Owned by the Western Australia Timber Milling company, the Wonnerup Mill was one of a small few approved milling companies.
As the demand for timber increased its viability as an export commodity was soon recognized by the Colony’s new Governor, Frederick Aloysius Weld, who arrived in 1869.
Govenor Weld wanted to encourage large-scale development of the State’s massive timber resources by replacing the existing system of short-term licenses with long-term leases or concessions that would attract outside investors, in particular from Victoria where considerable wealth had been generated from the gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s.
Following negotiations with the syndicates involved, the Home Office granted three concessions. Each company had to provide its own mill, railway and port for shipping the timber. The West Australian Timber Company (referred to as the Ballarat Company in one contemporary account) was granted a concession of 181,500 acres (close to 80,000ha) at Yokanup (now referred to as Yoganup) with its seaport at Lockeville.
The agreement between the West Australian Timber Company and the government was signed on 29 July 1871. John McNeil operated as the company’s agent in Western Australia and was based at Lockeville, where he oversaw the construction of the jetty and railway, which would have included the building of the railway bridge over the Vasse estuary in order to take the line across to the jetty.
It was a matter of local satisfaction that the Vasse could boast having the first locomotive and railway line in the State. In describing how the mill was progressing, an ‘correspondent’ in the 21 April 1871 edition of The Inquirer remarked:
“We are anxiously looking for the arrival of the vessel from Melbourne bringing the locomotive for the W. A. Timber Coy railway. The works are progressing rapidly and it is rumored and generally believed, that His Excellency the Governor will pay us a visit for the purpose of opening the railway and saw mills on the 1st May. This will be a happy May Day for us and it may be easily imagined that we feel no small satisfaction in having this first railroad of the Colony within our district.”
Governor Weld officially opened the railway line on 23rd December 1871.
The locomotive was originally named ‘Ballaarat’ by the Mayor of Melbourne after the original spelling of the town of Ballarat where it was built by James Hunt at the Victoria Foundry (now Phoenix Foundry). ‘It had a horsepower of 16 and had two cylinders of 7 inch diameter and a 14 inch stroke. Three wagons without springs were used on the timber train.’ The timber had been hauled along the rails, originally made of jarrah, by horses before the arrival of the locomotive. Horses and later bullocks continued to be used in conjunction with the engine.
Heritage Council - Ballarat Engine listing