In the late 19th and early 20th century, Blue Mountains towns such as Leura and Katoomba were just as popular with tourists as they are today. Several coaching companies were kept busy ferrying visitors to guesthouses from the railway station and around the area’s beauty spots. One proprietor was Mr Robert (Bob) Esgate who was based in Katoomba.
Here is one of the Esgate coaches laden with passengers on a outing west to Jenolan Caves.
THUNDER & LIGHTNING…VERY VERY FRIGHTENING!
On Sunday, December 31 1912, the worst storm in decades hit Leura and Katoomba. At Leura Gap, above The Falls, a number of excursion carriages were standing ready to make the return journey home. At the peak of the lightning some of the drivers feared for their lives and took refuge in the nearby refreshment kiosk. It was just as well they did, as seconds later there was a great thunderclap followed by a lightning bolt that seemed to split the heavens. The men in the kiosk were thrown to the ground and left disoriented and dazed.
Fortunately the kiosk was just outside the area of greatest damage. However, a huge tree a few yards away was struck, and split in two from its canopy to its roots. Bits of singed wood flew in all directions. An adjacent post was also hit, described as splintering into matchsticks.
All eight harness horses at the carriage stand were struck down. Three of Robert Esgate’s animals were killed instantly.
Mr B. Heffernan, another local coach proprietor, was described in the language of the day as ‘a cripple’ and was not in good health. However, when he saw his two horses go down he ran from the kiosk to try and help them. He was holding their heads when a second lightning bolt struck him. It passed through his shoulder and side and into one of the stricken horses, which went into convulsions and died.
As other drivers recovered and began attending their injured animals, shocked visitors looked on in driving rain. It was a Blue Mountains excursion they would never forget.
Almost immediately a collection was taken up for Mr Heffernan, as it was feared he would be unable to withstand the loss. Both tourists and locals gave generously and fortunately enough money was raised to replace his horse.
In 1913 there was another ‘storm’ over the construction of a new kiosk on the site, pictured below. Nevertheless, by the day of the official opening in December the protests had been forgotten. 200 guests were provided with refreshments in the new rooms. I suspect some of those present, perhaps even Mr Esgate, exchanged memories of the day the old kiosk helped save their lives.
Bob Esgate was interviewed in June 1925 by a reporter from The Blue Mountains Echo. He was then seventy years of age, but still hale and hearty, with strong opinions. He had moved with the times and his stable of horses had been replaced by a fleet of motorcars. Nevertheless, he hankered after the old days of coach travel and thought people were more prosperous in that era; ‘Let me tell you this, the making of the Bathurst Road is going to make things worse. What good are motorists to the town? When the road is good they will fly up here in their cars, with hampers in the bottom; and not a cent will they spend here, unless they run out of petrol. What good will that be to the shop-keepers? Too good a road may be a pretty bad thing for Katoomba.’