CROSSING THE MOUNTAINS BY COACH AND HORSES
In the 1850’s the journey across the Blue Mountains of New South Wales was truly daunting. On Sunday, November 27 1853, Thomas Simons was driving the Bathurst mail coach from Sydney when he came to the top of Mount Victoria. Ahead was a long, steep descent. In those days there were no proper brakes on the coaches; the horses themselves did all the restraining work. Thick straps (breechings) went around their haunches, to allow them to push back. In order to assist, passengers were in the habit of leaving the coach and walking down the steepest section.
On this occasion Simons requested that the travellers alight, but the man sitting up beside him refused, saying ‘If it’s safe for you to ride, so can we.’ The driver explained that he was only going to stay in his seat because it was easier to manage the horses from above.
BUT WE PAID TO RIDE!
Unfortunately the man’s attitude was infectious and the other passengers refused to climb down too (both metaphorically and literally). They had paid their fare and they were staying put. With no alternative, the heavily laden coach started off down the mountain. Almost immediately one of the lead horses shied. There were no fences and it plunged into the gully below, dragging the other horses and the stagecoach with it.
Recalling the accident years later a reporter for the Sydney Mail wrote;
One man (Mr. Fitzptrick, a storekeeper from Bathurst) was killed, and the others crippled, but the coachman fell into the fork of a tree and was not seriously injured, though his four horses were all killed and the coach was wrecked.
The Sydney Morning Herald published a report a few days afterwards;
FATAL COACH ACCIDENT – On Sunday afternoon last, the mail coach, on its upward route to Bathurst, was precipitated into a deep abyss whilst descending Mount Victoria, together with driver, horses, and passengers, when Mr Thomas Fitzpatrick, brother of Mr James Fitzpatrick of this town, was so dreadfully bruised and lacerated that he has since died….Considering the depth of the gully where the accident occurred, the source of astonishment which appears to prevail is that a single individual escaped with his life. One man to save himself instinctively sprang from his seat whilst the coach was making its first revolution, and without noting the direction, leaped down the precipice, rolling and tumbling from rock to rock until he landed at a depth variously estimated at 120 to 150 feet. Singular to say he was not seriously injured.
It must have been a horrific scene, and was the impetus for installing brakes on the stagecoaches.
THE COACH IS HELD UP!
One night, the Bathurst coach was bringing gold bullion to Sydney from the diggings with a police escort. When they were about opposite the cemetery between Little Hartley and Big Hartley, the driver noticed that a sapling fence was blocking the road. Realizing it was the work of bushrangers he whipped up the horses and charged straight through it. Unfortunately it slowed the coach enough for the bushrangers to take aim. They fired a volley, shooting one horse dead.
The driver jumped off and ran to the hotel at Little Hartley to report the ‘sticking up’ to Mr Markell at the Rose Inn. Meanwhile, the police escort engaged in a gunfight with the outlaws and managed to save the gold.
One of the last Cobb & Co. drivers in New South Wales appears to have been a man called Jim Snow. He was in his nineties when he was interviewed by the Nepean Times in 1926. Jim had a rather unorthodox way of coping with bushrangers on the Blue Mountains run. He would load up with supplies they wanted and leave them at prearranged locations. It was said that he never lost a coin to the gangs.
Jim Snow knew the notorious Ben Hall quite well. On one occasion an elderly lady was travelling to Sydney with Jim, and had a couple of hundred pounds with her. Jim hid the money in a hole in the driver’s seat. It was just as well, because Hall and his gang intercepted the coach. Jim told him that his only passenger was heading to hospital and was penniless. ‘Poor old soul’, said Ben. ‘Don’t frighten her with any yarn about us. Give her this.’ He handed Jim a roll of banknotes. If this story isn’t true it damn well should be.
Ben Hall’s life was full of drama and he went to an early grave. The outlaw was shot dead by police and and buried across the Mountains at Forbes.
For more on the death of Ben Hall click HERE
BIRTH OF THE RAILWAY…..DEATH TO THE MAIL COACH
By the late 1880s travelling to Bathurst was still a bit of an adventure. I love this account by an old-timer, published in the Daily Mercury in 1939. he and his family had started out from Penrith at the foot of the Mountains;
The coach driver with only mail bags aboard found it difficult to get up some of the pinches, although his team consisted of five good, corn fed horses….
Our destination that night was a roadside hotel called the ‘The Weatherboard’ – a bit rough, but all hands were very glad when we got there. (Note….Weatherboard became the name of the settlement, which afterwards changed to Wentworth Falls.)
During the first part of the journey the navies were at work on the new railway construction, a portion that afterwards was known as the [eastern] Zig-Zag, which for many years after the completion of the railway was, because of the beautiful view, looked upon as quite a show portion of the railway. It was afterwards done away with, and instead of going over some of the high places, now we go through them by tunnel…..We reached Bathurst on the evening of the second day and rested the next day at the house of a friend until the evening, when the coach for Orange called for us.
Of course the western Zig-Zag Railway was restored and became a wonderful tourist line, maintained by volunteers. It has been through many traumas over the years, both from vandalism and bushfires. To their credit, the volunteers never give up, I so admire their dedication.
N.B. Much work has been done in recent years to make the Victoria Pass safer for heavily laden trucks. No doubt there will be a by-pass one day…..or a tunnel.
By the way. There is still a stagecoach in Blackheath. Seems the horses have run off.
A beautiful folk song featuring Cobb & Co. by Blackheath resident Nigel Foote. CLICK HERE
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