.

RB: Oh, fantastic. So we would mention tractors, which people might expect to see is most of the exhibition men sort of around trains or you’ve got the whole gamut of things there?

JH: It really does range across a lot as we move through the rail stories, which we have three maintenance vehicles, which are fantastic examples from the pumper trolley to early, early motorised. Well, similar vehicles, early motorised trolleys, which are effectively just trolleys with motorcycle engine attached to them and then moving into a camp wagon, which was, of course, the thing pulled around in numerous numbers to actually provide accommodation for the guys doing all the work. The Bay Garrett Locomotive, they are really the focus of the real stories. We have hand tools that accompany those. But on the other side of the space, continuing the steam story, we do have a traction engine and a road steamroller, which sort of they were used for a lot of different projects across south east Queensland over the years. The steam roller primarily used in Brisbane, actually on road projects, was actually owned by Brisbane City Council. And the traction engine did a number of things in its fairly long life from working on roads. But it also powered a sawmill. There’s a lot of different stories. The other piece of rail history is also a pumping engine that was used in Grantchester, which was, of course, one of the first stations in the Queensland Rail Network, starting as Biggs Camp in 1865. And that’s a really great story of not only what it meant to travel by train, but what it meant to actually power the locomotives, which is where the tractors come in very handy as well, because, of course, the big part of the Thiess story from the 1940s, late 1940s onwards is all about coal mining. And coal was also very important to the transport industry to really power these large engines. So it’s really a bit of a full circle thing of talking about not only the engines and the people, but what powered them.

RB:  Hey, that sounds amazing. Now we’re gonna find out even more about some of these, especially tractors and steam traction engines. So stick with us, we will be back shortly. Welcome back to the Museum Revealed podcast today we are talking with Jen High, the senior curator at The Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich. And we’re specifically talking about the Might and Muscle exhibition that you have on out there. We talked a little bit about tractors early on, and it suddenly occurred to me that when I picture a tractor, I picture something with big tires driving around a farm. But that’s not necessarily the sort of tractors you have.

JH: No, no. I mean, these are effectively tractors, some would put them in the bulldozer category. So they do have caterpillar tracks and all of the tractors on exhibition are actually Caterpillar manufactured. So they’re you know, you can conjure up the image of the yellow, although only one of the forras is yellow. The caterpillar yellow. And they were used in agriculture, but also in in road construction, dams sinking lots of different purposes because they were really versatile machines that could go over pretty much any terrain. So they were really, really useful tractors. These are quite early the 1930s so quite early in the Caterpillar production line, which sort of started in the mid 1920s. So it puts them in that category of being a little bit smaller. But they do point to that early history of the Thiess company. So that’s why we chose them for this exhibition.

RB: Now, I’m going to ask you probably a hard question here. Do you have a favourite particular part of the exhibition? Your favourite piece in the exhibition?

JH:  Yes. It’s always hard to have a favourite piece. I know we’re not supposed to.

I am particularly drawn to the versatile steam engines in this exhibition and particularly the traction engine, because it’s well, you know, it has a presence standing next to it. I guess I’m not particularly tall. You would probably feel differently. But to me, it’s very big and it has you can really sense the work that it did. And the fact that it was used in so many different roles over its years means that it was a well appreciated machine, if not necessarily well treated when it came into the museum in the 1980s, it was actually fully restored by museum staff and volunteers. And it’s great now that over the past few months we’ve been actually able to re paint it. And give it a good fresh look so that it really does look like a feature in this exhibition.

RB: Now we’ve established that that is indeed your favourite. Can you describe a little bit about what it looks like. Obviously, you give us an idea of the size, but I mean, what are we looking at? And then what’s it powered by?.

JH: Yeah. So it’s a steam engine. So it has a large boiler, front and centre. It has large back wheels and a smaller front wheels. So it’s able to go over some pretty heavy terrain. They are steel wheels. Very, very heavy. Steel wheels has a big flywheel on the one side. So the idea of these traction engines was they could travel over distances and pull loads of things, but they didn’t move at great speed. Their main use was for travelling from place to place and actually powering different engines and different pieces of machinery. So the fly wheel, there was a belt that went from the flywheel of the traction engine onto the fly wheel of other engines. And it actually provided the power. So this traction engineers is six nominal horsepower, which was the power volume determined when steam engines took over from horses. And so that’s basically about the equivalent of you would have had about six horses doing the same amount of work for pulling or operating machinery.

RB: So it was effectively a portable power plants. And if someone saw mill whenever they needed to power this thing.. Drive along, hook up to it and then away it would go.

JH: Yeah. They were used for all sorts of things, including shearing plants, that kind of thing. So basically anything that you needed to power, these were these were ideal and a lot of traction engines were actually used as travelling engines. So they would go from property to property, from workplace to workplace on seasonal kind of work. So chaff, cutting operations, that kind of thing. So they would actually pull machinery and caravans and all sorts of things along the road. But they’re definitely not known for their speed in moving along. But they certainly got the job done when they got there.

RB: Now, I’m guessing the reason for that then is because it was quite expensive to build and own an engine like this. So not every farm or wool shed so you would bring this one in when it was needed, then it would go off to its next job. Is that sort of the idea?

JH: Yeah, that’s right. It was certainly a sizeable investment. And there is a lot in terms of maintenance and operation in one of these machines. So, yeah, though they certainly weren’t available to everyone. I mean, definitely people were still using horse power well, after the Second World War in Queensland and other places in Australia. So, yeah, it wasn’t necessarily the only answer. But in terms of being able to do the job, probably with fewer people, it was ideal for a lot of different operations and it certainly in some ways a little bit more reliable for some people. But in terms of powering it, of course, you needed the coal or the wood depending on what type of engine you had. And you also needed a lot of water to keep them going.

RB: Now, I’m gonna ask you would probably give me our last question, but not your favourite this time, but rather the oddest thing in the Might and Muscle exhibition. According to you, again, at least.

JH: Yeah, not I mean, it’s still there. I think it’s still a favourite in many ways. But I guess the oddest thing that we have a little bit out of place in a way is actually one of the crawler tractors, because the collection came to us through Bert Thiess, who was one of the Thiess brothers. He was an avid collector of tractors and in particular those sort of 1930s, 40s varieties that he himself worked on. And he decided to buy a few from the United States. We have some emails and various things of him trading comments with other collectors. And this one is out of place, especially in Queensland, because it actually has snow tracks on it. So it was actually purchased from a gentleman in Connecticut where he used to use it for cutting firewood. Amongst other things. So it’s still, you know, the type of tractor that would have been used in Australia. But just because it has the snow tracks on it, it just makes me laugh, you know, just slightly out of place in Queensland.

RB: Yeah, that is fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us. Jen. And you can check out the Might and Muscle exhibition at The Workshop Rail Museum. It’s on there right now. And thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover this episode? Are you interested in learning more? Well, follow the Queensland Museum on Social Media @qldmuseum or head to the website qm.qld.gov.au and while you’re there, sign up for the news list so you can stay up to date on everything. Don’t forget, there are show notes to go along with his podcasts so you can do a little bit more research by yourself and until next time. Stay curious.

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