Getting to Bulli in the Old Days – Sea, Road and Rail

Under Construction

From Kerrie Anne Christian :

Tracks and Roads in the 19th Century

W G McDonald’s 1979  “The Oldest Road”  (published by the Illawarra Historical Society – following earlier debate) is an interesting read. McDonald reviewed various descriptions of trips down the Illawarra Mountain in the early 19th Century and came to the conclusion that Throsby’s Track – the Oldest Road – the Old Mountain Road was located at Bulli, rather than Coledale as some had argued up until the 1970’s. The dates cited for the various roads are as follows :

  • 1815 – Throsby’s Track down to Bulli – located to the south of Westmacott’s Pass and Bulli Pass and about one mile south of the boundary between the Counties of Cumberland and Camden – The Old Mountain Road was constructed along this line and was the road to Sherbrooke and Appin in the early years – ( see also “The Romance of the Road” by J P O’Malley in 1948).

McDonald quoted various descents in the early years after 1815. He cited Alexander Harris who wrote 1830’s in the early of drays that would be let down by ropes in the steep sections. McDonald also considered that the old Mountain Road was likely in use by settlers north of Wollongong after the opening of Mt Keira Road.

McDonald writes that in 1822 Lachlan Macquarie had descended the Old Mountain Road down to Bulli. “The descent was very rugged, rocky and slippery, and so many obstacles opposed themselves to our progress, that it was with great difficulty that the pack-horses could get down this horrid steep descent. At length we effected it, but it took us an hour to descend altho’ the descent is only one mile and a half long.

McDonald refers to John Dunmore Lang’s account of 1834, where travellers on having reached Bulli at the bottom of the mountain, and then east to O’Brien’s cottage,  parties followed the beach, on the hard wet sand,  into Wollongong – Red Point – the area now known as Belmore Basin around the Old Wollongong Court House.

In 1904 this road was sold to George Adams, but it continued as a foot track to access Sherbrooke in the early 20th Century years, until the resumption of Sherbrooke for Cataract Dam. It became very overgrown and was only revealed following the devastating bushfires of 1968.

  • 1821 – O’Brien’s Rd – a private subscription track or road from Figtree to Appin built by Cornelius O’Brien 
  • (Note see also 1820’s – Alexander Harris’s description of an arduous journey down the mountain to Bulli in “Settlers and Convicts” described in an Illawarra Historical Society bulletin which is quite interesting).
  • 1834 – Mt Keira Road marked out by Mitchell & Mitchell’s Road was opened in 1836 – note that there was an associated road which ran from the top of Bulli along the mountain top to the top of Mt Keira Road
  • 1834 – a bush track led from Appin Road to Matthew Gibbons’ farm at Stanwell Park then known as Little Bulli.
  • 1840’s – Rixon’s Pass
  • 1844 – proposed Westmacott’s Pass – but not constructed until 1850’s – also known as The New Mountain Road in 1855
  • 1868 – Bulli Pass to Coalcliff coast road being constructed – see also 1874 news media story – and in 1881 there were still news media stories of its construction – although it was deemed completed in 1869.
  • 1880’s – Bulli Pass which was similar to Westmacott’s Pass but included “The Elbow”
  • 1942 – Mount Ousley Road

W C Wentworth Jnr’s 1946 article on The Road to the Illawarra is also worth a read.

There were land routes between Bulli and Wollongong in the 19th Century. However the situation is best illustrated by the teacher at Bulli North (Austinmer) School: William Woodford would ride out on horse back  to board with the local Hicks family during the week, and ride back for the weekends in Wollongong. It was not a trip to be done daily. And later he married one of the Hicks girls, Deborah.

