St James Station Excavation

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales


    The design of the City Railway, as far as possible, used public land and roads. Only as a last resort were tunnels driven under private buildings which had to be underpinned with great effort and always successfully. The two stations on the eastern leg of the City Circle are therefore of necessity situated in Hyde Park at its northern and southern extremities.

    St James, as the interchange station with the proposed Eastern Suburbs railway, had four platforms and with the concourse and approach subways required a large excavation. Much of the spoil was carted away to tips at either the embankment across Belmore Park, or to land reclamation in Darling Harbour. Some material had to be stockpiled on site for eventual replacement to bury the station and restore the park.

This scene shows less than a year’s work. The wide excavation will hold four tracks and four platforms while in the distance the open cut will hold two tunnels for the Eastern Suburbs railway. Both motor lorries and horse drawn tip carts are being used to carry spoil away.
Source: Mitchell Library, Kathleen Butler albums.

    The devastation of public land was extensive, but at least it was temporary. Some earlier proposals for ‘bringing the railway into the city’ had included an open-air station at the location. Electric traction had made the underground option viable. The station as it was built has been shown by history to have been much too big. The four platforms have never been used and the long shallow approach tunnels for the Eastern Suburbs Railway, with all that extra excavation, destruction and expense have been a complete waste. Had Bradfield known that the Eastern Suburbs railway would never be completed he could have built at St James a replica of Museum with a much smaller footprint. The lines between Museum and St James as they opened in 1926 were built by mining without opening the surface. Only the shallow Eastern Suburbs tunnels were built by cut and cover. Had they not been part of the design the only destruction of the park would have been for the actual stations and at St James a much smaller station at that.

    In Bradfield's detailed recording of the work, now held in the National Library of Australia he wrote:

During the preliminary excavation for this station considerable excitement among the workmen was caused by the discovery of gold.

    On the 6th September 1922, a nugget of virgin gold, about 3 oz. in weight, was found by one of the workmen, John Thompson, near the Tea Kiosk at St. James’. He was engaged in trimming the slope of the batter on the western side of the cutting, at a point about one chain north of the south end of the station where the nugget was unearthed at about three feet from the present surface, on what was practically the original surface of the park. Search by the workmen failed to discover further nuggets, and it appears possible that the nugget found had been “planted”.

   During the progress of excavation in Hyde Park other discoveries of gold were reported, but investigations showed that the finds consisted principally of fused metal, probably the meltings of church vessels and ornaments destroyed by fire. The gold contents were inappreciable.

    The excavation for St James involved the only large item of earth moving equipment used in the whole City Railway project. The Bucyrus dragline excavator will be the subject of another article of its own but suffice it to say that a coal-fired, steam powered drag-line in 1922 was not a precision tool, and while it may have moved bulk, men did the detail excavation and horse drays or small trucks moved many tens of thousands of tonnes of material to disposal sites. Three powered excavation ‘navvies’ were also used for part of the work. Two were steam and one electric.

Two steam navvies are at work loading seemingly fragile wooden tip drays with rocky material. In the distance the Bucyrus has removed much of the softer overlying material.
Source: Mitchell Library, Kathleen Butler albums.

    North of the station under Macquarie-street, the tunnels were mined from St James station as far as the State Library of NSW. Later, after St James station was open and therefore not available for construction access, the tunnels north of the library were excavated from a shaft in the centre of the road in front of the library.

The deep and wide cut extended from St James south to Park Street and after crossing under that street in a tunnel resumed in Hyde Park south, where the flyover of the City Outer line was constructed.
Source: Mitchell Library. Kathleen Butler albums.

    The arrangement of platforms and tracks at St James station had the City Circle lines on the outside with the Eastern Suburbs platforms between them. Leaving the station to the south the route towards the east had to cross the City Circle line heading to Museum and this had to be a grade-separated crossing. Bradfield’s design was always to build the crossing so that the next phase of the project would not require working under traffic from the constructor’s point of view, nor disruption of services from the railway operator’s and commuters’ point of view. The distance required to allow one line to rise up enough to cross the other line sinking down, reached across Park Street which remained open at all times as it carried a tramline. The railway was mined beneath it. Once the crossover was passed work ceased and has never been resumed.

    Nearly 100 years later little remains visible on the surface. An avenue of huge trees has grown in the back fill. The two access shafts for the connecting tunnels between Museum and St James remain open as ventilation, though one is strangled by a fig tree and the other hides unnoticed in a City Council garden bed.

The construction shafts to the City Circle tunnels are still visible as ventilation ducts. They are close to Park Street, either side of the central walkway.
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