The Gift of Prophesy

This editorial in the Otago Daily Times looked ahead 110 years and put faith in human ingenuity to solve predicted problems, with surprisingly accurate results.

THE Otago Daily Times. FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 1872. (abridged)
Our weekly contemporary in Melbourne has lately been enacting the part of alarmist upon the subject of the exhaustion of the coal fields of England, and the consequent decay of the British Empire. Following in the steps of an able writer in the Quarterly Review, the Australasian draws a dismal picture of the effect which the loss of her coal supplies must inevitably have upon the leading industries of the mother country, and sees in prophetic vision her workshops and manufactories, with the helots that inhabit them, flying to those lands blessed with larger stores of the necessary article.

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Professor W. Stanley Jevons. 1835-1882

It will be remembered that some seven years ago Professor Jevons alarmed the world a good deal by sounding the first note of alarm concerning England’s coal mines becoming exhausted, and a Royal Commission was appointed to take stock of the resources. Its report concluded that by 1982 England’s mines would be exhausted; but the writer in the Quarterly is by no means satisfied with so lengthy a tether, and proves incontestably that 1945 will see an end of England’s greatness. The difference, indeed, will seem to most of us something like that once discovered to exist betwixt tweedledum and twedledee. By the time that the 39,000,000,000 tons of coal which all think are still to be found in England are exhausted, the want of fuel will make but little difference to those who are now eagerly debating the subject. We can indeed imagine some selfishly-minded matron piling on the lumps all the more profusely on the drawing-room fire, in the fear of not getting her full share of what is left. Beyond the increase in coal bills due to this cause, we do not see any great reason for alarm in this generation.

In all seriousness, it does seem as if this sort of dismal prophesying of England’s decadence towards the end of the next century, owing to the consumption of all her coal, was rapidly reaching the ridiculous. No doubt, not many among us will remember when something of a panic was created by the discovery that the supply of timber by means of which the wooden walls of Old England [navy ships] could be constructed was running short, not only in England, but in Europe. We were then familiar with the gloomy phrases that warned us of a time when we should no longer be able to bid defiance to the world upon the sea. England, however, manages still to get along without exhausting the last oaken plank or bulwark.

Can any one doubt that long before the last ton of coal sends its smoke to heaven, science will have discovered some method of storing and applying heat without the use of so costly and cumbersome a material as coal? It certainly requires less faith in the future, and demands a far less implicit confidence in the resources of genius, to suppose that this will be done, than it did some fifty years since to conceive of iron ships floating upon the water.

If we consider how largely even the discovery of a partial substitute for coal — a discovery, for instance, which would place at our disposal some means of moving ocean steamers without its aid — would alter the whole condition of things upon which these dismal calculations are based, we shall realize more profoundly the absurdity of predicating the decline of England from such a cause. It is indeed only by trading upon the historical fact that each nation in turn has risen to its zenith and then declined, that such ill-omened prophets of evil obtain a hearing at all.

That England must one day yield her supremacy among the nations is probably as certain as anything in the world; but if history repeats itself, and if the lessons of experience have any value, we may safely declare that she will not do so from any such cause as the loss of her coal. ….

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Coalmines and iron works in Victorian England. Source: historywebsite.co.uk

We should suppose that the enormous increase in the price of coal at home, which, by the last accounts, had reached as high as 40 per cent advance on last year, was the moving cause for stirring up the outcry again. There is about it something of the judicious puff with which Weston and Holloway have made us familiar. Gather your rosebuds, or rather fill up your coal cellars, while ye may. Professor Jevons and his congeners have warned us that the supply of coal will soon be exhausted and it is the duty of every prurient householder to procure an immediate supply of this indispensable article.

We will not follow the writer into his particularly unreal description of the coalheavers of the Black Country, whom he describes as helots, and then as Israelites, doomed to make bricks without straw. Of all the labouring classes at home, we should have thought them the last to whom such terms might be applied. A certain sturdy independence of character, a habitual indulgence in luxuries of the table, a mild partiality for bull-dogs, &c., &c., were the peculiarities which we thought used to mark them more especially. But it is plain that the writer in question is earnestly desirous of having a fling at the ‘Philistines of the London press, who, it seems, are accustomed to ask, concerning these helots—Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Let us hope that ere this he has succeeded in making an amicable arrangement with his coal merchant, and that notwithstanding the melancholy predictions of which he is so full, some twentieth century Micawber will find it possible to earn a precarious livelihood as a coal merchant until something better turns up, even though he should not begin until 1945.

