The Railway Line That Never Was

by David Pockett  

Well over 100 years ago, the local Toolangi and Castella community was pressuring hard for a railway, primarily to service the timber industry.

Local agitation began in 1890, following which the Yea River (Railway/Tramway) League was formed, with Mr A.E. Walkeden of Toolangi appointed Managing Director of the group and instructed to meet with the Healesville Shire Council[i]. Reasons proposed for the railway included there being ‘400,000 acres of timber in the district’[ii] which would have various uses including for palings[iii] and mine timbers, and also sustain ‘20 mills’[iv]. Once cleared, ‘the rich soil abounding throughout the district’[v] could also be put to use for farming[vi]. It was, though, very clear from the outset that the lack of population in the area would be a major stumbling block.

The proposed route was from Yarra Glen via Dixons Creek, then up the foothills to Mr de Castella’s selection near the Yea River Gap (in current-day Castella), with subsequent east and west extensions to Toolangi and Kinglake[vii]. The initial leg from Yarra Glen to de Castella’s selection was a distance of 11 miles, seventeen chains[viii].

Over nearly three decades, various papers, including the Healesville Guardian, the Melbourne Age and the Argus, all reported the progress. There were also a range of public meetings held, including at the Toolangi House Hotel and the Toolangi School, all of which it was reported, were very well attended[ix]. Interest was clearly strong. Local MPs also worked in support of the railway, including Mr Knox MLC and Messrs McKenzie and Cameron MLAs.[x]

On 14 December 1898 a meeting was held with the Minister for Railways[xi]. The meeting was based on a deputation from the shires of both Yea and Eltham, but interestingly not from the Shire of Healesville. Speakers who presented to the Minister included Messrs J. Quinlan (President of Yea Shire), P. de Castella, H. Rintell and G. Knott[xii]. The Age reported that the Minister was prepared to submit the matter to the Railways Standing Committee for consideration, and that it would almost certainly have to be on the narrow-gauge system[xiii].

In 1898, the Royal Commission on Forests and Timber visited Toolangi on invitation from the Yea River Railway League. Locals named as having participated had the surnames Beach, Christopherson, Bjorksten, Downie, Rose and Smedley[xiv].

By September 1899 a costing for the construction of the railway had been prepared by the department but was too high and the Minister asked for a reduced estimate.[xv] In October 1899 a further deputation to the Minister for Railways was made, attempting to leverage the fact that the residents of King Parrot Creek had recently been advised they would not be getting a railway from Whittlesea[xvi] as it was ‘impractical’[xvii].

By early 1900 the line appeared close to fruition, as the local paper believed ‘a little pushing was only needed to have this promised line brought before the House on its next sitting’[xviii]. But by 1906 the situation had turned and the League was by then representing for a line to Toolangi from Chum Creek, with an ultimate extension to the Acheron[xix].

The Chum Creek idea did not seem to last long, as by 1908, the League was asking residents in Glenburn and Glenmore to provide their support for the original route ‘from Yarra Glen towards Yea’[xx]. A large meeting was held in the woolshed at ‘Glenmore’ (a large pastoral property north of Glenburn) on 14 April 1908, for the purpose of advocating for the line ‘via Toolangi’[xxi]. The League at this stage had £30 in a bank account at the Commercial Bank Yea, which it was suggested could be used jointly to further efforts to have the line built[xxii]. Subsequently, after another meeting at the Yea Shire Hall, the Yea/Glenburn effort and the Toolangi League were merged, with Messers A. Cameron (Toolangi) and D. McLeish (Murrindindi) appointed joint secretaries[xxiii].

Interest still remained high in the proposed Yarra Glen to Yea railway by 1909, and yet another delegation was sent to the Minister for Railways, consisting of Messrs A. Cameron, J. Smedley, F. Beach, J. Quinlan (Yea) and A. Mair (Melbourne)[xxiv]. By this time the Australian Hardwood Timber Company had also expended the substantial sum of £5,000 on a mill in Toolangi[xxv], securing rights over forests containing an estimated million super feet of timber, which it had also been calculated, would ‘represent 30 trucks daily for 40 years’[xxvi].

