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Childhood memories

I had periodically heard snippets about puffing Billy, a narrow gauge steam train running between Ferntree Gully and Gembrook, so one day in 1944 I decided to investigate it. I got the bus to Ferntree Gully, and then asked the bus drivers where I had to go to catch the train to Gembrook. They all assured me that I couldn't go by train to Gembrook, so I reluctantly took a bus as instructed. It was an 18 mile trip on bad roads in the usual bad bus, and took over an hour.

When I got to Gembrook I was looking around when I heard a train whistle. Puffing Billy had just arrived, so I followed the whistle to the station and found that it was returning to Ferntree Gully in a couple of hours. Before the war Gembrook had been the hub for a network of narrow gauge tramlines which radiated out to sawmills deep in the surrounding forests. However the '39 fires had burnt all the mills and most of the bridges, and the remaining engines had been abandoned in the railway yard at Gembrook.

They were an amazing assortment with all manner of strange mechanical arrangements I had never heard about. These generally involved curiously placed cylinders and pistons driving the wheels through angular gearboxes. I suspect the engines were taken away for scrap shortly after this, as I never saw them again. Today they would be worth a fortune as historical relics.

I explored the town, and a nearby forest reserve, and then caught the train down to Ferntree Gully. The engine and carriages were almost the size of normal carriages, but the rails were only 2'6" (750 mm) apart, so the train swayed alarmingly, although it barely exceeded walking speed. Safety rules were non-existent, and passengers would often jump off and run alongside while the train climbed a hill.

They would also ride in empty waggons and one day passengers in two waggons armed themselves with rowan berries, and then had a fight between the two waggons with them. There was a level crossing just out of Ferntree Gully, and on one occasion an ancient US Motors 'White' bus hit the engine (which weighed 90 tonnes) and knocked it over.

It was fairly late when the train reached Ferntree Gully and I caught the last bus home. I was rather hungry, so I bought a block of chocolate and ate it on the way. But by the time the bus reached Olinda I was feeling very queasy, and instead of staying on to Mount Dandenong Hotel I got off and walked down the hill.

Meanwhile my father, who had worked himself into a tizz, came to the Hotel and met the bus. When I wasn't on it he didn't think to ask the driver if he had seen me, but went straight home and rang the police. He had just finished this call when I walked in. I don't know what he was on about -- I was 10 -- but he always did get excited about nothing!

The narrow gauge line from Melbourne to Gembrook was opened in 1900 to carry both passengers and freight. The US Bus Lines were opened in Belgrave in 1921, and their faster service soon rendered the train uneconomic. Although it still nominally took passengers, by 1944 it mainly carried wood and potatoes from Emerald and Gembrook to Melbourne. The line was closed for some years following a landslide in 1958, but has gradually been reopened, and is now a popular tourist attraction.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

A trip on Puffing Billy