Mick Roberts wrote of those days in his “Little House on the Hill”, describing how the opening of the Sydney to Campbelltown Railway, led to Illawarra people travelling by Coaches up the mountain, to Appin and onto Campbelltown to travel by rail to Sydney. Coach travel was improved with the building of bridges over the Lodden River and Kings Falls in 1874. Consequently a number of coaching inns were established in Bulli, apparently much appreciated by coach passengers travelling both up and down Bulli Mountain. In the early 1880’s, when the railway was opened from Sydney to Waterfall, passengers used to travel by Coaches along the coast to Coalcliff, and then up the cliffs, and along the road to Waterfall, to connect to the Sydney trains.

For more information of the Coaching Era in Bulliclick here – or Campbelltown Library article on Waterworth, Mick Roberts’ articles on Coaching the Sea Cliffs  and Waterworth and visit the Black Diamond Heritage Centre Museum at Bulli Railway Station to read stories of the Coaching Era.

Well worth a read is  “Railway History in Illawarra New South Wales” by C.C. Singleton 1964, where, on page 5 he summarised the situation very well …

“By the early seventies of the last century (1870’s) the fertile Illawarra District of New South Wales had developed to such an extent that it became evident that some definite improvement to the transport serving this semi-isolated area was long overdue.

The low-lying coastal strip, overshadowed by the escarpment of the Illawarra Range, in varying elevation from about 1,000 to 2,500 feet, was most difficult in approach from its landward side. Among the few then existing tracks descending the range, only Bulli Pass could be classed as a road, and even so its single-figure gradients were more suitable for bullocks than horses and all hale passengers on the Wollongong-Campbelltown coaches were expected to walk up the whole length of the Pass.

At its summit two roads diverged – one to Appin via King’s Falls, the other a revival of Mitchell’s abandoned Illawarra Road, northward above the line of cliffs to enter the plateau of Bottle Forest (now Heathcote), thence to Sydney (this was then via punt and ferry)

Practically all freight was handled by sea on account of the unsatisfactory roads, mostly used by passengers fearful of the seasickness associated with the small craft then in use.

But the lack of sheltered harbours in rough weather made the shipping service undependable. There was only one reasonably effective port, Belmore Basin, Wollongong …. coal loading jetties at Bulli and Bellambi Points could only be used in calm weather.”

The Sea

The age of the steam ships came to the Illawarra in 1839 according to a 1951 Illawarra Historical Society article, on the Illawarra Steam Packet Company, whose ships included the Maitland and William IV (built by William Lowe). The business operated under a committee of 10 shareholders, four of whom were from the Illawarra, Charles Throsby Smith, Captain Robert Marsh Westmacott, J H Plunkett and Gerard Gerard. Later it operated as the General Steam Navigation Co. Produce was transported on the steamers.

Bill Bayley had written in 1960 of Bellambi as a Coal Port, which was cited in a later 1998 Illawarra Historical Society Bulletin article about the two Bellambi jetties – see also Joe Davis  1997 1998 articles – Fullwood’s Two Jetties.

In an issue of the 1973 Bulletin, a Mr G A Hardwicke wrote an interesting and brief history of coastal shipping in the Illawarra, which had been presented to a Royal Australian Historical Society Conference in 1972.

In 1975, the Illawarra Historical Society’s Bulletin included an article on coastal shipping associated with Coalcliff from 1877 to 1910.

As noted above, rough seas presented challenges for sea transport and freight over the decades. The “Shipwreck Atlas of New South Wales – 3rd Edition ” published by the NSW Government Heritage Office, clearly illustrates this with its long list of ships then known to have been lost at sea. Notes from the Illawarra Historical Society in the early 1950’s on shipwrecks of the Illawarra.

There were over 100 shipwrecks off the Illawarra from the Royal National Park to Gerringong with possibly as many as 90 ships still not found – see listing NSW Shipwrecks listing – 1, 2, 3. The first fatal shipwreck of Illawarra would appear to be the Foxhound in 1829, off Coalcliff, where all hands were lost.

