Saturday, 1 November 2014

Railway Archaeology - Ballarat's Phoenix Foundry


Ballarat's Phoenix Foundry began producing various iron components for local businesses in 1856, moving onto stationary steam engines and eventually steam locomotives in the coming years. Initially one of many foundries in Ballarat, it came to dominate the locomotive business in Victoria and played a key role in transforming Ballarat's economy from being based solely on gold into the more diverse economy it has today. Despite this, it seems to be relatively unknown to most Ballaratians today.

The first buildings were erected on Armstrong Street South in 1856, and initially its products consisted of machinery and components for mining companies, timber mills and similar industrial purposes. This ranged from individual gears and flywheels (often replacement parts for machines imported from England) to entire stationary steam engines. As such, the arrival of the train line from Geelong in 1862 very nearly saw the end of the Phoenix Foundry, as it drastically lowered the cost and waiting times for parts to come from Melbourne and beyond.

However, being so close to a major railway hub turned out to be their saving grace. In 1871 Phoenix won the tender to construct a steam locomotive for a timber company in Western Australia who needed to transport the wood to port, and from there they never looked back - before that locomotive was even complete, they had won their first tender for Victorian government locomotives, which were built to serve the line being constructed from Melbourne to Wodonga on the Murray River.

The party for the completion of Phoenix Foundry's 100th loco, June 1883 (Source)
One order was followed by another and another; as Victoria's railways spread over the countryside over the ensuing decades, Phoenix would grow accordingly, becoming the biggest locomotive builders in Victoria, with only the Victorian Railways works at Williamstown even coming close. Phoenix completed their 100th locomotive in in June 1883, and a number of politicians and other dignitaries attended the accompanying festivities.

Even though heavy rail locomotives had become their specialty, Phoenix did continue with other projects in this period. In 1877 they built a 160 horsepower horizontal stationary engine for the Imperial Mine in Buninyong, which was later used by the Ballarat City Council to crush blue metal, and eventually was given to Sovereign Hill to be restored, where it is still on display.

The preserved steam engine at Sovereign Hill (Source)
They also built three steam trams for the Bendigo tramways. The Bendigo council were vehemently against putting up poles and wires in their streets, so their tramways went through a period of about a decade experimenting with other power sources, including batteries and steam. They initially bought five engines from the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, but were more inclined to boost Victoria's employment in the 1890s depression, so bought their next three engines from the Phoenix Foundry in 1892.

In the early days, Phoenix's locomotives were delivered from the foundry to the mainline on top of a steam-powered truck, which would roll slowly down Armstrong Street to the mainline. From 1883, however, a basic rail line was installed between the foundry and the main line, allowing new locomotives to travel up the middle of Armstrong Street under their own power. Evidently this was mostly done very late at night, to avoid any traffic or pedestrians.

In 1889, the Victorian Railways opened their new workshops in Newport, which were far superior to their old workshops at Williamstown, and indeed to the Phoenix Foundry. The recession of the 1890s and the decline of mining in Ballarat had both taken their toll on the Phoenix Foundry, but the enormous Newport Workshops - which could produce locomotives much quicker and more cheaply than Phoenix - sealed its fate. It became apparent shortly after the turn of the century that Phoenix could not compete with Newport, and the Phoenix Foundry completed their last locomotive in December 1904, finally closing altogether in July 1906. They had built over 350 locomotives in their 50-year history, but only four survive to this day.

The plaque at the corner of Bath Lane and Armstrong Street South
Today, the site where the Phoenix Foundry once stood is occupied by Central Square Shopping Centre - by the end, the foundry had expanded to cover most of the southern part of the block. The section of Armstrong Street that would have been out the front of the foundry is now known as Phoenix Foundry Mall; there are a few plaques and a monument, and the council buildings opposite the site are called "The Phoenix" as a tribute.

The monument in Phoenix Foundry Mall. Note the silhouettes of the steam train and the phoenix.
If you walk down to Sturt Street, the tram square, where the old railway line used to cross the tram tracks, has been preserved and is on display in the footpath of the median, directly opposite the Westpac bank. A small plaque accompanies this too, although the information given isn't exactly accurate.

The preserved tram square on the corner of Sturt and Armstrong Streets
Much more well-known than the foundry itself, though, is one of the locomotives it built - Y112. It is one of only two remaining Y-class locomotives, and the only one that is operational - Y108 is a static display at the Australian Rail Heritage Society museum in Williamstown. Built in 1889, it was originally badged Y419, and was the 238th locomotive built at the Phoenix Foundry.

Y112 at Ballarat Station in 2013
The Y-class locos were originally designed to be mainline heavy-goods locomotives, but also did many miles hauling trains around suburban Melbourne prior to electrification in the late 1910s. A Y-class was also the first engine to travel on the Buninyong Line when it opened in 1889. They started to be withdrawn from regular duties in the mid 1920s, after which they did shunting work in the yards of various stations, until the last one was finally withdrawn from service in 1963.

Y112 itself was in service from 1889 to 1961. After a short absence, it was preserved as a static display near Civic Hall in Ballarat from 1966 to 1985, at which point it was stored until it could restored to active duty. After some back-and-forth due to funding issues, it was restored and started running heritage services in 1996. Although it was originally restored by Steamrail Victoria and workers of the short-lived West Coast Railway company on a volunteer basis, it is actually owned by the Ballarat Historical Society, and is now maintained and run by Steamrail Victoria.

Y112 at Warrenheip (Source)
Very recently it was re-badged with its original number plates (Y419) and was due for a run down to Traralgon for its 125th birthday, but unfortunately a leaking seam was discovered in the firebox shortly beforehand, so a different loco had to run the trip. It is looking like a relatively easy fix though, so hopefully she'll be carrying on the Phoenix name for a few more years yet.

I would strongly recommend the recently-published The Phoenix Foundry: Locomotive Builders of Ballarat by Robert Butrims and David Macartney to anyone with an interest in the subject - especially Y112, as the authors helped restore it. Most of what I know about the foundry was either contained in this book, or was found after getting hints from the book, so it's worth a read.

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