On 28 April 1910, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways took evidence at Toolangi House Hotel. Interestingly, aside from the timber resources, mention was also made at this time of potential for the district as a ‘holiday resort’[xxvii]. Messrs W. G. Gray, J. W. Lawrey and Bourchier also spoke about ‘the number of nursery trees grown in the district’ and the need for a freight service[xxviii].

The locals got even more excited in early 1911 when three railways’ officials inspected the mill sites and timber resources of the Toolangi area, and then all of the land through to Flowerdale[xxix], but by August of the same year, the Standing Committee on Railways reported to the Legislative Assembly that the line was not financially viable, either as narrow or broad gauge[xxx]. Construction cost of the line in broad gauge was estimated at £96,025 with the narrow gauge estimated at £56,740[xxxi]. Annual costs of a broad-gauge line were estimated at £6,079 with revenue of only £3,796 per year, whereas narrow gauge would have an annual cost of £4,925 and revenue of £3,529[xxxii]. These estimates included allowance for 10,000 passengers in the first year as purely tourist traffic[xxxiii]. The committee also felt that with traffic of 14,000 tons per year in timber, the forest would be cut out and the revenue would fall even further in less than 10 years[xxxiv]. In addition, it only saw ‘slight’ prospects for increased cultivation in the district[xxxv].

Despite this knockback, within a year, things had changed yet again as the government introduced The Railways Development Act by way of a stimulus, and thus reignited the potential for a railway to Toolangi and Castella. Correspondent ‘HJL’ also wrote to the local press in October 1912 encouraging the Toolangi Railway League to reform and try again[xxxvi].

One local Castella resident, A. Christopherson, who had previously given evidence to the 1898 Royal Commission on Forests and Timber in support of the earlier attempts, was again prominent in the new efforts, both by writing to the local papers and subsequently becoming the new chair of the reformed Toolangi-Yea Railway League. Following a meeting attended by some 50 to 60 people in mid-1913, the League decided to change horses once again and unanimously passed a motion that ‘This league work for the extension of the Hurst Bridge line to Kinglake, Toolangi and the Yea River valley’ and also, that a petition of ratepayers be sent to the Eltham Shire Council asking for its support[xxxvii]. Yet another deputation followed on 1 July 1913 to the Minister for Railways. It was supported once more by F. H. Cameron MLA[xxxviii].

No press reports have been found for the years of World War One. The next report is in the Heidelberg News on 6 July 1918, by which time the Kinglake Railway League was agitating for its own extension of the line from Hurstbridge and was also sending its own deputation to the Minister for Railways.

Not deterred, efforts in Toolangi continued. Another delegation was sent to the Minister for Railways on 19 November 1919, but once again, reverting to the original proposal for the Yarra Glen to Yea railway to be built[xxxix]. The deputation also alleged that the railway had been ‘promised to the residents by a former Minister 30 years ago’[xl].

‘Splendid specimens of oats, barley, rye and potatoes grown in the district’ were produced to the Minister, who was reminded that over 100,000 super feet of timber was being cut out of the Toolangi forest district every week. A petition with 371 signatures was also presented, but the Minister still sounded unconvinced and reminded the deputation about the high costs involved, and also, that a large number of other railways were currently or shortly to be built. He undertook to include the proposal in a list to be submitted to Cabinet[xli], but once more nothing happened for another 3.5 years.

The Railway Standing Committee came yet again to take evidence at Toolangi House Hotel on 7 March 1923, and at various other locations in the district including Hurstbridge, Kinglake and Whittlesea[xlii]. The Argus reported that with the exception of Councillors Hodges and Varcoe, who both advocated construction of a line along the Chum Valley from Healesville to Toolangi, all who spoke to the Standing Committee advocated construction of the line from Yarra Glen, with a terminus near the Castella School. Construction costs were by this stage estimated at £24,000 per mile[xliii].

