Monthly Archives: October 2017

Exploring Melbourne – by tram to St Kilda

Former Melbourne & Hobson's Bay Railway Albert Park station, Melbourne, Australia

Former Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Albert Park station, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne’s tram route 96 between the city and the beach resort of St Kilda was formerly a railway line, originally the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company, opened in 1857.

In 1987 the line, along with the connected rail line to Port Melbourne, was converted from heavy rail to light rail, regauged from the Victorian railway 5ft 3in to the Melbourne tramway standard gauge, with the overhead line voltage reduced from 1,500v DC to 650v DC.

A simple junction into Fitzroy Street allows trams to continue along the Esplanade to a terminus at Acland Street, serving the beach, Luna Park and the shops.  In the city, route 96 runs past Southern Cross Station, along Bourke Street and out to East Brunswick.

Because it is so heavily used it’s operated by big light-rail vehicles: the five class C2 units were leased and then bought specifically for route 96 in 2008, later supplemented by class E units from 2013.  Each unit can carry in excess of two hundred passengers, which is useful not only in rush hours but also for events such as the St Kilda Festival and the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.

It’s a hugely popular route, quicker and more comfortable than alternative tram routes between St Kilda and the city:

St Kilda railway station is barely recognisable, though it’s the oldest surviving railway building in the state of Victoria, opened in 1857.  It was the subject of a controversial redevelopment in the late 1990s, when the station building was converted to shops and an apartment block with a Woolworths supermarket was built on the site of the goods yard.

As you sit in air-conditioned comfort on a fast modern tramcar, you pass immediately recognisable steam-age railway stations, no longer usable because of the height of the platforms, all of them converted to other uses.

I called at the Albert Park station, which is a railway antiques showroom, where I was offered a working Melbourne tram destination indicator for A$1,000:

It’s hardly surprising that National Geographic nominated route 96 as one of the world’s best tram rides:

Dig in the park

Firth Park bandstand dig, Sheffield, July 6th 2017

Firth Park bandstand dig, Sheffield, July 6th 2017

When I took my friends John and Lynn for a post-prandial walk in the park we came upon a deserted trench, surrounded by security fencing.

We were intrigued to see brickwork exposed, and I surmised that it would have some connection with the bandstand that I knew stood on the park from the Edwardian period until it was demolished in the 1970s.

Sure enough, when I saw activity a couple of days later and walked across to ask what was going on I discovered it was Dig it!, a project led by Dr Katherine Fennelly, Lecturer in Heritage at the University of Lincoln, and Colin Merrony from the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield, a happy combination of academic investigation and outreach to encourage local school and college students to take an interest in the fascination of archaeology and to think about taking the opportunity to study at university:

Teenagers are likely to take notice when they see young people a few years older than they are – in this case Sheffield University students Ceiridwen Blakesley and David Inglis – enjoying themselves with hands-on work that also requires serious thinking.

By the end of the two-week dig the team had determined the dimensions of the octagonal bandstand from its remaining foundations, and had decided that the brick-lined compartment in the centre was a furniture store accessed by a trap-door in the wooden floor of the bandstand.

The exercise will be all the more valuable if, sometime in the next five years, some kid from a north Sheffield school decides they want to train their mind and expand their career by going to university, whatever they choose to study.

And I trust the Department of Archaeology will continue to Dig It! – after all, in archaeology as in show business, you’re only as good as your last dig.

Niagara by bus

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

My explorations on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls were enlivened by the opportunity to travel by London Transport Routemaster bus:

The outside temperature in late July was pushing 100°F (37.8°C) and the nearest a Routemaster goes to air-conditioning is to open the top-deck quarter-drop windows and the rear emergency-exit window and hope for a through-draught.

The red double-deck London bus qualifies for the over-used expression “icon”.  Alongside the San Francisco cable-car and the trams of Melbourne and Hong Kong, it’s instantly recognisable  and  unlike rail-borne icons – easily exportable.

London ran heritage Routemasters running tourists across the West End, though they were removed from ordinary services in 2005, until 2020, when they were discontinued during the Covid pandemic.

It’s possible to ride on genuine London buses in many parts of the world:  my introduction to Christchurch, New Zealand, a few days before the 2011 earthquake, was on a Routemaster that took the steep and sharply curved Mount Pleasant Road without complaint:

Apart from their nostalgia appeal, the Routemaster has the advantage of being an extremely robust, well-designed vehicle with extraordinary longevity, attributable to the maintenance programme which amounted to a full rebuild every five years at the London Transport works at Aldenham.

