WA's Oldest Steam Locomotive, the Ballaarat Credit W Morgan

Imagine a time without haulage trucks on the highways, when we relied on horses for all the heavy lifting.

170 years ago, Australia had one horse to every two people, such was their importance in human transport and haulage. When steam engines were built for commercial use, they created an industrial revolution. When further adapted for ships and trains, the transport industry changed forever.

It’s hard to imagine how significant it would have been for the tiny settlement of Vasse to have the honour of being home to the first steam engine in Western Australia, and the third in Australia. It was a gamechanger, akin to the first automobiles, the first aeroplanes and maybe even the first trip to the moon!

The steam locomotive was named Ballaarat by the Mayor of Melbourne, after the original spelling of the town where it was built.  Ballaarat is made from two Aboriginal words ‘balla arat,’ which means ‘resting place’. The spelling of the town’s name was eventually changed to Ballarat, but the engine retained its original spelling.

The Western Australian Timber Company purchased the Ballaarat engine, and were awarded one of only three WA milling concessions granted by the Colony’s governor. Timber milling was the South West’s biggest industry and timber was the biggest export industry in Western Australia until World War I.

The company built WA’s first railway line, a 300-foot (91.4 metre) landing jetty, bridge and seaport at Lockeville north of Busselton (near Wonnerup) for transporting their timber offshore. Back then there were landing jetties dotted all over the Geographe Bay for shipping purposes.

Ballaarat earnt its keep hauling logs on a 18km tramline from Lockeville to Yoganup, and eventually 30km inland to Maryvale until the mill closed in 1887 after the company met financial difficulty.

The steam engine fell into decline after the mill’s closure in 1887. There was a chance it might be purchased for use on railway lines at Karridale and Boranup but was found unsuitable for those purposes. It was damaged by fire and remained exposed to the elements in a paddock for a number of years.

WA's First Steam Locomotive The Ballaarat

Eventually things started looking up for the engine, and in 1925 it was donated by landowner Percy Reynolds to the Municipality of Busselton in the hope of giving the engine a better future. The Shire then offered it to the WA Museum followed by the Western Australian Government Railways (WAGR), who eventually accepted and moved it to Midland. However it was considered too expensive to do any restoration, so it remained in the WAGR yards.

It wasn’t until 1929, 42 years after being decommissioned, that Ballaarat finally received partial repair work thanks to it featuring in a State Centenary parade through Perth.

Ballaarat sat in the rail yards until the Busselton community intervened in 1934, requesting the engine’s return. After three years of lobbying, Ballaarat returned home and was installed on public display in Victoria Square in 1937.

It had pride of place in Busselton town centre and was visited by thousands of locals and tourists over the years, but being exposed to the elements for 75 years left the engine a bit rusty and weather beaten.

WA's Oldest Steam Locomotive, the Ballaarat Credit W Morgan

A Lotterywest grant in 2012 made preservation work possible, and the Shire coordinated a local machining business, a team of volunteers and a Rail Heritage Consultant to undertake the restoration.  Rusty pieces of the engine were soaked in molasses or sandblasted. Replicas were made of missing parts and the base frame had some structural work undertaken. The engine was then completely painted. The process took about 550 volunteer hours and was supported by local businesses with services and products.

The locomotive moved to Railway House in 2015 while a new building was constructed around it. It was to be in its own special space with displays on the region’s early timber industry, alongside the old Railway Station, which was renovated for use as the Busselton Visitor Centre and the new Busselton Jetty administration centre.

The Ballaarat Engine’s remarkable history and milestone birthday are being celebrated with a special exhibition from 23 August 2021.

WA Brick Society secretary Ryan Masters has built four Lego models of the engine, starting with when it was operating in Wonnerup in 1871 through to the current version in Railway House. Each replica has about 500 pieces, including fine detail. They’re on display until August 2022.

With thanks to research by Philippa Rogers for her detailed history of The Ballaarat in Light Railways Magazine, April 2012.

The Ballaarat Steam Locomotive in 2020