The history of the Richmond Vale Railway (RVR) began when John Eales completed construction, in 1857, of a railway to carry coal from a mine in Minmi to a coal-loading wharf at Hexham.
James and Alexander Brown (J&A Brown) had assisted in the development of Eales' mine at Minmi, and with the knowledge gained of the coal seam found there, opened a mine of their own nearby. Unfortunately for the Brown brothers, transporting of coal to Hexham required the use of John Eales' railway, which always gave much higher priority to his own coal traffic.
This situation was never satisfactory to the Browns, but a stroke of good luck (for J&A Brown) happened when John Eales' pit at Minmi flooded. This meant that J&A Brown could purchase the Minmi operation (including railway) from John Eales for a cheap price. This was the first section of what was to become the Richmond Vale Railway.
In 1891 a shaft was sunk on the "Richmond Vale" site. It managed to reach the coal seam, but further work was abandoned due to the poor state of the coal market. Things had improved by 1896, and John "the Baron" Brown (son of Alexander Brown) purchased the site and, by 1908, had started work on the mine. The Colliery was renamed "Richmond Main" in 1911 and was to become the showpiece of the J&A Brown empire.
The early history of Richmond Main's neighbour, "Pelaw Main" was similar in that early non-productive workings (by Henry Trenchard) were taken over by J&A Brown and expanded on rapidly. The first tunnels were sunk in 1891 and named the Stanford Greta Colliery. It wasn't until J&A Brown purchased "No 2 Tunnel" in 1900 that work began to make the pit profitable and in 1901 the Colliery was renamed "Pelaw Main".
At this time transportation of coal from Pelaw Main was via an extension to the East Greta Coal Mining Co. railway (later South Maitland Railways). This section was called the Stanford Railway and the line originally terminated at the Stanford Merthyr Colliery, but was extended shortly after completion to Pelaw Main for J&A Brown to use.
This situation lasted a few years, but as the Browns always wanted to be as self sufficient as possible, they began construction of a railway that would join the Richmond Main and Pelaw Main collieries to their Minmi - Hexham line.
J&A Brown Ltd had been granted permission in 1900 to construct the railway between their Minmi-Hexham railway and the new Richmond Main lease. This did not include permission to link Pelaw Main to Hexham, but this did not deter them and they actually completed the branch to Pelaw Main before they completed work to the Richmond Main site!
The Hexham to Pelaw Main link was completed in 1905, and the Richmond Main section finished in 1906, and so the Richmond Vale Railway was born.
John Brown died in 1930, but the railway lived on, and over the decades was even used to transport coal from mines that were usually serviced by the South Maitland Railway. This happened in times of flood on a number of occasions.
Early engines used on the Minmi-Hexham line included a couple of early Kitson 0-6-0 engines (No. 4 is stored just in front of The Major" at Thirlmere) and 3 other small locomotives made up the early fleet.
Other early locomotives include 4 Mersey Tanks, from the Mersey railway in England. These were never very popular, and were not in service for long. One of them No. 5 "The Major" survives, and is stored at Thirlmere "Rail Transport Museum", in very poor condition.
The Brown's always liked the smaller Kitson engines, and so it was Kitson that was employed to deliver three 2-8-2T engines in 1908. These engines were named "Pelaw Main", "Richmond Main" and "Hexham" and they were considered very good performers.
As coal traffic increased from Richmond Main and Pelaw Main, more engines were required and after WWI, 13 ex - UK ROD (Railway operating Department) locomotives that were surplice to the U.K. army's needs were purchased for the RVR.
The three Kitson 2-8-2T engines were restricted to Hexham-Pelaw Main operation due to maneuverability problems at Richmond Main and so the RODs really took over the majority of haulage work on the system up until the early seventies.
The late sixties and early seventies saw the removal from service of the Kitson's and ROD's, which left the South Maitland Railways' 10 Class loco's (on loan from their home system) to take over completely.
The sixties saw the closure of Pelaw Main (1961) and Richmond Main (1967), and so the railway was closed beyond Stockrington. The part remaining was the 15Km section across the Hexham swamp between Stockrington Colliery and Hexham. Even into the late 1980's the scenes on this last section of the railway looked like they could have come from anytime in it's 130-year history. Old wooden and steel framed non-air hoppers were still being used (some dating from the end of the 19th century) and were hauled by locomotives built before the 1930's.
The RVR became the last commercial steam railway in Australia when the sister "South Maitland Railways" converted to the use of government diesels in 1982.
Road haulage of coal commenced in parallel with the railway in 1986, and at times the only use the railway got was during the night, as the road trucks were not permitted to operate after hours.
