Railway History

On April 8th 1884 The Villiers Railway League unanimously agreed that the League” reaffirm their previous action in asking for a railway from the ports of Belfast (Port Fairy) and Warrnambool, through Koroit to some point on the Ararat line between Dunkeld and the Wickliffe road.”

This action made Koroit a hub for district farmers. Construction of the line started in late 1888 and it was completed in 1890.  The Correspondence books of the Construction branch of the railways indicate that in 1889 contracts were let for 12 gate keepers’ cottages between Warrnambool and Belfast [Port Fairy].

A satisfactory resolution came for the cropping farmers with the joining of the line to the northern route. Farmer preferred to send their produce directly to Geelong rather than to the sea ports where it would be on shipped to Geelong. Along the line are remnants of the eight small stations where produce was collected. The area grew and shipped wheat, oats, malting barley, peas and beans, potatoes, turnips, hay, and grasses. Some thought the line so beneficial that they felt farmers should not require compensation for it passing through their property.

Materials for the line were sent to both Warrnambool and Port Fairy by sea. 107,000 jarrah sleepers were shipped from Western Australia to the contractors. For a time, the soon to decline ports, handled large quantities of railway materials. J. Wilson and Company supplied 5,100 tons of equipment to the project.

The line came to provide an important recreational aspect to the area. Special pleasure trains ran to the seaside towns for Sunday school picnics, school excursions and social gatherings. While from Toolong Road to Badhams Lane there is still significant bushland other parts of the line reflect a different heritage. The line closed in 1977.

Creation of the Trail

In March 2005 a rail trail feasibility study was prepared after extensive research, a series of workshops, public meetings, and interviews with the key stakeholders including a number of landowners adjoining the railway corridor.

It outlined how a rail trail would be developed, how much it would cost and the management issues associated with such a trail, along with the conditions that needed to be met to successfully allow the rail trail conversion.

The original railway line was overgrown in places, weeds had taken over, fences had deteriorated and the old bridges have become unusable since the railway ceased operations in 1977. The consulting team compiled a detailed report on the works needed along the reserve to enable use by walkers and cyclists.

These improvements include trail surfacing, fencing and gates, bridge restoration, safe road crossings, signposting and interpretative signage.

More Railway History

The original Koroit portable timber station opened to passengers in 1895. The Station masters residence consisting of two standard gatekeepers cottages joined by a central passage was completed in the same year. Integral to the transporting of crops the station’s good shed was and is now big than the station and its former outbuildings. It was one of the largest goods sheds in the region.

In 1888 the Railway Corporation paid 20 pounds sterling, to the beneficiaries of Andrew Anderson’s Will, for an approximately four and a half chain by two chain piece of land at the once less populated northern part of Koroit.

In 1906 it was decided to replace the portable timber station with a more permanent and larger structure. This block was used for the new station that opened in 1907. The extensive original contracts for the 1907 Koroit Railway Station are held at the Warrnambool and District Historical Society and still available for viewing (03 55610099). In the same year the Borough of Koroit drew the attention of the railways to the state of the roadways leading to their platforms and asked that they … “be attended to immediately.”

Irregular massing, a broken gable and cowled chimneys are part of the Queen Ann style in which the 1907 station was built. Embodying the Romanticism of the “Age of Steam” the building formed an impressive sight as the train swung down the line from Penshurst or lumbered up from Port Fairy. The solidity and functionalism of a building designed to serve heavy machinery, with its cargoes of potatoes and grain, would seem contrary to the chosen architectural style. Purpose built as a pivotal point in the commerce and traffic of the area the station was not overshadowed by the heavy and often grime laden rolling stock.

The building arose amidst the intensive manual labour of its surroundings as a celebration of success. The solidity of the brick building was lightened by the decorative rendered areas, arched windows and practical yet contrasting tuck pointing. An otherwise bland and horizontally necessitated space found its contrast in the finials and upstanding frilled ridge tiles that once provided a decorative highlight to the terracotta roof. Approached from the west the building initially appears as a tall massing of shapes – a shallow ridge with flattened edges, a smooth curved roof in front of a steep and triangular edge, then a higher pitch surmounted by a finial whose upward thrust echoed yet contrasted with the moving surfaces of the cowled chimneys.

Capped by now unique French Marseille tiles, imported by the ship load for the Railways by Wunderlich of Sydney, the patterning of light over the undulating roof surface gave an ethereal contrast to the everyday bustle of the station yard. (The ridge over the front entrance of the current station is still covered with the original tiles.)

The Borough of Koroit celebrated the new station with the planting of an avenue of Oriental Elm trees. Festivities to celebrate the opening of the new station were however delayed by the innovative but incomplete septic system. The Railways were justly proud of the new system and delayed celebrations till all was complete. A glimpse at the size of the large new urinal gave some indication of the numbers frequenting the station. It once ran the entire width of the building.

When the station was closed in 1977 the retiring station master, Merv Hickson, could see from his rear vision mirror as he drove off, people converging on the station. Doors, fire surrounds, hearths and even the tessellated tiles from the toilet floors were all removed by enterprising locals.

Now restored, with the help of Heritage Victoria, almost to its former glory, the station stands as a midway resting point on the recreational Rail Trail. Offering shelter and an entry point to the relaxed lifestyle of Koroit the station is an integral part of the areas heritage.

Discussions had raged from as early as 1856 as to the need for a railway, the best route and the financial benefits to Warrnambool or Port Fairy.

