The exhilaration was palpable on 31 July 1865 as the people of Queensland prepared to witness their first passenger train journey. The colony achieved separation from New South Wales only six years earlier, and yet here they were incredibly unveiling the first government-owned railway in the world. It was only a 20 mile line from Ipswich to Bigges Camp in the Lockyer Valley, but the occasion was colossal.
John Bedford was the foreman at the railway workshop in Ipswich who got the four A10 class engines ready. John Smith was the driver of train #1 Lady Bowen named in honour of the Queensland Governor’s wife. The fireman on the train #4 Pioneer, the first train that day, was Steve Welch.
Thousands excitedly cheered as the trains, adorned with palm fronds in some sort of bestowal of royalty celebration, made the historic excursion and eased into Bigges Camp, enveloped by smoke, ash, and steam.
Yesterday was the 150th anniversary re-enactment of that journey, and all of the childlike exhilaration and delight of steam travel was there. Onlookers again applauded as they crowded in wonder at every crossing, the crew tooted the whistle and waved just as excitedly as the spectators, and the train celebrated with palms once more. Kangaroos even raced alongside in an apparent re-enactment of seeing steam power for the first time.
Descendants of Bedford, Smith, and Welch, were guests of honour. They loved every click, clack, and whistle, of the 90 minute journey. I was aboard with my uncle Warren who is the great-grandson of fireman Welch. Also getting a highly sort-after seat was former Australian deputy prime minister and train enthusiast Tim Fisher. There was also the usual array of politicians, just as there had been 150 years ago.
We disembarked at Grandchester, the modern name for Bigges Camp, and posed for photographs. I snapped Warren standing on the platform next to our gleaming locomotive, just as his great-grandfather had in 1865. A commemorative plaque was unveiled and birthday cake cut.
At the end of the day, the descendants gave three cheers to Queensland Rail for their hospitality, email addresses were exchanged, and more pictures taken. The magic of steam had successfully continued a camaraderie crossing 150 years.
Follow these links to see videos of this magical journey, many from the unique perspective of over the driver’s shoulder.