Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000

Sample of the original rail line from Goolwa to Port Elliot Railway

The rail sample from the Goolwa to Port Elliot section, opened in May 1854, is a first in Australia for several reasons: first laid with iron rails; first Government funded railway; first to use the 5’3’’ gauge in South Australia. The bugle is unique in that it belonged to the tram driver, as the line only used animal power, so there was no steam whistle.

Cross section of railway line sample
Cross section of railway line sample

South Australia’s first railway line between Goolwa and Port Elliot opened on May 18 1854, the first to be laid with iron rails in Australia. It was built for the purpose of moving produce transported down the Murray River to Goolwa, and then to Port Elliot for shipment overseas.

After determining the need for such a railway in the years 1848 onwards, construction for the railway commenced in 1851, with jetties, a stone breakwater and a planned seven miles (11km) of interconnecting railway track. The line was originally conceived for working by steam locomotion, but opened under animal power for economy and design reasons.

The original rails were 40lb/yard section, forged wrought iron, laid at 5 foot 3 inch gauge, on sleepers at 2 foot centres. This broad gauge was in line with recommendations from the British Gauge Commission and the agreement with the colonies of NSW and Victoria. In December 1853 with six miles of work completed and work still in progress on the Port Elliot cutting, the line was placed into service. Bullock drays were used to bridge the gap to Port Elliott. The line was completed in May 18, 1854 though it was never officially opened.

By the time it was converted to steam locomotion in 1884, the service had a maximum (in 1879) of 13 passenger cars and 104 goods trucks. In total during this pioneering era from 1853 to 1884, the line handled 253,156 tons of freight and 639,140 passengers. It was constructed and operated as a Government undertaking, thus considered to be the first Government railway in the British colonies.

Later extensions were built to Victor Harbor and Strathalbyn after the original rails were replaced. Since commercial operations ceased in April 1984, the Goolwa to Victor Harbour section has been run as a tourist railway called The Cockle Train. This name derived from the practice of early residents would take the horse drawn train to Goolwa to collect cockles, to be used for bait, from the sandy beaches near the Murray Mouth.

Rail line RGSSA Relic 65, Bugle RGSSA Relic 10.

The rail sample was donated to the Society by CC Deland in 1945. CC Deland, 1876-1961, was for many years Honorary Librarian for the RGS of Australia (SA Branch), had a long interest in motor engines, and the establishment of an indigenous motor car manufacturer in Australia. So, he is likely to have been interested in railway lines too!

According to its hand-written label, “The bugle belonged to Mr Eli Hillman from 29th March 1873. Mr Hillman was the driver of a horse drawn tram.” If the date is correct, this tram was right at the end of the line’s life using animal power at the end in 1884.

According to the Alexandrina Library Newsletter History Room, August 2019, the bugle was for many years, on loan to the Goolwa Museum, was stolen and disappeared until 2019, when Bronwyn Lewis (previous RGSSSA Council member) found it and returned it the RGSSA. It was presumably used as a warning for people - and maybe kangaroos - to get off the track.