Tragedy at The Weatherboard
© John Low
Just to the west of the railway station at Wentworth Falls (known in the mid 19th century as The Weatherboard after William Cox's original weatherboard store hut) and within a few short steps of the busy shopping centre you will find, rather incongruously, a solitary headstone and accompanying footstone. Hidden in long grass behind a barrier of bushes and a fence next to the railway line, it remains unseen by many who walk (or ride in the train) past it every day. Even a small plaque on the railway bridge nearby is barely noticeable.
In Australia the lonely grave is an image almost as iconic of our difficult relationship with the bush as that of the lost child. It resonates with deep suspicion of a landscape that has often appeared alien and unfriendly. Indifferent to human suffering in the stories of Henry Lawson and brooding mysteriously in the writing of D. H. Lawrence, the bush may have encouraged self-reliance and the camaraderie of mateship but it could also be strange and menacing.
In the 19th century when you travelled the Western Road over the Blue Mountains you were in the bush. For over fifty years following its construction in 1814-15, the road was the conduit between the coastal settlement and the pasture lands of the west. It wound a precarious route along the top of a high ridge with deep, unexplored valleys on either side and its condition was subject to the vagaries of weather, heavy use and irregular maintenance. Travel by whatever means was fraught with difficulties, discomfort and sometimes danger as the sad little tale that follows illustrates.
While thousands journeyed across the Mountains in these early years, few chose to live here and minimal settlement took place until the railway arrived in 1867. Inns, military depots & convict stockades, tollhouses, camps and mounted police stations all hugged closely the edges of the road, while settlers, gold seekers, bullock and horse team drivers and all the restless human cargo of a growing colony drifted past.
Twenty-two year old James Fergusson, a carrier with a team of heavy horses, was a part of that incessant 19th century movement. In the early afternoon of 21st December 1859 he and another man, John Black, were among several teamsters setting up camp about 30 or 40 yards in front of the Weatherboard Inn. Christmas was only several days away and it's a safe bet they were looking forward to some merriment in the inn that evening. But, before they could enjoy themselves their horses had to be unharnessed, fed and watered and settled down for the night.
At this time horse teams were becoming a much more common sight on the Mountains. In the early years of the colony it had been the bullock rather than the horse that was the haulage animal of choice for heavy transport. Besides being more expensive, horses were less content to survive on natural fodder and bullocks, their supporters argued, also had more stamina under big loads over long distances on rough and uneven roads.
From as early as the 1830s, however, with the gradual importation and local breeding of draught horses and the increase in the number of roadside inns providing feed and overnight grazing, many carters began increasingly to turn to heavy horses. When the new and better designed wagons, stronger and more maneuverable, were introduced in the 1850s this preference was confirmed.
A Sydney carrier by the name of James Harvey claimed to be the first to drive one of these new vehicles across the Blue Mountains and wrote about it in a crude parody of an old American Civil War song. "First Waggon (sic) over the Mountains" was published as a broadside many years after the event and contains a block illustration of a wagon and three horses and a note stating that "the undersigned took the first load from Circular Quay to Carcoar, March 1855, at £24 per ton cartage".
Two verses will give you a taste of his style:
"Oh come with me, my Phyllis dear,
To yon Blue Mountains, see,
Ah, come along, my Phyllis dear,
We'll have a pot of tea.
And every Sunday morning,
When I'm by your side,
We'll jump into the waggon,
And both take a ride.
Wait for the Waggon.
"Many a long night
While the tempest was snarling,
I slept under the waggon
And dreamt of my darling,
And waited the mail coach
To come o'er the hill,
That, while changing the horses,
We a bumper might fill.
Wait for the Waggon."
Such rosy, nostalgic memories, however, give little insight into the hard reality of life on the road in those early years. Danger could come swiftly and unexpectedly.
The story of what happened at the Weatherboard on that summer afternoon in 1859 was described in detail in The Empire, a popular Sydney newspaper of the time founded by Henry Parkes. Young Fergusson and his mate Black, it's journalist wrote, "had just unharnessed the horses, and were about to feed them, when a violent thunderstorm came on, and a flash of lightning of a most terrific character struck the two men, and the whole of the thirteen horses, killing both men and animals instantly. The lightning then passed through the inn without doing any further material damage. The bodies of the men and animals presented a most ghastly spectacle, the former turning almost black in a very short period."
Two other men were struck by "the electric fluid" but escaped serious injury, while several further members of the encampment and a number of horses were completely untouched. John Black, aged 28 and married with three young children, was interred in St. John's Burial Ground at Parramatta. James Fergusson, having no known relatives, was buried near the spot where he was killed. Perhaps it was his employer, Mr. R. Martin of Bowenfels, or maybe even his mates who paid for his burial and for his headstone and footstone, both clearly the work of a skilled tradesman.
The inscription on the headstone, now weathered and chipped, reads:
to the memory
who was killed
on 21 December
aged 22 years
and 10 months
When the single railway line was built over the Mountains in 1867-8 his grave remained undisturbed. This was not the case, however, when the line was duplicated some thirty years later and his headstone and footstone were moved to their present location. I understand that it was only the stones that were moved, so James himself continues to lie somewhere beneath the railway, beneath those iron rails that Henry Lawson said tethered the mighty bush to the world.
Six years later a kind of sequel to this story occurred when another tragic incident involving carriers and their horse teams was enacted about a mile or so west of the Weatherboard Inn. On 16th November 1865 a young man named George Gamble, with a team of six horses, was taking a load of two and a half tons of gunpowder across the Blue Mountains to one of the contractors laying the earthworks and permanent way for the new western railway line. Having set up his camp for the night, at 7pm the gunpowder exploded.
In the graphic words of The Sydney Morning Herald, the blast "was stated to have been heard at Penrith, a distance of twenty-seven miles. The unfortunate driver, Gamble, was killed on the spot, and his remains were shortly afterwards discovered in a frightfully mutilated condition. A young man named Kegan who was driving another team, was also seriously injured. Three of the horses were killed, and one had two of its legs blown away; and scarcely a vestige of the dray was to be seen. The coach from Bathurst came up to the spot shortly after the disaster occurred. At that time several of the telegraph posts were on fire, the trees were blazing in all directions, these having been thrown a distance of four or five hundred yards."
The vicinity was known for many years after as the 'Dead Man's Camp'!