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There were sugar cane operations in Capricornia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but a lack of transportation, limited planting areas, and changing labour legislation (regulation of islander labour) resulted in their closure.
But what if the sugar industry in the Capricornia region of Central Queensland had continued to exist up to the present day?
Might there still be at least a couple of mills and a museum to keep the history of the industry alive? And given the mills' health and safety and/or insurance concerns might that museum have a dedicated tourist railway to ensure that there wasn't a need to run tourist or excursion trains on the mill railway?
This page explores the fictional history of the 'Capricorn Shire' and its sugar growing industry, with links to enough real history to support the fiction.
The Farnborough mill closed in 1901.
Rockhampton's rail museum with a web site containing an extensive collection of photos and documentation of rail development in Central Queensland.
The fictitious Capricorn Shire, first settled in the mid-1800s, was not a good environment for sheep 'runs' as sharp coastal grasses tangled into the fleece, both ruining the fleece and causing injury to the carcass itself. The first such stations switched to cattle and then to field crops as land was cleared.
Sugar cane was introduced to the shire in the 1880s and quickly spread where ever land could be cleared. The collapse of sugar prices at the end of the century set the industry back but tramway development, irrigation and funding for cooperative mills provided the basis for a slow recovery and the eventual dominance of the now privately owned Capricorn Sugar Mills.
Gold and other metals were also found in the shire, leading to once thriving communities such as that at Mt Chalmers. More recently plantation timber, coffee, pineapples, mangos and other fruit, plus a hint of illicit marijuana, provide a broader economic base.
Much of the labour requirements prior to 1900 were met with Kanakas, or contracted labour from the Pacific Islands. 'Blackbirding', essentially a form of kidnapping for slavery, was alleged with many of the labourers, resulting in legislation that severely restricted Islander labour. However many Islanders remained in Australia and continued in their own communities such as that at Joskeleigh.
Railway development in Queensland tended to be from coastal port to the interior, with the first railway in Central Queensland progressing west from Rockhampton. However, communities within the shire remained isolated until the Capricorn Shire developed a 2' gauge tramway to connect coastal communities with new ports at Emu Park and along the Fitzroy River, and eventually North Rockhampton.
The shire provided passenger and general freight services, but even as the sole means of getting from one community to another the services were not economic. An appeal to the State government was not successful and a agreement was eventually struck with the Capricorn Sugar Mill to operate the shire tramway as part of the growing mill system.
The several mills in the shire eventually consolidated into two mills east of Rockhampton and one to the west. The western mill was serviced by the new QGR, later QR, line west towards Emerald and Longreach, with 2' gauge trackage only within the mill precinct itself.
However, the shire's two Capricorn Sugar mills developed an extensive tramway system to move cane from both mill-owned plantations and privately owned cane farms. Initially some lines duplicated shire tramway lines, but these were eliminated when the two systems were combined in the 1930s, with the mill agreeing to maintain general passenger and freight services when not in conflict with mill requirements.
The development of roads within the shire, with the resultant use of motor cars and trucks, has led to the downgrading of non-cane services. As well, by the early 1990s workplace health and safety concerns curtailed the popular tourist train operations, leading to mill support for the self-contained CSRM rail system.
The Capricorn Sugar Rail Museum was established in the early 1990s to preserve the wide variety of local rail-oriented artefacts that might otherwise be sold to the local scrap metal merchants or destroyed. A proposal was prepared for possible funding as part of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations but other local projects had higher priority.
Fortunately support was provided by the Capricorn Sugar Mill and its employees and the museum was located on a property adjacent to the mill. While the mill was initially able to provide both mill tours and a ride on the mill's railway, the cost of public liability insurance resulted in mill staff building a small oval of track to allow continuous running for a 'tourist train'. This was eventually expanded to include minimalist locomotive and wagon servicing and maintenance facilities.
Please note: The above 'history' is fictional, and meant only to support the development of the Capricorn Sugar Rail Museum, an On30 model railway. The inclusion of links to historical events and rail heritage sites is meant to provide background for the fictional history, not to belittle the importance of these rail heritage activities.