It was about 6am when the passing trucks interrupted my sleep. I had turned off the air conditioning and opened the motel window to help me sleep after a long day driving the back roads and exploring the Monumental Cemetery. A hamburger washed down with a few cold beers in an Irish bar helped me go to sleep until the noise of the early morning traffic brought me back to reality. There was a lot to do and more roads to explore.
I started out early and headed for a narrow road that followed the railroad line past several unused stations before it reached a town about 25 miles away. Only one of the stations had been preserved, the other two were demolished leaving only crossings and old grain silos. Trucks were now carting the grain and the passenger trains passed through the area without stopping. I parked beside the road to watch a farmer riding on his tractor towing a trailer loaded with feed for his dairy cows. He didn’t see me as he went about his daily chores.
There was little to see along the train tracks except where the stations and gatekeepers’ cottages had been in the days of the freight trains. The activity was on the farms and the roads. I drove beside a long bridge over the river flats that vibrated noisily when a train passed by, drowning out the sound of the crows in the fields. I stopped to listen and pretend the train was being pulled by a steam engine. That too was no more.
I returned to the town and it had come alive since I left to find the back road. People were walking to work, coffee shops were open and the early morning shoppers were going about their business. I sat at a table outside a coffee shop so I could watch the people and look at the old building across the street. It was a court house, built around 1900, and would have been full of stories but wasn’t open for visitors.
The person who brought my coffee asked why I was photographing the old Court House. I said I was driving the back roads looking at old buildings, abandoned train stations, cemeteries and the town. Her quick response was: “It is not a town, it is a city of more than 60,000 people and I should see the new lawn cemetery, the local museum and the new rail heritage museum at the train station. I finished my coffee, crossed the road and walked past the Court House and two other heritage buildings from the 1870- 1880s that were once a bank and a post office.
The first church I saw in Church Street was St Michael’s. It was built in 1887, about 25 years after the first settlers arrived in the area, and was extended in 1922-25 into a Victorian Gothic sandstone Cathedral. Further down the street were equally impressive churches for the Anglican and Presbyterian faiths.
Following the coffee shop’s advice I drove to the new lawn cemetery with its orderly graves marked by plaques set in the ground and surrounded by flowering bushes and tall trees. I walked along the rows of plaques, reading the names, ages and dates. The cemetery was neat and orderly, the plaques were all the same and if there were stories buried there they were sealed by the manicured lawn. It was a different experience to my visit to the Monumental Cemetery where the old, decaying graves were abandoned after the stories had escaped.
I drove back to the city to visit the museum and its new exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I. It was an emotional journey for me as I thought about my visit to the Western Front battlefields and the many thousands of soldiers who were buried there in unmarked graves with headstones that said: “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God.”
There was more to see and more to learn so I headed back to the city and the “new” railroad station at the end of the main street. It had been built in 1879 and was the center of activity until the 1980s when over 90 stations in the area were closed. Once there were four hotels within a five minute walk from the station, frequented by the station workers and people waiting for their train, now there was only one hotel. The others had been replaced by a motel, stores and an apartment building. The train station had been restored and new technology installed for signaling and controlling the traffic, replacing many of the workers.
Train travelers were now so few the Ladies’ Waiting Room had been turned into a rail heritage museum, operated by a group of dedicated volunteers and retired station workers. They had rescued and restored a large collection of old photographs, station and communication equipment, telephones, lamps, lanterns, clocks, signal box devices, tools used by the station and track workers since the late 1800s, and the china and silverware used to serve hot tea to the ladies while they waited for a train.
From the station I took a 5 minute walk over an old footbridge, past the heritage Station Master’s cottage, to the other side of the tracks where two sheds had been built on the site of a worker’s cottage to display the trikes, handcars and tools once used by the track workers. I met some of the volunteers and we talked for hours about the good old days of the railroad and the hard life of the track workers.
It was late in the day when I returned to the Irish bar to continue my research into local history. Over a large dish of beer-battered fish and chips and a cold beer or two, I sought further advice from the staff on the things I should see on my way home.
Before leaving the city in the early morning I drove to a bend in the river to watch the early morning swimmers moving slowly upstream against the fast moving current; and to see the renovated Palm and Pawn Motor Inn, Tavern and Bistro north of the river. It was a local icon and would be crowded in the late afternoon. No longer did people have to drive ten miles from the city to enjoy a bar and bistro on Sundays.
Following the back road home I saw different things and things differently – carefully restored railroad stations and country churches, prosperous farms with their new houses, new vineyards and large trees with white clouds above them painted against the blue sky. If I had stopped there may have been some stories there but I decided to get back onto the highway for the high speed journey back to the crowded city called home.
Tom motivated me to “survey the wreckage” and “notice how many crows fly over the back road” (Wreckage Along the Back Roads. Tom Poland. Like the Dew, May 16, 2017). I did both and the inland town/city I visited was named Wagga Wagga, Wiradjuri words for “place of many crows.”