John Whitton was the Chief Engineer of NSW Railways from the late 1850s to 1890 whose major achievements include the Zig Zag viaducts (Lapstone and Lithgow) and the original Hawkesbury River bridge at Brooklyn. His memorial cairn stands in a currently sadly neglected, weed-infested reserve.
The memorial to this pioneer of access to the Blue Mountains is next to a car park accessible via Mitchells Pass Road from Glenbrook or the old highway from Emu Plains. The area has been a popular locality for exercise and fresh air for household members during the recent crisis, especially for those making the few hundred metre pilgrimage to the Knapsack Viaduct, one of the most beautiful of Whitton’s sandstone structures. It is beside the bicycle route from the new foot/cycle bridge across the Nepean to the Glenbrook Tunnel area.
Blue Mountains Council has put huge effort, with significant input from the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, into planning the future of Knapsack Park which virtually adjoins the John Whitton Memorial Place.
John Whitton Memorial Place is part of the so-called Western Sydney Parkland City. It is time it was festooned in layers of native vegetation as a tribute to the beautiful region that Whitton opened to the eyes of the world. It certainly deserves better than the layers of weeds, layers of graffiti and layers of State Government bureaucracy that presently bedevil it.
We came to live at Glenbrook, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, towards the end of 1973, just before the birth of our first daughter. Our home was in Glenbrook Road which joined Mitchell’s Pass. A pleasant walk down the Pass brought us to Lennox Bridge, the old convict-built, sandstone structure named after its builder David Lennox.
Last March, while travelling to Melbourne from Warracknabeal, I came to Bung Bong. This area, which sounds like it was named after some defective piece of drug apparatus, is on the Pyrenees Highway. I stopped where the highway crosses the Bet Bet Creek. Next to the crossing are the ruins of the old Bung Bong road bridge, also known as the Glenmona Bridge.
Built in 1871, this bridge replaced its wooden predecessor which was washed away by extreme flood waters the previous year. The three span bridge is made of bluestone piers and abutments which support three, wrought iron, lattice trusses. Rather than importing them from England, these forty six and a half metre long trusses were the first of a series to be used for main road bridges in rural Victoria. They were manufactured in Ballarat and are considered to be”significant artefacts in the history of manufacturing in Victoria”.
The crossing over which the bridge spans was a very important transport corridor during the nineteenth century. Pastoral enterprises and gold discoveries induced people to venture into the central and western areas of the state.
Stopping on seeing this old, abandoned bridge from the highway, I must admit I had a bit of a job getting anywhere near it. No sign was evident to provide the passer-by with information about the bridge. If this was such a significant reminder of our past, as I was later to discover, no effort had been made to facilitate a closer scrutiny. No path was discernible and a preponderance of natural undergrowth hampered my endeavours.
When finally at the bridge, I saw that the main deck that would have rested on the bridge’s trusses was gone. I later read that this deck, made of wooden planking, was destroyed long ago by fire. The three trusses however were still clearly visible. Unfortunately this also meant that they were now at the mercy of the weather.
I climbed under the bridge and photographed the piers that towered about ten metres above me. I found it useful to approach the bridge from both sides of the crossing to appreciate fully the effort and craftsmanship that went into its making.
After leaving the bridge I immediately left the Pyrenees Highway and travelled along the Talbot-Avoca Road. It was not long before some more built features in the landscape caught my attention. These however were not quite as obvious as the bridge had been. I discovered three bluestone culverts of varying dimensions along the road, the largest one at a place called Amherst, just before Talbot. Only the first of these culverts still had rusted, metal clasps protruding from the parapets. I imagine these clasps would have secured wooden, safety posts along which railings would have run. I guess over the years the others had been pilfered for scrap metal.
The workmanship that went into the design and construction of these culverts was impressive. The dressed bordering of the keystones, the delicate curvature of one of the parapets and the neat, lined patterns formed by the sparing use of mortar between the bluestone, all added to their visual impact. They seemed a sympathetic complement to the undulating, picturesque, rural bushland setting. As I climbed around these fascinating, carefully fashioned constructions from the past, appreciating their value and significance, I was also aware of the overgrown state of the immediate vegetation.
Looking after such significant sites appears no longer to be of a high priority. I was reminded of the sandstone block culverts that run under the historic Mitchell’s Pass on the lower Blue Mountains in New South Wales, very close to where I live. Constructed by convicts nearly one hundred and eighty years ago, a descent through overgrown weeds and shrubs is now the only way you can find and appreciate them.
These thoughts from the Victorian countryside returned to me last week when walking above a very deep, sandstone cutting which leds to the eastern portal of the now disused Lapstone Tunnel. Use of the tunnel began at the end of 1892. This single rail tunnel was part of the first attempt to deviate from the Lapstone Zigzag Railway. The zigzag had been built in the 1860s by John Whitton and opened in 1867. Whitton’s limited budget did not allow for the construction of a tunnel. The zigzag was therefore his solution to the dilemma of getting a railway line successfully onto the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, New South Wales. The zigzag railway was used for twenty five years.
Access to the eastern portal is not signposted. It is overgrown, dangerous in a number of places but very exciting and rewarding to visit. Like the old Bung Bong Bridge and the culverts I accidentally came across in Victoria, the portal is disappearing into the undergrowth. The top curvature of the tunnel is only just visible as are the sandstone blocks that surround the upper section of the portal.
The ridge line opposite to where I walked was the vantage point from which the well-known Australian artist Arthur Streeton captured the tunnel’s construction. From sketches and water colourings he made at this site in 1891 while residing at Glenbrook, Streeton created his famous oil painting Fire’s On. It now hangs in the Art Gallery of Sydney.
He likened the eastern portal to “a great dragon’s mouth”. He was fascinated by the depth of the sandstone cutting which leads to the tunnel and the way not only the workers at the base of the cutting but also the gum trees along the tops were so diminished in size. These days the cutting’s depth, while apparent, is mostly hidden by trees and undergrowth.
Unfortunately many people do not have the opportunity to see some of these places of significance and it is usually because they are unaware of their existence. As these sites continue to be hidden by the natural growth around them and damaged by weather as well as vandalism, the chances to gain information about them and suitable access to appreciate them are further diminished.
I know it all comes down to money and many of our places of historical significance do not generate the dollar. This possibly explains why many tourist information centres do not consider the provision of information about these historic sites a high priority, unless of course they can in some way provide a financial return. The upkeep of such sites through their conservation, restoration and maintenance puts considerable demands on the public purse strings. This does not take into account the other problems relating to public safety and liability when visiting such sites. It is a real problem because as Australians we should be aware of our country’s rich history. What better way to achieve this than to visit the areas of significance and hopefully appreciate that history more readily.