1945 did see “an end to England’s greatness” but not because of a lack of coal. The “mother country” was almost bankrupt after two world wars, a situation that none of these writers could have foreseen. India gained independence in 1947 and the rest of the Empire followed over the next 20 years.

Coal mines began to close in the ’70s and, by 1982, slag heaps on what had been some of the most productive coal fields were being landscaped and planted with trees.

Bridging the Forth

“If I were to pretend that the designing and building of the Forth Bridge were not a source of present and future anxiety to all concerned, no engineer of experience would believe me. Where no precedent exists, the successful engineer is he who makes the fewest mistakes.” Benjamin Baker.

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1887

One specially noteworthy feature about this in-all-respects-wonderful bridge is that the cantilevers …. have been built steadily out from the piers without any even temporary support from below. These mighty segments of steel arches have been built out into the air—into empty space…. Day by day fresh sections have been added on, the workmen perched on any convenient projection performing their duties at a giddy height above the flowing water. There was no scaffolding. Steam cranes were run on tramways out to the end of the finished portion of the cantilevers and then the steel plates to be next riveted on were hauled up from punts floating in the estuary below.

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May 1888

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August 1888

It is a curious thing that there is seldom so much wind at the top of the bridge as lower down. When it was too strong to work on the lower members, the workmen used to go to the top for shelter. “I went up on a breezy day this week,” writes a contributor, “and on the platform on the top of the cantilever pillars, 570 feet high, there was scarcely a breath of air. So soon as you get above the cliffs which confine the Firth at its narrowest point, the wind distributes itself, and what is a fresh breeze at the water’s level is only a faint zephyr at the top of the structure. It is a pity that when the bridge is completed the hoists which carry you soaring up, with only a couple of wires to steady the cage, must be removed, for a charge to see the view might produce a useful revenue.

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Early 1889

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June 1889

The greatest engineering work of its kind, and perhaps of any kind, the world has yet seen completed one of its stages on October 10th [1889], when the south cantilevers of the Forth Bridge—those between Queensferry and Inchgarvie—were successfully joined. Advantage was taken of the fine day to carry out this interesting and delicate operation, which had been delayed by recent cold and storms. At the last moment there was a gap of three-quarters of an inch between the bolt holes, but by means of hydraulic jacks and by lighting a fire of naphtha waste in the trough of the girder, the necessary expansion was secured. Mr. Arrol struck the first bolt, and the rest were immediately thereafter driven home.

It is of interest to record that the three engineers who created the Forth Bridge are all self made men. Sir John Fowler, who is in his 73rd year, was born at Sheffield. To him London owes its under ground railway system. Sir Benjamin Baker, although still young, has carried out important works in Canada and at the Cape. Sir William Arrol was originally a piercer in a Paisely cotton mill, and when he received the freedom at Ayr the other week he mentioned that 30 years back he entered the same town a poor blacksmith in search of employment. In 1868 he started in business in Dalmarnock road, Glasgow, with a capital of £85 saved from his wages. With this he bought an engine at £18, and a boiler at £35. For some time his staff consisted of himself and a workman. Seventeen years passed away and his staff numbered 4300, engaged on the Forth Bridge.

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1890

“It is now seven years, or nearly seven years, since the foundations of this bridge were commenced, and until two years ago we had to endure not only the legitimate anxieties of our duties, but the attacks and evil predictions which are always directed on those who undertake engineering work of novelty or exceptional magnitude. When I was carrying out the Metropolitan Underground Railway I was told it never could be made, that if it was made it never could be worked, and that if it was worked no one would travel by it. M. De Lesseps, of the Suez Canal, was warned that if the canal was made it would be quickly filled up with desert sand, and the harbor of Port Said would be filled with Nile mud….. It is very curious to watch the manner of retreat of these prophets of failure when results prove they have been mistaken”. Sir John Fowler at the opening ceremony, 4th March 1890.

Text has been edited from various newspapers of the time. Images were produced by Valentines. The letter card that provided the first five was “bought at the Forth Bridge from Miss Ewart’s Ferry Tea Rooms”. The ferries continued in business until the road bridge opened in 1964. A third bridge was added in 2017.

The Forth (Rail) Bridge still carries up to 200 trains a day.

Up on Christmas Creek

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Photograph by Burton Brothers c.1890. Te Papa collection.

The stream with the season-appropriate name lies to the west of Dunedin, New Zealand. It flows under the rail bridge in the picture and joins the Taieri river on the other side.

