On 31 March 1954, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the North Coast Steam Navigation Company had called for tenders for the sale of its nine ships. This announcement marked the end of a now largely forgotten era.
The Company had begun in 1857 as the Grafton Steam Navigation Company primarily to get the produce of the coast and tablelands more effectively to Sydney. Over time, it grew into a significant coastal shipping operation. Now squeezed by rising costs, the company had decided to go into voluntary liquidation.
Before the construction of the Great Northern Railway, people living in Armidale and surrounding districts had a choice in bringing goods in or sending produce out. You could send them overland to the river port at Morpeth on the Hunter or, alternatively, down one of the precipitous tracks over the escarpment to one of the North Coast river ports.
The choice was made on grounds of cost and convenience. From Armidale north, the focus was west-east to the coast. At Tenterfield just prior to the construction of the railway, several hundred people were employed carting goods between the Tablelands and the Northern River ports.
Even after the construction of the railway, the coastal trade continued. As late as the 1930s, some North Coast students at the Armidale Teachers College found it easier to go to Sydney by rail and then complete the journey by steamer because of the bad condition of the roads to the coast. One student remembered being lowered in a wicker ware basket from the steamer onto the long wooden pier at Woolgoolga that used to stretch from the beach into the open sea.
The Northern seas could be treacherous. Wrecks were common.
The 2005 ton twin screw steamer Wollongbar was the pride of the North Coast fleet. It had accommodation for 235 first-class passengers, 40 second-class and extensive general cargo.
On 14 May 1921 the ship was alongside the jetty at Byron Bay when a storm broke out. Attempts to move the vessel into the Bay failed. It was driven ashore and wrecked. Its replacement, the Wollongbar II, was lost of Crescent Heads in 1943.
The Second World War came far closer to Armidale than many realise. Japanese submarines operated along the Northern coast, torpedoing ships and laying mines. The mini-sub attack in Sydney Harbour is well remembered because of the panic it caused. Fewer people remember the sea war of the New England coast.
During the War, both the Great Northern Railway and the New England highway were vital transport links. Troop trains and war supplies passed through the Armidale railway station on Brisbane bound trains.
The railway is gone now, of course. Armidale itself would have lost its rail connection without the work of our local activists.
The mournful sound of the whistle of the Brisbane Mail as it travelled through Armidale at 3am is a fading memory. The railway station at Wallangarra with its dual Queensland and NSW stations with their very different architectures stands as a mute memory of that past.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 28 November 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.