The road to the opening of the Wandong, Heathcote and Sandhurst railway line was a challenging and protracted one. It becomes an emotional issue in many districts and the subject is vigorously pursued for many years before it becomes a reality.
It is not necessary to mention the very early days of private railways in Victoria and how they were absorbed to become the Victorian Railways, as that information can be found in many other records. However it is perhaps necessary to acquaint the reader with two significant events that preceded the rail line that ran from a location that eventually became known as Heathcote Junction, and a location named Sandhurst, from 1888 to 1958, and then, only as far as Heathcote until 1968.
The final section of the Melbourne-Sandhurst rail line is opened. Tenders for its construction had been called for on December 8, 1857, and construction of the final section from Sandhurst to Echuca is initially deferred. The line provides fast communication between Sandhurst and Melbourne, and those within reasonable distance of Sandhurst are similarly rewarded. However, its existence awakens those people living within that reasonable distance to the possibility that they too might be able to have a railway line at their door - if they make the right moves and get in before others take it away from them.
The continuation of the line to Echuca, a major paddle steamer port, commences and it is thought that it could tap into freight that is otherwise continuing down the Murray River into South Australia, possibly for export. It could also attract freight from the southern end of New South Wales and that would benefit Victoria considerably.
The construction of the line from Bendigo to Echuca creates considerable interest in railway connections. Mr. N. W Pollard writes a very detailed letter to The Argus, published October 19, proposing two new rail connections to Sandhurst (Bendigo).
One proposal is ... from that portion of the line between Sandhurst and Echuca where the railway runs eastwards to the Campaspe, and just before it runs northwards towards the Murray; from that point to Chiltern ... The connection location, to which the writer refers, is Goornong and the line would be required to cross the Campaspe, Goulburn, and Ovens Rivers.
The alternative proposal is ... from Sandhurst through Axedale to the neighbourhood of Whroo, Waranga, Murchison, and a quantity of country well known to be auriferous, and thence between Violet Town and Benalla to Wangaratta and Chiltern.
The two proposals were many years before construction of the North-East Rail Line and other proposals were to surface over the next 25 years before a line through Axedale materialised.
The Sandhurst-Echuca rail line is opened, and brings railways closer to those within a different reasonable distance. The whole line becomes the longest in the state, eventually running into New South Wales to Deniliquin, Balranald and Moulamein. It provides a powerful transport conduit to Melbourne. However, not everyone is happy and content. They see that there is something more than a little selfish about everything being centralised in Melbourne. What if you need to travel across country? Surely it is a waste of time, money, and whatever, to have to travel via the capital city? What if you live in Sandhurst and need to go to Adelaide or Sydney? Is it realistic to expect people to travel hundreds of kilometres further in making the journey by rail?
The wheels are starting to turn, albeit slowly.
At a public meeting in the Red Lion Hotel, Kilmore, a provisional committee is formed to look after the interests of the local district (Lancefield in this case). The stated object of the meeting is to take steps to urge upon the Government, the advisability of having direct railway communication from the metropolis (Melbourne) and for that purpose, that they be memorialised to survey a line of railway from Essendon, or from the Lancefield Road Station on the Melbourne-Sandhurst line. [The Lancefield Road Station later becomes Lancefield Junction and then, Clarkefield].
Mr. Gibbons, Engineer, gives cost estimates on a line from Essendon to the dividing range at Wallan Wallan, suggesting that it could be built for between £7,000 and £8,000 per mile, or £4,375 and £5,000 per km for the metric equivalent distance. He says that it is time for energetic action to get a direct line towards Sydney, or for action to be taken to set aside the line proposed from Goornong, north of Sandhurst, to Beechworth - a portion of the country which is as barren as a desert. It is resolved that a petition be drawn up and forwarded to the Government as well as to various public bodies along the Sydney Road, asking for their signatures and co-operation.
A number of spirited articles arguing the pros and cons of providing a rail line from Melbourne through to North East Victoria start appearing in the newspapers. The Argus urges the people of the Ovens district to be 'at one' with the Goornong line proposal. A reader writes that the line is about the same distance as it is to Melbourne, and if it were made, investment in roads, land, etc., along Sydney Road, will have been wasted. The question, "Why compete with Murray Steamers when there is already a line of townships eager to possess railway communication, all of which would feed a railway and make it pay?" is asked. After comparing the beauty of the Goulburn River above Seymour with the 'gutter' called the Yarra Yarra River, the writer then asks, "Why is a mighty outcry raised over an extra £1,000 a mile for constructing a railway that would benefit one quarter of the colony, whilst the recollection of £8,000,000 being spent so liberally on another quarter is so fresh in men's minds?"
