Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 7 (December 15, 1926)

Early Sleeper-Getting

page 20

Early Sleeper-Getting

I have always had a deeply rooted affection for railway trains, dating from the days when, as a very small child in the south of England, I used to watch the gaily painted carriages—the red, green and yellow, indicating the different classes—flash past glinting in the sunlight. And the engines refulgent in their brass bands and burnished steel were in my eyes things of beauty as completely beggaring description as the water snakes seen by the Ancient Mariner. When, still as a child, I came to this country I really believe that what I most missed was the trains, for much as I loved horses, the coach and five we used to journey to town in seemed a poor substitute for the glorious string of Aladdin's Palaces that had carried us in the Old Land.

So it was not so greatly to be wondered at when the first railway was opened in the north, I, a child of eight or nine, walked in company with sundry other children eight miles each way to see a train again—with the others it was to see their first. But I shall never forget the disillusion of the memories of my youth when a sober looking row of carriages drew into the station. Where was all their glory gone? To be sure the engine made up for it a little. She was dark green, with a big brass dome and her name was painted in large white letters “Lady of the Lake.” I never forgot that name, for when I told my father in the evening he got down a book I soon learned to know and love, and read me the stirring description of the combat between James Fitz James and Rhoderic Dhu.

But to get on with my story. What I wish to tell about is the winning of the first railway sleepers in New Zealand—or perhaps I had better say the first puriri sleepers, for I am not quite sure which year of the sixties saw the Christchurch-Lyttelton line constructed. But this I do know that the Waikato War had scarcely come to a close in 1864 than the authorities began to busy themselves with a project to connect the Waitemata and the Manukau by a railway line from Auckland to Onehunga. It came to pass that puriri sleepers, for which Franklin was soon to become famous, and to the sale of which many of the early pioneers owed their first real start in life, were for the first time hewn.

Behind our land there stretched for miles a solid mass of bush in which puriri was the principal timber. Just outside our boundary fence on the north lay a large block of brown land and through this in a half circle ran a narrow cart road leading to one of the long southern arms of the Manukau Harbour. My father and I explored this track at an early stage of our residence, and often visited it afterwards, for it made a beautiful walk, the scars of the timber-getting of ten years before having been healed over by the gracious after-growth. For two or three chains on either side of the track were the stumps and heads of great puriri trees, and here and there a few sleepers, probably rejects, were lying. They were 9 feet long—the railway was to have had a 5 ft. 6 in. gauge—about ten inches wide and five thick, dressed roughly on the two flat sides, but untouched on the edges. Only the finest and straightest of the trees had been used, and so clear in the grain were they that the sleepers had in many cases split out as true almost as if they had been sawn. So durable are they that I know where two of them are still, after seventy-one years, doing duty as straining posts.

Logging Scene, Manunui (Main Trunk Line)

Logging Scene, Manunui (Main Trunk Line)

page 21

Bit by bit, as I grew older, I heard the story. A contract for the supply of many thousands of sleepers had been let to a well known settler in the district, one who became a friend of my own in his later years. This man had calmly gone on to brown land and annexed what timber he wanted—bush-robbing was a very venial piccadillo in those days. He had a gang of men splitting the sleepers and carted them himself with a long string of bullocks to the salt water, where they were loaded on dumpy little cutters that used to ply upon the Manukau in those days, and taken to Onehunga. This was in 1865 and 1866.

About 1888 the land was sold, and shortly after, walking along the road now grown almost indiscernable from the way the forest growth had invaded it, I came across a whare built of nikau fronds, the home of three or four men engaged in turning the rest of the timber into sleepers—the orthodox modern size this time seven feet long and eight inches by five. It came on to rain at the time and I was invited in to wait till it was over. They made me some very good tea in a billy and some toast which was slightly flavoured by the smoke of the green tawa wood over which it was browned. One of them, an elderly man, had been one of the original sleeper-splitters twenty-four years before. The Maoris in the Waikato had never settled down, and the settlers at any time expected an attack, consequently each man carried a loaded rifle to his work, and at night four dogs were tied up at the four cardinal points of the compass a hundred yards from the camp to give notice of any one's approach. Twice during the progress of the job they had been called to arms—they were all members of the local volunteer corps—but each time it was a false alarm. And, what gave them more concern than living enemies, they imagined the bush to be haunted by the spirit of a young man who had been shot nearby by the natives two years before, for they heard his blood-curdling cries high up above their heads at night. I have heard this eerie and mysterious sound from the upper regions of the air myself now and then, and though I may be wrong, have always set it down to some sea bird tempted inland in the hours of darkness. It always has a most uncanny sound, and I am not surprised that it caused alarm to these lonely dwellers in the forest.

P. Cleary, Photo View of Otira (South Island, New Zealand) under snow

P. Cleary, Photo
View of Otira (South Island, New Zealand) under snow

Except for a few ragged clumps the forest is now gone and well tilled dairy farms have taken its place. Here and there one may still see the stumps of the original puriri trees, too big and solid to make the labour of their removal worth while, and showing wonderfully little decay from the wear and tear of seventy years.

In vain we call old notions fudge,
And bend our conscience to our dealing;
The ten commandments will not budge,
And stealing will continue stealing.