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Repton Raleigh Railway

The Fabulous Boom Years

Extract from an article written by Mr Ern McCristal for the Bellingen Centenary in 1963. Kindly reproduced with permission from the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.

At the turn of the century, Repton (or East Raleigh as it was known) was mostly standing bush, the little settlement being mostly centred around a sawmill owned and operated by Messrs. Smith & Allen plus a general store and Post Office. Supplies were obtained from Sydney by means of sailing ship and steamer. Deliveries were very uncertain depending on favourable sailing conditions and the state of the Bar at Bellinger Heads. Very often when ships could not cross into the river and provisions were getting very low, trips had to be made to the Macleay River, generally by pack horse to augment supplies. The general store was run in conjunction with the sawmill, the accounts being debited to wages received by the various employees. On many an occasion the store bill was greater than the wages received, chiefly due to intermittent employment. The average rate of pay was 5/- per day of 10 hours Monday to Friday and 6 hours on Saturdays. A Hotel was conducted on the Raleigh side of the River adjacent to the sawmill. Later the licence was moved to Repton. This Hotel successfully carried on until 1937, when it was acquired by Gleeson Bros. of Urunga and the licence moved to Coffs Harbour. The ferry crossing the river was situated just below the present railway bridge, later moved to Raleigh and operated there until the Raleigh traffic bridge was opened in 1935. Apart from the sawmill, timber getting was practically the only means of livelihood. There was no school on the Repton side of the river and the children had to cross the river and attend Raleigh school which was situated on the same location as it is today.A few years after the turn of the century Repton started to progress.

Messrs. Smith and Allen built a new mill near the present railway bridge. Later this mill was leased and Messrs. Smith and Allen erected a larger mill on the river front adjoining Man Arm Creek. About the year 1908, Mr Caines came from the South Coast, purchased the old leased sawmill, demolished and replaced it with a very up-to-date plant and successfully operated it until about 1932, when it was destroyed by fire and not rebuilt. This was a big setback to the little village, employment being lost to at least 20 people and families. With three sawmills at one time operating plus a large number of men engaged cutting sleepers, piles, girders, etc from the Pine Creek and Bonville forests, a number of ships were required to remove the product to the Sydney market. At various times the foreshores round the river carried huge stacks of timber. The main buyers secured their own line of ships to lift the cargoes. Depots were made all along the river banks as far as Bellingen on the North Arm and Brierfield on the South Arm. The logs were delivered to the various depots by bullock teams and to remove them to the various mills paddle wheel Droghers were brought into action. Each mill had its own Drogher. On many occasions up to 4 or 5 of these Droghers would be following one another up the river. Repton boom years appear to have been between the years 1911 and 1915, when the railway was being built, a large number of men being engaged building the Repton tunnel and railway bridge, as well as the main portion of the line.

With the three sawmills going full swing in addition to the railway works, the village started to boom. Repton then had several general stores, two butcher shops, two billiard rooms, a large boarding house, a fine new public hall, bakery and hotel. The London Bank of Australia opened a Branch of their bank and operated for many years. Later the Branch was moved to Urunga and finally closed during the war. In addition, a large “Calico Town” was established on what is known as Freshwater Creek (on the Coffs Harbour side of the tunnel hill) which also had its own business establishments, butchers shops etc., catering for the army of railway workers employed. There was plenty of social activity in the village. The new public hall was used several times weekly with dances, picture shows, and visiting or travelling vaudeville troupes showing to packed houses. Music for the dances was mainly supplied by the “Two Teds” (Conroy and McCristal) with violin and piano, and their fame in this regard was district wide. The railway bridge was completed in 1914, being the first structure to span the lower river and cutting off shipping to the two sawmills up-river to it. To offset this paddle wheel droghers were used to freight the timber down river below the bridge. The middle span of the railway bridge was built on piles adjacent to the bridge and floated into position by means of punts. The railway link between Raleigh and Coffs Harbour was opened in the year 1915. The railway, now running a goods and passenger service between Raleigh and Coffs Harbour Jetty, greatly assisted the whole Bellinger River area in maintaining a flow of necessary supplies when ships were bar-bound or were unable to cross the bar at Bellinger Heads.