One track, Two tracks, Three tracks, Four? The Rail on the Port MacDonnell Jetty.

By Cassandra Morris, Master of Maritime Archaeology Candidate.

The 2011 Flinders University Maritime Archaeology Field Practicum was held at Port MacDonnell, to assist with the Honours Thesis of Maddy Fowler and the Masters Thesis of Purdina Guerra.

Team hard at work. In foreground Ania Legra, Dennis Wilson and Danielle Wilkinson. In Background Purdina Guerra, Zidian James and Wendy van Duivenvoorde. C.Morris 06/Jul/2011.

When told that we would be working on a jetty I, like most of the other students, thought ‘there’s always a jetty!’ and was not looking forward to the endless hours of measuring planks and fasteners. Worse, the night we arrived we were assigned teams and of course I was put on the Jetty team (half were assigned to the shipwreck, located just down the beach in the inter-tidal zone). While I did not envy the Shipwreck team’s 6am start the next morning, the Jetty team battled 30 knot winds, rain, hail and temperature of approx. 7°C or lower, and this was just the first day. However, it was on this first day, sheltering from the cold and rain in the Port MacDonnell Library, that the jetty really drew me in. There was a sense of mystery and several conundrums about the structure and its history, which became apparent from looking at historic photos. One of these problems was the rail tracks running the length of the jetty. Were they original, where did they originally lead to, what travelled on them, did they connect to anything else? There was no document to tell us exactly what happened to the rail over the years, so we went looking.

Most of what we found out about the rail is taken from historic photographs from 1861, when the jetty was opened, until the present. Currently there is a single set of tracks running down the length of the jetty (Approx. 296m). This seemed reasonable enough when we arrived. However, within the first couple of days of the practicum, it became apparent that there were originally two sets of tracks running along the jetty, with a single switch about halfway down the tracks. With this revelation, it was obvious that at some point the tracks had been taken off and replaced; the question was when? After a long history of repairs and damage, the jetty was given major repairs in 1939. Three photographs of the jetty in this year were found:
– One labelled ‘Jetty after repairs’ (Hill, 1973),
– The same picture with the caption ‘Jetty at Port MacDonnell. (Distant view from above showing jetty, rail tracks, lifeboat shed and sea visible)’ from the Les Hill Photographic collection, Mount Gambier Library,
– A second labelled ‘Port MacDonnell Jetty (Distant view from above showing people, jetty, lifeboat shed, sea and boats)’ from the Les Hill Photographic Collection, Mount Gambier Library,
– And a third, also from the Les Hill Photographic Collection, Mount Gambier Library captioned ‘Port MacDonnell Jetty after Major Repairs. (Distant view from above showing jetty, people, sea, lifeboat shed and boats)’.

The problem here, while not obvious in text, is that the photo printed in Hill (1973) has two rail tracks on the jetty. Conversely, the third photo, from the Les Hill Photographic Collection, has no tracks on the jetty, yet both are labeled ‘after repairs.’ The differing caption of the reprinted photo lead me to believe that, either, the wrong photo was printed in Hill (1973) or the wrong caption was associated with the photo, or the Library has mistakenly labeled two of its photos. Due to the lack of rails in the third photo, I think it more likely to be the photo taken ‘after repairs’ than the photo that appears in Hill (1973) which shows the rails. Also, the library’s copy of Hill’s (1973) photo has a different caption, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, the next available photo was taken in 1956, which shows a singular set of rails. This gives us a period of 17 years in which the rails were removed and a single set replaced. According to locals in the town, the rails were replaced due to public demand, not for any practical reason, although fishermen today reportedly use them.

Solving, as much as was possible, the problem of the rails led to another question: where did they originally lead to? Within the historic photographs small pieces of railway can be glimpsed along the edges of buildings or down a road. However, a clear route could not be constructed. A photo of French’s Store, c.1900 (directly opposite the jetty) shows one set of rails heading north into the town. Another photo of this store (c.1865) shows rails heading west along Sea Parade. A turn-table connecting these rails was situated at the start of the jetty. Situated on Sea Parade, Must & Co. (later Lord & Co. and Pascoe’s Store) is featured in several photos, showing a rail leading into the store and a turn-table placed opposite. Hill (1973) in the caption of a Lord & Co. photo states that “…goods were brought from the ships off shore by lighters to the jetty and then moved by rail to the three town stores before being sent by carriers to their destinations in Mount Gambier and other areas.” The only other store in Port MacDonnell is Mr J. Badenoch’s General Store (later owned by Mr G. Madeley) located in Meylin Street. There are no photographs showing the rail to this store, but it is likely to have had one. From these photos I created a general map of the town, to show perhaps where the rail may have been placed (excluding the link to the Badenoch/Madeley Store). As the coast line has changed significantly since the Breakwater was placed in 1979, an aerial photograph of the town, taken 1941, was very helpful in relocating the Must & Co. Store (place on map is approximate).

Port MacDonnell, SA. Map showing location of Jetty, French's Store and the fixed Crane, as well as the approximate locations of Must & Co. and Badenoch's/Madeley's Store. Red line shows the rail currently existing along the jetty and the reconstructed route into the town. Created using Google Earth by C. Morris 18/Jul/2011.

Rail Carts and the portable Crane working along the Jetty. The swich can be seen just past the carts. Taken 1908. Les Hill Photographic Collection, Mount Gambier Library.

Looking through images of the jetty, it was obvious what ran travelled along the rails. Goods were delivered to the stores from the jetty, along the rail, via carts. These carts can be seen in some photos on the jetty working in conjunction with a portable crane and a fixed crane, located at the head of the jetty. This fixed crane, personally, came as a surprise as I had not considered exactly how goods got from the jetty to the lighters and back. This crane was only removed within the last 30 years. A cart was also kept on the jetty, chained at the start of the jetty to prevent it moving. According to locals th cart was removed only a few years ago when youths cut the chains and began riding the cart up and down the tracks.

Rail reused as a barrier. C.Morris 08/Jul/2011.

On one of the last days of field work, one last piece of information was discovered with wonderful timing. The location of the ‘missing’ rails, either from the jetty or the roads, was located, quite hidden as a handrail/barrier. This barrier runs for approx.10 meters along the edge of the jetty car park, against the road. This reuse fits in well with the overall feel of the jetty itself which has been rebuilt and repaired many times, and, from appearances, with reused timbers. This jetty has definitely changed my opinion of jetties in general, showing that they can have quite an in-depth history themselves, as well as linking the histories of many other aspects around it. However, there were still many hours of recording fasteners and piles, made worse by the gale force winds and heavy rain with only an afternoon reprieve (as the head of the jetty was underwater nearly every afternoon) and the morning coffee break. Therefore, I’m sure when next confronted with a jetty I will still remark about there always being a jetty, but will look much more closely at how the jetty influences the area around it.

Hill, Leslie R. 1973. History of Port MacDonnell in pictures 1912–1999. (ISBN: 0858640139).
Les Hill Photographic Collection, Mount Gambier Library URL:, Viewed 18 July 2011.

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