Somewhere over the rainbow (bridge)

The history and symbolism of rainbows is profound, dealing with powerful notions such as the dualities of life/death and the connection between heaven and earth. Rainbows also appear in many creation myths, it seems that across cultures these multi-coloured half circles inspire feelings of awe and a connection to the Divine.

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For the pure rationalists the rainbow is no such thing. It is simply a meteorological phenomenon caused by both the reflection and refraction of light in water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere, the result of which is a spectrum of light appearing in the sky.

Whatever you believe, one thing is indisputable – we have our own rainbow in the West End at our home railway station Wickham. The steps of the overhead pedestrian bridge have been brightly painted and so have been transformed from a regular overpass into a permanent rainbow arcing over the rail tracks.

This is part of a beautification scheme by energetic locals who are renewing the Wickham Station precinct, turning it from a stretch of grim grey asphalt into a riot of colour. Nearby a large pop-up tree is providing a welcome patch of green, alongside a golden yellow bench decorated with sunflowers. This tranquil patch sits near a lush railway garden, ‘Beresford Garden’, decorated with a noticeboard containing historic photos of Wickham and Honeysuckle Stations. The tree and wooden bench are located at the corner of Bellevue and Beresford Streets on the site of a former road-rail level crossing.

For many decades there have been two railway crossings at Wickham, one at Railway Street (which still exists) and the other (now closed) at the southern end of Hannell Street, where it crossed the tracks at the eastern side of Wickham station. Padlocked gates can still be seen at this former crossing. The two original crossings both existed long before Wickham Station was opened in 1936; in fact the railway station was built adjacent to the Hannell Street crossing.

Darting across the lines at these two crossings was an easy way to get into and out of the West End. But it was risky; one unfortunate mistake, a lapse in concentration or leaving your dash a second too late could mean being struck by a speeding train. Sadly part of the history of the crossings is one of accidental deaths.

Children were particularly vulnerable. In May 1889 a young local boy, John Mulhearn, set off from his home in Wickham to go to the Catholic Church on Maitland Road at nearby Hamilton East. To get there he regularly cut across the train tracks at Railway Street and his parents, Denis and Maggie, had continually cautioned their 8 y.o. son to be particularly careful at this dangerous spot.

As John attempted to cross that evening two trains sped past almost simultaneously, one heading into Newcastle and the other out toward Singleton. Did he become confused by the fast-moving trains heading in different directions? As John tried to cross he was hit, his body dragged along the tracks becoming horribly mutilated. He wasn’t the only child killed there, a couple of years earlier an unnamed girl on her way to school also died at the same crossing.

This was not to be the only death that year. Later in 1889 Thomas Richards, a railway crossing gate keeper, was killed in a moment of misjudged timing showing that railway workers themselves were not immune from danger. He had just begun his 12-hour shift at the Hannell Street crossing and was closing the gates for vehicular traffic as the train from Maitland headed toward the crossing. The guard’s van just clipped the gate and the terrific force smashed Thomas into the ground killing him instantly. In those days the gates closed across the tracks to allow traffic to cross and across the road to allow trains to pass.

Ten years later another railway employee, heading home after a night shift, met his death early in the morning near the Railway Street crossing. William Howard, an engine driver, was getting a lift on the engine he had just been driving, intending to jump off at the nearest point to his home in nearby Wickham. Alighting from his train he saw another one coming in the opposite direction, heading toward Newcastle, so he stood in the gap between the two sets of rails believing he would be safe. Almost instantly William was hit, his death leaving his wife a widow and his seven children fatherless.

As late as 1986-1987 the Hannell Street crossing was continuing to prove lethal, in nine months there three men lost their lives. The station had always had an overhead bridge, but despite this the temptation to just duck across at the level crossing proved too easy and the results were sometimes fatal. The most dangerous was the Wickham side, where the station’s signal box and buildings blocked the view of on-coming trains. When the new road-rail crossing at Stewart Avenue opened the Hannell Street crossing was closed and Wickham Station’s platform extended; it was hoped that these changes would force pedestrians to use the safer overhead bridge.

Today the rainbow stairs over the station, the pretty railway garden, the pop-up tree and sunshine yellow bench create a delightful pocket park. Although it is unintended, I like to think its location, on the site of the former road-rail crossing, is a lovely memorial to the people whose lives ended so unexpectedly both there and at the Railway Street crossing. May their spirits be somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.

Here’s a big shout out to the wonderful urban renewalists bringing the Wickham Station precinct alive. The rainbow steps: Luke Wade, Eryne Withawhy, Simone Sheridan, Marty the Station Master, Dulux (who donated the paint). Pop-up tree and seat: Deb Murinson, Marty (again), Newcastle Now, Newcastle City Council, Mark Aylward and Helen Stronach. Beresfield Garden: Don Barker and Annette Lynch. Photos of the Wickham railway crossings are reproduced courtesy of the Hunter Photobank, Cultural Collections at the University of Newcastle, State Records and the State Library of NSW.

Kimberly O’Sullivan

Have you chosen the West End as your home or as the perfect place to run your business? Do you have a West End tale which deserves a wider audience? What inspires and infuriates you about the West End? If you have a story to tell I would love to talk to you! Here’s how to find me: kimberly@netspace.net.au; 0413 250 155.

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