In July 1892 the Wellington and Manawatu Railway
( WMR ) Company’s American-built Baldwin
locomotive No. 10 ran a speed trial over the 135-km
WMR route between Wellington and Longburn,
hauling a single passenger car and van.
The trip was completed in 1 hour 58 minutes
running time, an average speed of 68 kph, as the
train crossed the Makerua Swamp near Tokomaru
it reached a top speed of 103 kph.
High speeds were rare on New Zealand railways,
yet this performance was equal to that of some of
the best English express trains of the era. Although
the narrow-gauge speed record was later bettered,
the WMR’s 1892 achievement helped establish its
reputation as a world-class railway.
The record was celebrated by Will Lawson in this
poem written in 1900.
William Lawson ( 1876 – 1957 )
Born at Gateshead, Durham, England When Will was
4 the Lawsons migrated to New Zealand. His father
joined the New Zealand Insurance Co. and four years
later was transferred to Brisbane. Here Will
completed his education at Brisbane Grammar
School. After his family returned to New Zealand in
1892, he worked as a clerk in the Wellington office
of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, where
he remained for the next eighteen years.
Inspired by the poetry of Henry Lawson (no relation)
, Lawson began to write ballads on sea and railway
subjects. His first collection of verse, The Red West
Road, appeared in Wellington in 1903.
In 1912 Lawson moved to Sydney to work on the
Evening News. He continued to publish in the
Bulletin and the Lone Hand, and met many of their
writers and artists. During World War I, medically
unfit for active service, he returned to New Zealand
to write for various newspapers. After the war he
worked as a publicity officer and compiled tourist
guides. Over the following decade Lawson
alternated between Sydney and New Zealand,
working as a journalist, publicist and travel agent.
THE BIG BULL-YANK
When they take the Gov’ment engines off
At the end of the Gov’ment road,
You’ll hear a Baldwin’s wheezy cough
As they back her down to the load.
For this is the stretch where the mail-trains race
For fifty miles and more,
Making up time, which the tardy pace
On the hills has lost before,
They couple her on, with a time worn jest,
Where the Longburn block-bells call,
And the big Bull-Yank will do her best
When they let the signal fall.
Now, hear the sound of her hard exhaust,
As her weight leans on the train,
There’s a heavy roar when the bridge is crossed,
And she is free on the plain.
The long train thrills to her throbbing beat,
And sways to her gathering speed.
Ah, there is something in speed that’s sweet
As a flagon of flowing mead.
The world seems kinder; no wind blows cold
’Neath the heaven’s azure dome,
When the big Bull-Yank has taken hold,
And we are galloping home.
Where the flax-leaves gleam in the autumn sun
You can hear the great wheels romp.
She’s breaking her heart for a record run
By Tokomaru swamp –
Straining and rolling, and throwing stars
To the call of her double chime.
Ah! there is life in the rushing cars,
And the clamor of wheels in rhyme.
You’ll never feel the check of a brake,
And many a tale is told
How stout curves shudder and bridges shake
When the big Bull-Yank takes hold.
Mile upon mile she will race and haul,
And the townships flitting by
Will hear the boast in her tuneful call
That tells that her speed is high.
You’ll feel her galloping round the curves,
Rolling down on her springs,
And the cars will follow in giddy swerves,
Like hurrying, hunted things.
Her black smoke tells of a fire hard-coaled –
They’re driving her all they know,
For I heard it whispered when she took hold
They had settled to let her go.
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,
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.