Geraldton’s First Train Incident

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The opening of the railway in Geraldton circa 1879. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

The construction of the Geraldton to Northampton railway began in 1874 and while sections of the track were completed in the following years, it was not officially opened until 1879.

In 1929 M.L.S. recounted his memories of the official opening in the Geraldton Guardian and Express.

Though winter time, in spite of the boggy state of the tracks and the overflowing rivers, people came from far and near to see the sight. They came in the queerest conveyances, carrying camping gear and tucker, for few could afford to put up at the hotel. If they had relations they were made welcome, if not they camped, though of course the wage earners, and well-to-do people packed under cover. That was a gala day indeed.

Stating that “the line ran from the two mile well right through the town…” the author claimed that there were no incidents, but then backtracked, “…unless you can call the death of Jack Wilson one.

Jack Wilson was an old shepherd who resided within the town of Geraldton and, over time, became attached to the herd of goats which roamed around town. Each day he collected them and drove them down the main street to a grassed area to graze until the evening. The job was a paying one and he received one and six a week from each owner.

With the railway running through the centre of the town, Jack began to fear something might happen to the goats.

…Jack lived in mortal terror that it would get his goats – those goats were as sheep to him the train a wolf.

Sadly Jack’s fears were not unfounded. In 1876 the Geraldton to Northampton railway line met with its first incident since construction began; the death of the town’s goat herd. A letter from a Geraldton resident dated 3 August [1876] was published in The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth) and described both the incident as well as a kind of pandemonium with respect to the railway.

Inquirer

Downplaying the death of the goats, the Victorian Express (Geraldton) stated two years later:

We have as yet had no railway accident, save and except the slaughter of a few innocent goats by the running of the train into the town herd…

This unconcerned view was not shared by everybody. A writer to The Herald (Fremantle) claimed that the position of the tracks (on Marine Terrace – the main road) was terrible and a danger to both people and animals. He gave several examples and then touched upon the goats.

Besides which, the public are in continual danger and life is not safe. Witness the slaughter of the innocents a little while back, when the engine ran into the town herd and killed a score of goats, depriving many a family of their morning’s milk.

The death of the goats was even brought up five years later when the first section of the Eastern Railway (Fremantle to Guildford) opened in 1881. The author (using the pseudonym ‘Xantho’) wrote to the Victorian Express (Geraldton) and described two minor incidents which occurred on the new line. He went on to say:

But we hope we shall not have such a catastrophe as that which characterised the early days of your Geraldton-Northampton line, when the goat town-herd was nearly annihilated.

Returning to the story of Jack Wilson, the death of the goats left him understandably devastated. Not only had he formed an attachment to them but they were also the source of his livelihood, which immediately disappeared. According to M.L.S., the worry which overtook Jack following the incident was so great that it resulted in his death only several weeks later.

Whether or not this statement was true remains to be seen however there was a James Wilson (albeit with a differing first name) who was recorded on the WA Births, Deaths and Marriages register as having died in 1876 at age 50. Perhaps this was the same man recounted by M.L.S.

Despite the annoyance felt by the townspeople at having lost their animals it appears that within a few short years the local goat population had recovered and had instead become a nuisance. Many were left by their owners to roam freely around Geraldton and were found to be eating other people’s flowers and plants. With the herdsman (presumably Jack’s replacement) said to be neglecting his duties, one writer in particular wistfully reflected on happier times when the railway had not yet arrived and the goats were still under Jack’s control.

1880

*The word gloaming means twilight or dusk.

Sources:

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2 thoughts on “Geraldton’s First Train Incident

  1. Fantastic tales of our own! Thank you for finding out so many cool stories about the early days in WA.

    Kind regards Andrea Roper

    >

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