The articles continue to discuss whether a line to the Ovens District should be by way of Kilmore or Goornong, connecting with the Bendigo line either from Lancefield Road Station, Woodend, or Goornong. There is much debate over the ease or difficulty of construction, the number of communities that would be served - and those that wouldn't.
A meeting of delegates from the Kilmore District Borough and Shire Councils is held. It is resolved that the Secretary be instructed to write to various bodies interested in the "proposed extension of Railway Communication from the Melbourne and Mount Alexander line to Beechworth", and urge the desirability of prompt action in bringing their views to bear on the Government, and that each be invited to appoint a delegate to meet in conference at the Menzies Hotel, La Trobe Street, Melbourne, to decide upon the most desirable point of divergence from the main line, and then present it to the Government.
The preceding information may be thought to not have a great deal to do with the line through Heathcote. This would be an incorrect assumption. If nothing more, it serves to show the meanderings that are generated when there is talk of a new railway line. Those that see the line coming within a reasonable distance begin to produce arguments to ensure that the proposed line supports their own cause. However, there is a cost associated with the provision of a railway line; surveys, land purchases, basic construction, infrastructure and its ongoing maintenance, staffing, day-to-day running, locomotive fuel and maintenance, to name just a few.
The possibility of Heathcote having a rail connection will depend on where other rail lines in the district end up. It is not to be decided for many years. There is also the matter of local parliamentary representatives being seen to be supporting the requests and wishes of their own constituents. Railway Leagues are formed to provide, along with the local representatives, deputations to the Railways Department to either hurry the decision process along, or to ensure that the decision goes a particular way.
The Kilmore Free Press reports that "The contemplated plan for the line of railway branching from Goornong to Beechworth, which was being surveyed, is now set aside, and a fresh line from Woodend via Pyalong is spoken of by Government." This is seen as an injustice to the people of Kilmore as traffic is only taken to within 14 miles of the town.
The North-East line proposal takes another turn when the Taradale Borough Council forwards a letter to the McIvor Shire Council, seeking support for the divergence of the proposed Beechworth railway to take place on the Murray [Melbourne-Echuca] line at Taradale to pass through Metcalfe and McIvor.
The Bendigo Advertiser acknowledges that most public bodies had received letters from the North-Eastern Railway League relative to the Goornong connection. Mr. Higginbotham's [Government] report compares the Goornong, Woodend, and a more direct to Melbourne route. It mentions that "the current division on the subject among the population which is most immediately interested in it, seems likely to seriously interfere with the progress of the movement, and to render its success for the present very doubtful" and "parties are succeeding in neutralising each other's efforts and, as long as they continue this course, they need never expect to have a railway formed." "All other things being equal, the railway to Albury should be carried out as the crow flies." The Government representative also says, "At any rate they [the people of the North-East] should agree upon something, for no course they can adopt is likely to be so prejudicial to their interests as is the present division amongst them."
The Railway Department's Engineer-in-Chief's Office, releases a statement: "Of three lines being considered - Melbourne and Upper Murray Railway, Western Railway, and Gippsland Railway, only the Melbourne and Upper Murray line will pay, after all working expenses have been provided for, the whole of the interest money that will be required for its construction. The best route for the line is by way of Essendon, Kilmore, Broadford, Seymour, and then following the main Sydney Road to Belvoir [Wodonga] - being 79 miles shorter than by way of Goornong, and 38 miles shorter than by way of Woodend."
Heathcote people are less than happy about what they see as the unalterable determination of the Government to adopt the Essendon to Upper Murray via Kilmore route. They say that undoubtedly, "Kilmoreites" are happy, but they may end up being sorry with their "imaginary benefits." For obvious reasons, Heathcote supports a Taradale connection via Tooborac.
Vice-Regal assent for the construction of a North-Eastern line is given and tenders are called for construction of the first section from Essendon to Seymour.