The Routemaster was an improvement on its predecessor, the RT.  It’s regrettable that when the traditional two-man-operated, open-platform Routemaster was superseded by off-the-shelf vehicles from commercial manufacturers, none of them have lasted so well.

Like the High Speed Train, the Routemaster stands as unbeatable British design that wasn’t directly followed up.

Nearly half of the 2,876 Routemasters built between 1954 and 1968 are still in existence, and there’s no difficulty in obtaining spares.  Indeed, Routemaster owners have an association to call on for assistance and rallies can attract over a hundred vehicles from far and wide:

Niagara Falls stories: “Red” Hill and the runaway scow

Niagara River scow

Niagara River scow

From the Canadian side of the Niagara River, some distance above the Horseshoe Falls, you can see what looks like a rusty iron skip sitting in the middle of the rapids.

It’s actually a scow, a river barge intended to be towed by a powered vessel.  This one was being towed by a tug, the Hassayampa, when it came adrift on the afternoon of August 6th 1918, carrying two deckhands, Gustave Loftberg (51) and Frank Harris (53), helplessly towards the falls until it ran aground on the shallow rocks, where it remains to this day.

Crowds gathered to observe their predicament, but rescuing them by boat was impossible because of the current and the danger of the falls downstream.

It took until nightfall to secure a rope to rescue the men.  Searchlights were installed and a breeches buoy attached but became entangled.  At 3.00am William “Red” Hill Snr, a local Canadian daredevil with a formidable record of lifesaving around the Falls, traversed the rope hand over hand but was unable to disentangle the buoy until daylight.

It took until 10.00am on August 7th to bring Loftberg and Harris, shocked, hungry and suffering from exposure, back to the Canadian bank:

“Red” Hill was awarded the Carnegie Life Saving Medal for his rescue.

By the time of his death aged 54 in 1942, he was credited with saving 28 people, including Loftberg and Harris, in and around the Niagara River.

Update:  In December 2021, after a heavy storm, the scow flipped over and moved fifty metres nearer to the Falls:  101-year-old ship dislodged above Niagara Falls – BBC News.

Niagara Falls stories: Schoellkopf Power Station

Schoellkopf Power Station ruins, Niagara Falls, New York State, USA

Schoellkopf Power Station ruins, Niagara Falls, New York State, USA

I once went to Niagara Falls, to see the waterfalls, as you do.  I stayed on the USA side, in what the cab-driver described as “the best b&b in town”:

Over a couple of days I saw and photographed the Falls from all angles, including the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds.

I spent an afternoon in Canada, because the Canadians have all the best views, while the Americans have all the best close-up vantage points.

One oddity intrigued me on the bus-ride along the Canadian side – a heap of rubble and vestiges of an industrial site on cliffs that form the opposite bank.

I was told that this was the site of the Schoellkopf Power Station, which collapsed in a spectacular manner in 1956.

This was the creation of Jacob F Schoellkopf (1819-1899), the first person to harness the power of Niagara Falls to generate electricity.

He was a remarkable entrepreneur, who built his fortune first in tanneries and later in flour-milling.

He bought the previously unsuccessful Niagara Falls Canal in 1877 and opened the first of a succession of hydro-electric power stations, No 1, in 1881.  No 2 followed in 1891, and after his death Nos 3A and 3B opened in 1904, and No 3C in 1921-4.

Schoellkopf looked for a more efficient way of illuminating the Falls at night than the ineffective calcium flares that had been used since 1860.  In 1881 he made a contract with Charles F Brush (1849-1929) of Euclid, Ohio, to harness sixteen carbon arc lights to his hydraulic power company’s generators.

The Schoellkopf generating stations worked efficiently, but there was a fatal weakness in the construction of No 2 station, which was built immediately in front of its predecessor.

Between the two structures water slowly penetrated until on the morning of June 7th 1956 leaks became evident and increased despite the efforts of forty labourers to pile sandbags against the retaining wall.

At 5.00pm a loud rumble was immediately followed by the collapse of Power Stations 2, 3B and 3C – two-thirds of the entire plant – into the Niagara River, taking out six huge generators and throwing debris as far as the Canadian bank, cutting 400,000 kilowatts of power from the grid.

Only one worker, Richard Draper of Lewiston, was killed.  His companions, Louis Bernstein and Robert Chapman, were picked up by a Canadian Maid of the Mist boat.  All the others escaped without injury.

The destroyed power-stations were replaced by what became the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, named after the controversial New York city planner Robert Moses (1888-1981), generating 2,525 megawatts.