The engine and its train of wagons belonged to the Otago Central Railway which, according to the Cyclopedia of New Zealand’s volume of 1905, had “been the subject of heated controversy….the funds for its construction have been obtained at various times only after bitter struggles with the promoters of rival provincial undertakings. [The province of] Otago understands its importance and has long since proved her determination to sacrifice many another public interest rather than fail in the great work of opening up the central districts of the province, and bringing them within easy range of the coast and the [provincial] capital”.

“….the promoters of the line hold that great ultimate benefits would accrue to the colony as a whole, through the exploitation of mineral and agricultural wealth, and the facilitation of the already extensive and lucrative tourist traffic”.

Work had begun on the track in 1879 but, due to terrain and shortage of money, it advanced only 100 miles over the next 23 years – “less than five miles a year”. The writer thought the hardest part had been done and “it does not seem that there is any special difficulty involved in the formation of the line, as far as Clyde, 130 miles from Dunedin. It is altogether a great undertaking; and its completion is in every way essential to the ultimate prosperous development of the province”.

The railway did reach Clyde eventually, finally arriving at Cromwell and its surrounding agricultural land by 1921. It had been 42 years in the making. Meanwhile roads had improved and the traffic moved from rails to trucks and cars. The line struggled to compete for business.

The Clyde to Cromwell section was closed in 1980 to make way for the Clyde hydro dam and what is now Lake Dunstan. The track from Clyde to Middlemarch was removed in 1991 and has since been developed into the Otago Rail Trail, a popular route reserved exclusively for cyclists and walkers.

You can still ride the train as far as Middlemarch as it winds up through the rugged Taieri Gorge and over the bridge at Christmas Creek. It’s one of the region’s major tourist attractions. Book early to avoid disappointment.

(All links open in a new window)

Cross Creek and the Incline. Part 2.

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Passenger train with three Fell engines on the Remutaka Incline. Te Papa collection.

When the rail line to Wellington via Cross Creek and the Remutaka Incline closed in 1955, all buildings were removed from the settlement and the land was placed in the care of New Zealand’s Forest Service, now the Department of Conservation. Cottages at Cross Creek and Summit stations were auctioned off and transported to new locations. A signal box became a shop in Featherston (best icecreams in town), until a recent fire ended that chapter. The track quickly returned to nature. Siberia embankment became saturated through lack of maintenance to its drainage system and, in the course of one stormy night in 1967, slipped into the valley below.

Heritage and history weren’t high priorities in the forward-looking 1960s and most people were probably happy to see the end of a transport system that was slow, antiquated and dirty – imagine the smoke from multiple steam engines in narrow tunnels! But attitudes change with time.

Fell engine H199, the last of its kind, was rescued from the Featherston children’s playground in 1981. Over the next eight years it was restored to its former glory by a dedicated team of volunteers and housed in a purpose-built museum that has won awards and attracted visitors from all over the world. Department of Conservation staff cleared the old track of gorse and scrub and opened it to the public on 1st November 1987.

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Where the Siberia embankment once stood. Opening day 1987.

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The blocked drainage tower is on the right. This is the roughest part of an otherwise easy track.

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Approaching Summit station after negotiating the long, dark Summit tunnel.

The track was originally intended for walkers but, with the invention of mountain bikes, has since become part of the much longer Remutaka Cycle Trail.

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Bring a torch.

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Information panels have been installed at various points of interest. This was the longest straight on the contour-hugging route, all 274 metres of it!

Cross Creek now (March 2018).

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This modern shelter is the only standing structure in what was a bustling, noisy railway settlement for 77 years.

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 Inspection pits from the engine shed remain. Cast iron brake blocks on engines and brake vans were changed here after every round trip.

Natural vegetation has returned to the hills after years of fires started by sparks from the steam engines (see top photo).

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It seems incredible that, back in 1870, a surveyor hacked his way through this landscape and decided it would be a good place to build a railway.

Cross Creek and the Incline.

Cross Creek, about forty miles north-east of Wellington, is on the railway line at the foot of the Rimutaka incline. The settlement consists of a railway station and enginesheds, and a number of railway employees’ cottages, with a schoolhouse and master’s residence. It is seven miles south of Featherston, where the settlers get their stores, etc.

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Cross Creek station yard, [1910s] National Library of New Zealand. Reference Number: APG-0147-1/2-G.
View of Cross Creek station yard, with the end of the Rimutaka Incline visible at the extreme right. Railway houses are seen on the left of the railway track; a locomotive, and items of rolling stock. Taken in the 1910s by A P Godber.

