Hailed as Australia’s most unusual railway, the creation of the Cooktown to Laura Railway, was a direct result of the discovery of gold in the Palmer River.
The road to the goldfields was extremely hazardous, the transportation of goods was expensive, difficult and time consuming. When officials refused to upgrade the road, pressure mounted for an inland railway. The Government, realising the richness of the Palmer fields and a large voting population, finally agreed to build a railway.
Alderman D’Arcy, Mayor of Cooktown ‘turned the first sod’ of the rail line on 4 April 1884. Due to labour shortages and the wet season the first section between Cooktown and the Palmer Road, 48 km (30 miles), was not completed until November 1885. In the first month of operation the section carried more than 570 passengers and 125 tonnes of goods!
Within three years the line was extended to Laura with stations at Sandown, Sandy Creek and Welcome. It was here construction ran into difficulty. There was a change of government and concern grew over escalating costs. It was estimated that the 75 km of line from Laura to Maytown would cost almost £1m sterling ($2m).
After much debate, Parliament decided that the Maytown line would be built when a feasible route was found and, in the meantime, agreed to build the Laura River bridge at the cost of 12,500 pounds.
Normanby River Rail Bridge
The bridge, comprising five 80ft spans of iron lattice girders on concrete piers, was 536ft long and 55ft high. It took 17 months to build and was ready by October 1891. A locomotive and rolling stock were sent across it as a test – the maximum deflection at full speed being half an inch. That 90-ton train was the first and the last to cross the bridge. Although Cooktown people lobbied long and hard to have the line completed, the Cooktown Railway had effectively come to a full stop.
However, the railway was an important element of early Cooktown. By 1885, the landscape was dotted with related facilities – station and residence, carriage and engine sheds, wells, a coal stage, horse ramp, railway store, goods shed, weighbridge, double-tier tank-stand and a crane for the wharf.
RM6 ‘Captain Cook’
As passenger and cargo tonnage figures dropped and operating expenses rose, it was decided to close the line. The government offered a lease of the line and rolling stock to the Cooktown council for 1 pound per week. Council assumed control of the railway in September 1903.
The first motor on the Cooktown Railway, RM6, Captain Cook, was converted from a Napier motor car at Ipswich workshops in 1916 and went into service at Cooktown in November of that year. Captain Cook ran until 1924, travelling 80,000 miles on the Cooktown Railway, this is in addition to over 100,000 miles covered as a road vehicle.
“Captain Cook” at Alderbury 1916-1930
After about 12 months – during which time the council made a profit – the government resumed control of the railway, but it never really picked up again and by 1960 the government was ready to close the line again – this time for good.
After a stop/start history spanning 76 years to 1961, the Cooktown railway was sold for scrap. A sorry end for what could have been a major tourist drawcard to the area today. The station was sold and removed. However, the top section was relocated to Anzac Park and now houses the Cooktown Creative Arts Association.
Our tour of Tropical Queensland we explore the town’s railway relics on a walking tour. Some elements are still available to be viewed, long after the closure of the railway lines in 1960. On return to the Main Street, we visit the Cooktown Museum, which contains a wide array of railway displays and information on the gold rush era, general history, and stories of the many cyclonic events over the decades in the region.
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