The Standing Committee, however, was also being asked about yet another proposal, that being to run the line as an extension from Eltham via Christmas Hills and eventually to Kinglake, with a possible ‘spur line’ to Toolangi/Castella. People of Christmas Hills were agitating for a line, even though Yarra Glen was not far away[xliv]. This proposed line was also to be built in broad gauge, not narrow gauge[xlv]. Mention was made of the ‘indicated difficulties’ of the proposed route due to the topography, and it was even suggested that the line could be electrified to overcome those problems[xlvi]. Tourism potential was mentioned, described as ‘equal’ to England, as was recorded mention for the first time, that ‘working people had motor cars now’[xlvii] and there was also ‘competition of char-a-banc services’[xlviii]. It is understood that the committee report provided a conditional recommendation for a line from Hurstbridge to Mittons Bridge (only)[xlix] but once more, the matter did not go any further.

The end finally came in October 1926 when the Railways Standing Committee eventually rejected the proposal to construct a line from Hurstbridge to Mittons Bridge. With no other options under consideration and the potential link line from Hurstbridge refused, this in turn ended all hope that the line would ever potentially be extended to Toolangi and/or Castella.

The final report raised a number of reasons for rejecting the entire Hurstbridge to Mittons Bridge proposal. These included the lack of potential population in Kinglake itself (as the end destination if the line was further extended), the small area of available Crown Land which could be used for Closer Settlement purposes in the Kinglake area, the poor agricultural potential of the land in Mittons Bridge/Strathewen districts, along with the high costs of construction just for that section alone – £84,000 for steam traction and £140,300 for electric[l].

Unfortunately, and after nearly three decades of effort, the Toolangi/Castella district found itself on the distant end of the discussion and the much-sought railway line was never built.

Today, we can only wonder what might have been, including to have had a station at Castella, and possibly also one in Toolangi itself near the school, along with the haunting echo of train whistles bouncing around the mountains and valleys.



[i] R. J. Pockett, ‘The Yea River Railway League’, 2019

[ii] Healesville Guardian, 12 May 1899

[iii] Healesville Guardian, 8 October 1897

[iv] Yea Chronicle, 4 June 1908

[v] Healesville Guardian, 19 November 1897

[vi] Healesville Guardian, 12 May 1899

[vii] Healesville Guardian, 12 May 1899

[viii] Unidentified newspaper article November 1897 from ‘Trove’

[ix] The Argus, 1898

[x] Healesville Guardian, 12 May 1899

[xi] The Age, 15 December 1898

[xii] The Age, 15 December 1898

[xiii] The Age, 15 December 1898

[xiv] Healesville Guardian, undated but 1898

[xv] Healesville Guardian, 29 September 1899

[xvi] Yea Chronicle, 19 October 1899

[xvii] Times, 14 October 1899

[xviii] Healesville Guardian, 23 February 1900

[xix] The Age, 23 January 1906

[xx] Yea Chronicle, 5 March 1908

[xxi] Yea Chronicle, 16 April 1908

[xxii] Yea Chronicle, 16 April 1908

[xxiii] The Age, 2 June 1908

[xxiv] Yea Chronicle, 21 October 1909

[xxv] Timber Mountain: A Sawmilling History of the Murrindindi Forest, 1885-1950, N. Houghton, Light Railway Research Society of Australia, 1986

[xxvi] Healesville Guardian, 22 October 1909

[xxvii] Observer, 13 May 1910

[xxviii] Observer, 13 May 1910

[xxix] Yea Chronicle, 9 February 1911

[xxx] The Age, 30 August 1911

[xxxi] The Argus, 30 August 1911

[xxxii] The Age, 30 August 1911

[xxxiii] The Argus, 30 August 1911

[xxxiv] The Argus, 30 August 1911

[xxxv] The Argus, 30 August 1911

[xxxvi] Yea Chronicle, 16 October 1912

[xxxvii] Healesville Guardian, 6 June 1913

[xxxviii] The Argus, 2 July 1913

[xxxix] Kilmore Free Press, 27 November 1919

[xl] Kilmore Free Press, 27 November 1919

[xli] Kilmore Free Press, 27 November 1919

[xlii] The Advertiser, 12 March 1923

[xliii] The Argus, 10 March 1923

[xliv] The Argus, 17 March 1923

[xlv] The Argus, 17 March 1923

[xlvi] The Age, 17 March 1923

[xlvii] The Age, 17 March 1923

[xlviii] The Argus, 17 March 1923

[xlix] The Age, 6 October 1926

[l] The Age, 6 October 1926

Steve Meacher Muddy Creek East 1864 veg notes