The Ballaarat Engine is fondly remembered by many locals as a place to clamber and play in Victoria Square at the entry to Busselton. A few remember getting their fingers slammed in the swinging doors or stuck in parts where they probably shouldn’t have been.
Assembled in 1871 in Ballarat, Victoria, the engine was transported by ship to Wonnerup where it operated for the Western Australian Timber Company making it the first locomotive in Western Australia. It worked some 30km into the forest from the Lockville Jetty through to Maryvale. It had several modifications made due to sparks and embers that flew from the funnel was responsible for some forest fires as well as setting alight the timber logs it was hauling!
However by 1877, the jetty was in poor condition and in 1887 the mill had closed due to financial difficulties. This is when the Ballaarat’s history starts to get more interesting.
It was left on the beach to deteriorate and families would take an adventure to Wonnerup where they climbed it and no doubt had picnics.
Then it was stored in a shed at Lockville, which subsequently caught fire around the 1900’s and it was really in sad condition. The timber lagging was probably burnt off during this time.
Mr Percy Reynolds, the owner of the land on which the Ballaarat was located, offered the engine to the Shire of Busselton, who offered it to the WA Museum and then the Western Australian Government Railways (WAGR). In 1925, the engine was moved by WAGR to their Midland Workshops for refitting. However, due to the costs involved, the works were deferred and the Ballaarat was left to its own devices. Fortunately in 1929, it was partially repaired for a Centenary parade through Perth at which point it was probably painted in the WAGR colours of red and black.
Five years later in 1934, the community requested the Busselton Municipal Council seek the return of the engine and after much debate, it was relocated and installed in Victoria Square.
Like the Busselton Jetty though to a lesser degree, the people of Busselton have loved their engine, which is the oldest surviving example of a steam locomotive built in Australia, and one of only three of its type left in the world, and the only one existing in Australia (Railway Heritage Survey 1994).
Two reports were commissioned by the City, a Conservation Report by the WA Museum and a Significance Assessment by Philippa Rogers a Rail Heritage Consultant. A grant of $16,000 was received from Lotterywest and at the request of councillors, City Officers negotiated with a local business to undertake works for the preservation as well as supervision of volunteers during work on the engine. A Rail Heritage Consultant was engaged to make regular inspections of the work as part of the grant conditions and these were valuable in ensuring not too much of the original fabric of the engine was removed or replaced.
The engine was moved to South West Machining Centre in August 2012 and the renovations commenced immediately. The engine was completely disassembled with rusted parts brushed by hand and sometimes soaked in molasses. The bigger parts of the engine were sandblasted, undercoat and professional top coat were applied locally. Over 550 volunteer hours by a hardy and diligent group of people have been recorded with many resources supplied by local businesses to restore the Ballaarat.
It was installed at the Railway House whilst the construction continued on around it – the building opened in March 2017. Railway House itself is a renovated railway station with a rich history of its own, before becoming the premises of the Busselton Visitor Centre. The Ballaarat Room houses an interpretive exhibition of the timber industry which underpinned the economy of the region, as well as a display of donated artefacts and a history ‘walk.’
The Busselton Visitor Centre is open daily from 9am-5pm.