The place is so situated amongst the hills that in winter it gets only about an hour’s sunshine in the day. The hills around, once heavily wooded, now present a partially cleared appearance. Cross Creek runs through the settlement into Lake Wairarapa.

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Cross Creek railway yards – Photograph taken by Albert Winzenberg, Between 1897-1899. National Library of New Zealand. Reference Number: PAColl-4307-001

The Rimutaka incline, which is the steepest piece of railway line in New Zealand, extends from Cross Creek railway station to the Summit, a distance of nearly three miles. The grade is one in fifteen, and the line winds round the hills to the Summit, sometimes with rather dangerous curves, till it rises from 273 feet above sea level at Cross Creek to 1144 feet at the Summit. The railway here is constructed on what is known as the Fell system, with an additional central rail.

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A mixed train with four engines on the Incline. Te Papa collection.

When a train reaches Cross Creek from the north, the ordinary engine is detached, and a Fell engine for every eight loaded waggons and van, or every four carriages and two vans, is attached. These engines can each draw a load of sixty-five tons up the incline. An incline van with special brakes is also hitched on. The train then proceeds up the incline at the rate of five miles an hour….. The centre rail is gripped on each side by wheels revolving horizontally underneath the engine. There are two pairs of these wheels on each engine, pressing in towards each other.

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This Fell engine was built by the Avonside Engine Co. Ltd. at Bristol, England in 1875. Two horizontal wheels can be seen between the rail and the piston rods. These gripped the centre rail at a pressure of 3 tons per square inch. The Fell was, in effect, two engines in one frame and made a distinctive sound – a double chuff.

When descending, the centre rail is gripped between cast iron blocks fitted under the engine [and brake vans] so as to press towards each other. The friction is so great that, after taking a heavy train down, these blocks are so worn that they have to be replaced. A workshop with a stock of these blocks is therefore part of the plant at Cross Creek, and fitters are kept to replace the blocks as required.

The ascent is made in forty minutes with a passenger train, and the descent in twenty minutes. In two places where the train crosses deep gullies, the line is protected by high wooden fences to break the force of the gusts of wind that at one time, before this means of protection was devised, blew part of a train over the embankment. [September 1880. Three children killed, another died of injuries later].

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Windbreak fences at Siberia embankment. Photo: Burton Brothers. Te Papa collection.

The line is now, however, well secured against such possibilities. The only inconvenience suffered by passengers is the rather awkward dip of the carriages, and the delay in getting over this three miles of country. The Fell system was first tried on the Mount Cenis line in Europe, but is not used elsewhere in the world, as far as is known, except on the Rimutaka incline.

Text: Extracts from the New Zealand Cyclopedia 1897.
Note: the spelling of ‘Rimutaka’, which has no meaning in the Maori language, was officially changed last year to ‘Remutaka’, which means ‘sitting down to rest’.

The Incline route closed in 1955 after modern engineering technology drove an 8.8km tunnel through the mountains. Fell engine H199, which supported track gangs laying the line in 1878, was there again to help them rip it up 77 years later. Then it was donated to the people of Featherston where it sat in a children’s playground for the next 20 years, slowly rusting away. The other five engines were scrapped.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.

To be continued.

Riding the rails

This piece of history rolled through the region today so I thought I might share a few impressions. It’s a Ja locomotive built for New Zealand railways in 1956.

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Ja_cross

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And, just for good measure, here’s one I prepared earlier – in better weather (3rd Dec.). A Da Diesel loco from 1957.

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Both locomotives are maintained and operated by the Steam Incorporated railway society north of Wellington, New Zealand. Their excursions are almost always booked out.

Buy British

In the last thirty years the British motor industry has grown rapidly and mass-production of moderately priced cars has increased the standard of living of millions of citizens. English cars, unsurpassed for their quality and reliability, are in demand throughout the world and ably demonstrate our national aptitude in engineering skill. These photographs were taken of work in famous factories at Cowley and Birmingham.
‘England Today in Pictures’, Odhams Press Ltd, 1947.

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Austin 10 family saloons at the Birmingham factory. 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a blistering 1 minute 55 sec!

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A production line for the Morris 8E – made by humans, not robots – at Cowley, Oxford.

We might have a more demanding definition of “quality and reliability” today, so those words should be understood in their historical context, not to mention their propaganda value for a country struggling to recover after WWII. Petrol (gas) was still rationed in 1947 and a large proportion of new car production was exported to boost the economy. A new car was actually out of reach for “millions of citizens”. Consequently, second hand pre-war vehicles held their value well into the 1950s.