Not all shipwrecks along the Illawarra resulted in loss of life – sometimes the crew and passengers did survive. Who could have imagined so many ships lost in a watery graveyard off the Illawarra coastline – with her sailors now married to mermaids at the bottom of the deep blue seas (1)?  Several of the earliest shipwrecks are listed below – to read of more shipwrecks along the Illawarra click HERE

  • 181o’s
    • 1817 Hawkesbury Packet (ran aground previously in 1816 and finally at Minnamurra) – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,
  • 1820’s
    • 1823 Unnamed Open Boat (men blown out to sea near Five Islands) – 1,
    • 1825  Charlotte (Gale  – some wreckage washed ashore Port Kembla) – 1, 2, 3 , 4, 5, ; 1828 – North Briton (Wrecked off Wollongong)  – 1,
    • 1829 Foxhound, 60 ton schooner – all hands lost (Storm – dark, windy, squally night – Coalcliff) – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,

To read of more shipwrecks along the Illawarra click HERE

The Railway Era

The second half of the 19th Century was the great era of Railway building in NSW – it provided a career and livelihood for many. Generations of men would work on the NSW Government Railways from the 1870’s through to the mid 20th Century years, like in my Callcott and Joy families. The coming of the Railway opened up many Regional areas to development and economic diversification – introducing Tourism as well.

Transport Heritage has a web page on Railway Jargon  and its Thematic History of NSW Railways (2009) is an excellent resource on the history of NSW railways – especially Section 3.0 DEVELOPING LOCAL, REGIONAL AND NATIONAL ECONOMIES- which has material on Rolling Stock including Locomotive Classes and Carriages in Sub Section 3.6 Technology. Railway enthusiasts often refer to some of the various Locomotive Classes and it can be confusing to those not so well acquainted. Wikipedia has even more Steam Locomotive Classes listed and with photographs. – Diesel Locomotive Classes are listed here.

Sub Section Section 3.8 also covers the extension of the NSW Government Railways Network and Fettlers. There is an excellent visual media example of expansion and contraction of the NSW railways at Vimeo – also a powerpoint on how Steam Engines work.

The first rail in Bulli was the 1861 horse drawn tramway of standard gauge for the Bulli Mine, which ran down to the Jetty, now known as Sandon Point. It was followed by the first steam locomotive in May 1867. There were other similar tramways leading to jetties, associated with the various mines in the Illawarra. However, from 1872, there was clamouring for a rail connection to Sydney.

The Coming of the Railway to the South Coast in 1887

One of the earliest records of lobbying for a Railway to be built from Port Jackson (Sydney) to the Illawarra was for a public meeting held in September 1873 (Source : Sydney Morning Herald 22.09.1873 via Trove). By October 1873, the Metropolitan and Illawarra Railway Committee had formed and was meeting (Source : Empire (Sydney) 2.10.1873 via Trove). There was hope that it would be open before many months (Source : Sydney Morning Herald 29.10.1873 via Trove) – however this was not to be for nearly 15 more years. has a good table on completion dates of the South Coast Railway from 1894 – 1915 and another web page has a brief history of the rail’s route. Sutherland Shire’s Rail history page is Shire-centric but it is an interesting read on the South Coast Railway’s history. The South Coast Line was never extended beyond Bomaderry despite years of lobbying to do so.

Wikipedia has a good summary article on the History of the South Coast Line – and another Wikipedia entry includes the broad engine types “Services were originally operated with locomotive-hauled trains and, later, Diesel railcars, prior to the electrification of the South Coast railway line.

In 1920 the Railway Institute was built at Thirroul for training purposes.

Notes from the Illawarra Historical Society in the early 1950‘s.

The coming of the Railway to Bulli in 1887 was the start of tourism in the area – which has evolved over the last 130 years.

Trains and Locomotives on the South Coast Line

South Coast Daylight Express – Sydney Central to Bomaderry  – 1933 – 1991 – sometimes known to locals simply as “The Daylight Express”



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