Finally it was announced that on September 22, 1987, the final run across the swamp was scheduled in order to clear some empty hoppers, and that the railway would close.
SMR No. 25 was used, and as far as Coal and Allied was concerned, that was the end of the Richmond Vale Railway.
On September 24 it was clear however, that the employees had other ideas. They had "borrowed" SMR 25 and steamed, light-engine, across the swamp to Stockrington where they used vehicles to block road access to the pit. A protest camp was set up and petition signatures were sought from people in the area. No. 25 was kept in steam for the entire duration of the protest. The protest lasted three weeks, with great local support, but Coal and Allied did not give in and the railway remained closed. The whole event was well documented by NBN television (See their documentary "The Richmond Vale Railway").
Stockrington colliery did not last long after the railway's closure and the mine closed in June 1988. The four 10 class locomotives that had been stabled at Hexham during these last years were finally donated to the Richmond Vale Mining Museum and were hauled there (by road) in 1989. They can be seen there today with No 24, 25 and 30 being restored to operation over the years
The lines across the Hexham swamp were never ripped up. They remain in place, point switches and all, and in some cases (particularly towards the Stockrington end) the rails look like they could take the weight of a big ROD even now, with almost new-looking ballast and sleepers in good condition.
The construction of the Richmond Vale Railway required that three tunnels and two large bridges be built. The tunnels are named 1 , 2 , 3 counting from the Hexham end. The longest (number "2") is almost 400 Meters in length and all three are in near perfect condition.
A visit to the Kurri area for anyone interested in rail history should include a quick detour to see at least one of these tunnels. When there has been a period of dry weather, you can walk through all of the tunnels, however if there has been recent rain, it gets very muddy in places and can be almost impossible to walk through without loosing your footwear.
It would be hard not to be impressed with these structures and it is easy to imagine trains being able to use them even now, more then 35 years after this section of the RVR closed. Have a look at the entrance portals and the insides of the tunnels and you will see that barely a brick is out of place (and the tunnels have existed for 100 years now). Also, you can still see the soot from decades of big ROD and Kitson locomotives passing through them!
The other structures that have stood the test of time on this section of the RVR are two large trestle bridges. The longest being the bridge over Wallis creek, about 1 km from the "No 3 Tunnel", on the Richmond Main side.
As the area between the No. 3 tunnel and the Wallis Creek bridge is private property, it is best to walk along the RVR from the Kurri end, following the Richmond Vale Walk, described here to see the bridge. This bridge (called "Avery's bridge" but locally known as the "skeleton bridge") still looks very sturdy, surviving numerous floods and bush fires. Not long ago it was still possible to actually walk across it. It might still be possible even today, but it is definitely not recommended as it is a long way down, and Wallis creek often does not have much water flowing to break your fall!
This bridge is actually the second built across this section of Wallis creek, the first being damaged by floods. Even when the original was damaged, coal traffic continued, however it was decided not to risk the weight of a locomotive so to keep traffic flowing, one engine would push a string of hoppers across the bridge (whilst the engine remained on firm ground), and a second engine (who also stayed off the bridge) would couple up and continue the journey to Hexham.
If you look carefully, this bridge can be seen from the road bridge pair, the "twin bridges", on John Renshaw Drive, by looking upstream along Wallis creek (toward Mt Sugarloaf). The other bridge crosses Surveyors creek, and is between number "3" and number "2" tunnels. This one is not as long as the "Skeleton Bridge" but seems to be in better condition.
A road bridge was built over the Pelaw Main section of the RVR. The bridge links the Pelaw Main township and Kurri Kurri (Near the Empire hotel) and is still in use today, decades after the rail lines under it were ripped up. Hundreds of cars travel over this bridge every day, but it serves no real purpose now - except to remind you that there was once a time when this railway was so busy that not even a level-crossing would suffice.
Right now the vast majority of the original system can be identified and retraced - even the sections that have to some extent been surrounded by the expansion of Kurri Kurri. For instance, the site of Stanford Colliery (with a few concrete building foundations) can still be found where the Stanford Merthyr "Trotting Track" is today, and the original rail link between the old "Stanford Railway" and Pelaw Main can be retraced. Coal and ash were often used as cheap ballast on the RVR and any "ash track" in the area is definitely an old rail line.
Have a look at the Richmond Vale Walk for more information on what there is to see along the various sections of this once important system, but if you want to actually ride on the railway then you are in luck!
Go to the Richmond Main Mining Museum and take a ride behind a 10 class to Pelaw Main and back. A small (3.5 Km) section of line between Richmond Main and Pelaw Main has been re-layed (the old passenger line) by the volunteers at the Museum, and steam rides run the first three Sundays of the month.
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