This photograph from the Museum’s Tyrrell collection shows the aftermath of one of Australia’s worst rail disasters of the 19th century.
The accident occurred in the early hours of the morning of 25 January 1885 about five kms south of Cootamundra. The train had left from Albury and was fully laden with mail and passengers, many of them travelling to Sydney to attend the Randwick races the following day.
It had been raining heavily for several days throughout southern NSW and the embankment supporting the rail line over Salt Clay Creek had collapsed and washed away, leaving only the unsupported tracks. As the Australian Town and Country Journal reported,
This left a very large gap, about 50yd wide and about 9ft deep, and into it the mail train dashed.
Attempts to warn the driver had proved futile. Eight people died and 20 were seriously injured. The Kerang Times and Swan Hill Gazette reported the gruesome discovery of a head “stuffed under the cushions”.
The North Eastern Ensign described the aftermath:
The spot at which the accident occurred is situated so far in the bush from any road that it was found to be a very arduous task to bring proper aid to the sufferers, or to remove them to Cootamundra and other places, where preparations could be made to receive them. These circumstances rendered an otherwise terrible catastrophe still more heart rending, as the poor victims of the smash were obliged to lie for hours under the pitiless rain which seems to have fallen in abnormal volume.
It is intriguing how a photographer from the Henry King studio in Sydney came to be on the scene at what appears to be a very early stage of the salvage operation. Perhaps he was on the train.
The fate of the locomotive is unknown but was said to have fractured its boiler in the accident. It appears to be No 31 and is one of the G23 Class, a 2-4-0 passenger type engine used by the NSW Government Railways.
Appropriately this photo features on the cover of a new publication from the Powerhouse Museum, All is Not Lost: the Collection Recovery Book, which gives advice on how to salvage treasured items affected by disaster.