Practicalities of using horse haulage for construction.

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales


    Although the City Railway was built in the 1920s when motorised vehicles were becoming the dominant form of transport, large numbers of horses were used in the work. In particular much of the spoil removal on the eastern side of the city was with light wooden carts hauled by a single horse. While horses were used underground in the tunnels north of St James they do not seem to have been used at Town Hall station where all underground haulage was my men. The rock excavations at Wynyard were largely handled by small motor lorries, but there is photographic evidence of some use of horses for underground haulage. Where grades were small they were obviated by raising the railed route above the floor of the tunnel, so the strength of men was sufficient to power the haulage.

    The supply depot for the city railway work was at Darling Harbour where rail sidings delivered concrete materials in bulk to overhead bins by hoist, for distribution through the city by small lorries. The main yards for the resting of horses and their care were also at Darling Harbour, though some may have remained in smaller yards closer to worksites.


A wide view of the depot at Darling Harbour. The horse yards are in the foreground. Rail-served elevated hoppers, centre right receive aggregate and sand for distribution by small trucks. At left centre the Iron Wharf which once defined the shoreline of the bay is nearly landlocked by city railway fill. SARA NRS 16669



The depot at Darling Harbour with stored carts and horse yards. This photo was taken in June 1932 when the project was completed and only a single horse remains in what was once a busy place. NRS 16669-060877.


    As in most excavation sites, the deeper parts were accessed via relatively steep haul roads. While a single horse could drag its cart on city streets, especially down-hill to the Darling Harbour reclamation site, the climb out of the deeper levels was beyond a one horsepower prime mover so a system of ‘helper’ horses was employed whereby an extra horse would be harnessed in the lead for the short journey from, say, track level at St James to Park-street or Museum to Elizabeth-street. Once on the public road the lead horse would be unharnessed and returned down the haul road to assist the next load.


Spoil haulage at St James in September 1922. Note empty carts returning on the top road with a single horse; loaded carts climbing out of the pit with two horses while unharnessed horses are led down to assist with later loads. Kathleen Butler Albums, Mitchell Library 16 October 1922


    This method of working was apparently well established in Sydney apart from the railway construction as the routes out of the wharves of Darling Harbour often required a climb to the ridge where the main streets of the city were found. Indeed, in Bradfield’s 1924 Doctor of Science in Engineering thesis, one section of which looks at streets within the city and their utility as access routes to the wharves, he places emphasis on the gradients perhaps with a memory of horse-haulage, though the motor lorries of the era were also not as powerful as their modern counterparts also.

    Horse carts were often loaded with spoil by hand, though there are photographs of them being loaded by steam shovels or cranes. In rocky ground the problem was breaking the material (called spalling) into pieces small enough to be lifted by men, or small track-mounted cranes and within the capacity of a horse cart or light lorry.


This photo was taken near Cleveland Street and shows the widening of cuttings in the approach to Central. It is remarkable in that it shows a flimsy wooden horse card being loaded with a steam navvy. SARA NRS 16669



Mining the tunnels north of Museum towards St James 4 July 1922. Spoil from the face is wheeled and tipped just outside the portal, from where it is hand loaded into carts. Two horses are ready to haul a cart to street level, while other carts stand ready for their turn. SARA NRS 16669
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