The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 8 (February 1, 1933)
Memories in Verse — Railway Locomotive Rides
In the lounge of a Sydney hotel some time ago, a waiter said to me:
“A gentleman over there says he would like to speak to you.”
I looked across and saw a man whom I did not know. He rose and came over.
“My name's Green,” he said. “You are Will Lawson, aren't you?”
He took a chair beside me and went on: “Do you remember this?—
Just a shuffle of the cards
And the deal was plain;
Take the mail to Longburn yards,
Bring her back again….”
“I seem to remember them,” I said. “Didn't I write them?”
“I was driving for the Manawatu Company at the time. Jimmy Davidson told me you rode on his engine.”
We talked then about the old days, when the Manawatu line was a private one, and the Napier Express went by way of the Wairarapa, and the Rimutaka Incline was a busy place.
The first ride I had on the footplate of a locomotive was on No. 19 of the Manawatu Company, afterwards in the N class of the New Zealand Railways. She and No. 20 were the Express engines between Paekakariki and Longburn. They were Baldwins, fast with the trains of that day, which were light. On the Paekakariki Hill and on to Wellington, No. 16 and No. 17, made the running. No. 3, a tank engine, was another powerful machine for her day, on this climb.
Since Mr. Green had started his reminiscences with a line of verse, perhaps it will be interesting to quote some of the lines which were inspired by different trips. My trip on No. 19 was responsible for this:
When they run the Gov'ment engines back
To their work on the Gov'ment road
A Baldwin splutters along the track
To be coupled on to the load,
To the sound of a laugh and a careless jest
Where the Longburn block-bell calls,
And the big Bull-Yank will swell her chest
When the rigid signal falls,
And over the metals, hard and cold
By Tokomaru swamp,
She'll sing a song that is never old
While her thundering drivers romp;
And you'll never feel a brake-shoe bite
Or the gaping buffers jar,
When the big Bull-Yank has got you tight
At the end of her coupling-bar.
A few weeks ago, coming down in the New Plymouth Express with a New Zealand “Ab” cutting it out, the ease with which she took the hill at Paekakariki and sailed up the Johnsonville hills took my memory back to a trip I made one night on No. 3, the big tank engine, with Mr. Jimmy Barr at the throttle. I wrote it down like this:
Stoking on the “Paekok”
With thirty wagons on,
Choking in the “Paekok”
When air and daylight's gone,
And hear her roaring funnel
A-thrashing in the tunnel,
A-firing on the “Paekok”
With just your trousers on.
There was a fireman on one of the engines. I rode on (I forget his name), but he looked almost a boy, being small and wiry; but really he was middle-aged, and he had never had an engine of his own because of his youthful appearance. I don't suppose he ever saw these lines, or if he did, knew they referred to him:
His engine weighed
Just eighty tons.
(Blow for the crossing, blow!)
He swung his spade
On the long, fast runs,
The smallest man
In the firing line,
Built on a plan
That was superfine.
He couldn't have weighed
Scarce eight stone four
But, sonny, he made
Her furnace roar.
(Blow, you Big Bull, blow!)
The big bosses in the steam sheds discussed him.
“He knows a lot
And he'll soon learn more” …
If they'd only thought,
Joe was fifty-four.
So he gets his engine, as I hope this man did long ago. And.
His engine weighed
A hundred tons,
(Blow, very loudly, blow!)
On the mountain grade
She blew great guns.
He looked like a stamp
On a kitchen stove,
But he made her tramp
Up the hills above.
So he swells his chest,
And he earns his beer,
The oldest, littlest
(Blow, on the mountains, blow!)
In the days when the San Francisco mail was rushed down from Auckland to Wellington in the little, fast Takapuna, and hurried to Dunedin, it sometimes happened that the ferry waited at Wellington for the mail, or that the ferry was delayed. The Penguin and old Rotorua were the ferries. Then a special, consisting of the mail van, a guard's van, and maybe a passenger coach, was run from Christchurch. One of the old K's would take the train, and it is recorded that more than once the speed exceeded sixty miles an hour on the Canterbury Plains. On one occasion the Governor was on the ferry and wanted to get South in good time. His carriage was taken as far as Temuka at a speed which evidently surprised him, for he sent a message and a gift to the enginemen, with his congratulations and compliments. Mr. Bowles was the driver on that trip.
The title of the verses inspired by this run was “The Flyer,” of which here are some of the lines:
Oh! this is the song of a flyer,
Whose wheels are a dream to see;
Though many a rig lifts higher,
There's nothing that moves so free…
For never a load can hold her,
She drives by the clock, on time,
A-rocking and all a-shoulder
And every chain achime….
And e'en when her day is ended
And heavier builds outstrip,
She'll come in the moonlight splendid
And blow where the crossings dip.
And men laid dead in the distance,
Will turn in their sleep, I know,
To hear the rush of her pistons,
And smile when they hear her blow.
When I took a ride on a “Q” engine from Ranfurly to Clyde with Driver Christenson, I heard much of the experiences in that lofty area in all kinds of weather. But the thing which stuck in my mind was a place in the open fenceless plains where the grade was very steep for a short distance. It was called Tiger Hill. I cannot recall the lines about that, in which the fireman expressed himself, except the last couplet:
In my dreams I see you still,
The last locomotive verses which I wrote about New Zealand railways were the result of a trip on an “X” engine through the King Country at night, with the Main Trunk Express:
The stars were bright and the night was still,
When the weary engine drew
The Auckland Mail to the foot of the hill—
We heard when her whistle blew,
And we backed the Lord of the Ranges down
In the light of the watching stars….
Beneath the gloom of the mountain's frown
In the shaded lights of the cars.
There was scarce a cry from her whistle's chime—
Just a muffled sound in her stack,
And the hills drew near that we had to climb,
And the railway yards slipped back.
Out and away went the mountain mail,
White steam flung to the stars,
With drivers biting the solid rail
And a rumbling roll from the cars….
Then in the pink of the gentle dawn,
The Lord of the Ranges paused,
There came a clatter of chains undrawn,
As of chariot gear unhorsed.
A big-wheeled flyer was coupled on
To whirl the train to the sea,
Her whistle called and she was gone,
And the winds of the plains blew free.
And the Lord of the Ranges backed away
To the smoky gloom of the sheds,
She does no work by the light of day,
She hauls the folks in their beds.
Whether these reminiscences in verse will interest railwaymen, I can only guess, but I find whenever I read the old verses that they carry me back to many happy days spent on the railways. I have ridden on locomotives in other countries, but these first New Zealand contacts with railways are always bright in my memory. To-day heavier engines and carriages and better tracks make for greater speed and hauling power. And the romance is still there.