A few numbers back we published some leading remarks relative to the great advantages the Western District would gain through (by railway) having almost hourly communication with the centres of population. … our remarks have not been met with that cordiality and unanimity we should have supposed. Many there are who still believe that if Warrnambool was connected with Melbourne and Ballarat by rail, our shipping trade would cease, and our town would speedily be ruined.


We wish … [that] sceptics could be convinced that a speedy journey to the mercantile and gold centres of the colony, when robbed of the dangers of the sea on the one hand, and the tediousness and expensiveness of the land on the other, would enhance Warrnambool … where we have ten visitors bringing us a thousand! 

[The Warrnambool Examiner 22nd May 1858.]

A satisfactory resolution came for the cropping farmers with the joining of the line to the northern route. Farmer preferred to send their produce directly to Geelong rather than to the sea ports where it would be shipped to Geelong. Along the line are remnants of the eight small stations where produce was collected. Koroit had 4,244 acres under tillage in 1889. Consisting of wheat, oats, malting, peas and beans, potatoes, mangle wurtzel, hay, and grasses only 3 acres were gardens or orchards.

There were 1043 acres of potatoes. The Illowa station had one of the first branch telephones in the area. Saltau and Co. had a connection so that Mr Arthur Smith, their grain buyer, could contact his head office in Warrnambool.

Some thought the line so beneficial that they felt farmers should not require compensation for it passing through their property.
Mr. Vale remarked that “it would certainly go a long way in favour of the line, with the members of the Assembly, if the Land could be given to the government free of cost … He was of the opinion that the owners of those vast estates, the majority of which were obtained at £1 per acre, ought to be ashamed to ask for compensation for the surrender of a narrow strip of land for the construction of a railway which would so greatly enhance the value of their properties.
[The Warrnambool Examiner 20th February, 1872]

They were however compensated and the Railway Department correspondence files are filled with haggling over the number of access gates, amount of compensation and negotiations with neighbours. It appears from the index of correspondence that John Goldie, a typical example, offered to accept £700 compensation if he was allowed interest. He then offered to vacate his house and asked compensation. Finally he accepted an offer of £350.
Material for the line was sent to both Warrnambool and Port Fairy by sea.

The Bannam River Timber and Trading Company and Neil McNeil and Co., delivered 107,000 jarrah sleepers from Western Australia to the two contractors. At Port Fairy Buscombe and Chappell had won the contract to build that section of the line. At Warrnambool Fergus and Blair initially held the contract to Koroit but were taken over by Allen and Reid. For a time the soon to decline ports handled large quantities of railway materials. J. Wilson and Company supplied 5,100 tons of equipment to the project.
The line came to provide an important recreational aspect to the area. Special pleasure trains ran to the seaside towns for Sunday school picnics, school excursions and social gatherings. Indeed the first train on the line was a “celebration” train similar to many that were to follow.

While going to seaside attractions the line passed through an equally attractive countryside. In its eastern passage it passed the location of the gardens of the first whalers. Summering on shore, cutting wattle bark for a return cargo to Launceston, the men grew vegetables for the winter months at Griffith’s and Campbell’s farms.

The countryside was not however as quiet as one would imagine. Nearby the line runs through what was once Roderick Urquart’s Turkey-paddock. Numerous wild turkeys frequented the scrub in this area when the land was first occupied.

While from Toolong road to Badhams lane there is still significant bushland other parts of the line reflect a different heritage. A work day aspect was given to the eastern end of the line. From 1919 until 1957 the Dennington to Warrnambool train carried worker’s to and from the Nestlé factory.

In 1893 the attendance returns for Koroit Primary School recorded Willie McKay and Percy Cooper respectively travelling the 10 and 21 miles to school by train.
The line was also a goods linked for the population of the area. Goods were delivered to the station for collection and at Koroit for distribution by the railways carrier with his cart and horse. Pat Baulch, the daughter of a local baker, remembers the daily task of going to the station, on her bike, to see if the regular supplies, in this case of flour, had arrived.
Significant built environs are also associated with the line. At Koroit a hotel and café were built close by the first station. Indeed in 1907, when the new station was built, a building boom occurred in Koroit and is still evident in Bourke’s Hotel and the Convent.

There is not an unoccupied shop in town. Large alterations in the shape of new bedrooms, and stabling accommodation, have been effected at the Victoria and Commercial Hotels, and carpenters are now busy at the Court House Hotel … The Koroit Hotel is also to be overhauled…
[Koroit Sentinel and Tower Hill Advocate 15th March-1907]

Rise & Fall of the Rail Lines

From the turn of the 20th century to the Second World War railways throughout Australia underwent a massive expansion program, producing a fine network of lines linking small centres throughout each state.

Significant rail construction in Victoria preceded the national investment. The Victorian Government, flushed with tremendous wealth generated by the goldfields, invested 9 million pounds in its first decade of railway development (1854 –1864).

By 1931, the Victorian Government had spent almost 50 million pounds building a network of 7,565 kilometres of rail line. Every town in Victoria with a population over 500 boasted its own railway station.
(Source: Victorian Railways, Museum Victoria website).

The railway was the lifeblood of many small rural communities, not only providing essential freight and passenger services, but creating a very real sense of connection between peoples often considerably geographically dispersed.

As road transport became steadily more efficient during the 1950s, the railways began to lose their primary function. Throughout the following decades, scores were abandoned.

Fortunately, most of these corridors have remained in public ownership, though many are now used for agricultural purposes by neighbouring landowners.

The condition of these railway reserves varies widely, but – with some exceptions – most are still intact as ‘linear corridors’ in public ownership.

This is the case with the Port Fairy to Illowa Rail Corridor: 29 kilometres generally 30 metres wide and in public ownership (though many parts of it are leased for farming purposes).