Zig Zag Railway when in operation, showing all levels (probably taken by the famous Antarctic photographer Frank Hurley)
August 2009
Jerrems Family Newsletter
Making the Family Connections
Dear Donald,
It is fun to reminisce about how our family came together long ago. Improved transcontintal transportation systems become part of the family lore. Enjoy Ray's account below.

Place your mouse cursor over the image to view the caption text.

Every December we try to offer greeting to each other through the journal.

This year we plan to send images of old family Chrismas cards...the ones with family photos at the time.

Recently, I found one from our 1948 family. I plan to use it in the December issue. If you have one you would like to include, digitally scan it and send me a copy.

A Tale of Two Railways
Ray Jerrems, Our Genealogist, Historian   Connections by Railway Replica of Baldwin engine, typical of express engines used on the Trans Continental Railway in the 1870s

Recently I have been reading about the history of the construction of railways in the United States, for two reasons. The first reason is that I have been very interested in railway history in New South Wales since I was a small boy (for reasons I will talk about later in this article), so it seemed logical to compare it with the railway history of the United States. The second reason is that it forms a backdrop to the history of parts of the Jerrems families in New South Wales and the US.

Melbourne readers have the picturesque "Puffing Billy" railway line which climbs up the Dandenong Range from Emerald, but as far as I know this railway does not have any specific relevance to the Jerrems families of yesteryear.

Readers like Sue Jerrems, who has a miniature steam train line in her garden in Los Vegas (plus a Pullman car and a caboose), will particularly appreciate this article. But I am sure that everyone else will enjoy it too.

I dedicate this article to Jerry lV (William George Jerrems lV), Sue's late husband and a fellow steam train enthusiast.

The New South Wales family's railway connection.

Briefly, my interest as a boy in the history of railways in New South Wales was piqued by accounts from my grandparents of their train trips across the Blue Mountains (to the west of Sydney) in the late 1800s. In those days the railway was a single track railway which had the famous "Zig Zag" (pictured above) at the western end of the Blue Mountains to enable it to descend the western escarpment. My grandfather Alf Jerrems lived in Sydney, and my grandmother Esther grew up in Lithgow, a short distance beyond the Zig Zag. In their courtship days they travelled a lot along this route by train to see each other, and after they married in 1905 and settled in Sydney they continued use the railway on occasions to visit the numerous Lithgow relations.

If the Zig Zag hadn't been built my grandparents would never have met and I would not be writing this article today.

I will tell you more about the remarkable "Zig Zag" after telling you about the US connection.

The United States family's railway connection

The United States family's connection with railway history is also interesting. When William George Jerrems (my grandfather's uncle, and Jerry lV's great grandfather) and his young family sailed from Sydney to San Francisco in about 1876 they would have travelled to New York by train, along the recently opened Transcontinental Railroad (using a generic term for it). A spectacular feature of this railway, comparable with the Blue Mountains Zig Zag, was the way it climbed from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada Range through the legendary Donner Pass.

Like the Zig Zag, the Donner Pass section of the Transcontinental Railroad had been described at the time as one of the world's major engineering feats. A big difference between the two railway journeys was that it took five hours to travel from Sydney to Lithgow and at least five days to travel from San Francisco to New York.

In later years William and his father-in-law Alexander Nicoll opened "Nicoll the Tailor" stores in San Francisco and Sacramento, so they would also have travelled along this railroad on a number of occasions.

If there had not been a railroad from San Francisco to New York when the family landed in San Francisco then perhaps our editor Donald's great grandparents may have settled in San Francisco and (like me) Donald would not be editing this Journal.

The Zig Zag Railway

Now known colloquially as the Zig Zag Railway, the first railway over the Blue Mountains was commenced in 1866 and completed in 1869. Its significance was that it opened up railway access to the vast area of western New South Wales, replacing rough roads used by slow horse carts, horse coaches and bullock wagons.

To understand the meaning of the term "zig zag" you need to imagine a road descending a steep mountain using a series of "hairpin bends", but replace the bends with overruns where the trains stopped and then reversed down the next section, then forward down the next section. Then put in long stone arched bridges to cross the gullies in between.

In some parts of the "Zig Zag" section workmen had to be lowered down the cliffs to drill holes for blasting, and in one instance 2 tons blasting powder was used to remove 45,000 tons of rock in one huge explosion. A party of dignitaries travelled up from Sydney for the occasion, and the explosion was set off by the State Governor's wife.

In fact the railway descended a total of about 1000 feet into the valley (not a lot compared with the United States Trans Continental Railway) from the top of the range at Clarence Tunnel. For the most part its fame was probably due to the novelty and ingenuity of its construction and its huge impact on the opening up of western New South Wales, rather than the immensity of the work carried out.

The Zig Zag part of the railway became rather notorious for trains running away on the steep gradients, mainly involving goods trains. When there was a pile-up the townspeople of Lithgow (including my grandmother) flocked along to look at the results. On one famous occasion a steam engine crashed through the buffers and almost toppled over a high cliff. Luckily its progress was arrested by rocks before it overbalanced.

This section was replaced by tunnels in 1910, ending an era.

The United States Trans Continental Railway

I have used the term "Trans Continental Railway" for ease of reference (it was called the Central Pacific and the western part was owned by the Union Pacific Company, which gets complicated). Its significance was that it opened up railway access between the eastern and western coasts of the United States, replacing (a) a long and dangerous trip by wagon train across the United States (b) a laborious sea voyage from the East Coast around the bottom of South America and up the West Coast to San Francisco or (c) a boat trip on the East Coast down to the Panama area, a land trip across to the other side, and a further boat trip to San Francisco (these were the routes used in 1849 by the "Forty Niner" gold miners to get to the gold fields near San Francisco).

Although the founder of the railroad, Theodore Judah, first conceived a practical plan for the building of such a railway in 1860 it took him several years of intermittent exploration to work out how it could actually ascend the San Francisco side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near San Francisco. He finally chose a route across Donner Pass, previously used by settlers' wagons. This part took a small army of workers five years to construct, and involved very steep gradients up a winding route, and the construction of a complex system of cuttings, bridges and tunnels.

In 1869 the railway was opened along its full length with great fanfare. In one section the ascent route to Donner Pass wended its way along the rim of the American River Canyon, in some cases 2000 feet above the river. Starting near Sacramento almost at sea level the railway climbed to a little over 7000 feet (2134 metres), a huge climb for the small steam engines used in those days. For the benefit of Australian readers the Pass was almost as high as our highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko.

The winters were severe on the heights of the range, raising unexpected problems of winter snowfalls. Eventually a total of 30 miles of "snow sheds" were built over the high sections to keep the snow off, and snow plough teams were kept on standby.

Although the Donner Pass was one of the highest railway routes used in the United States, it was by no means the highest. This honour goes to the Alpine Tunnel on the narrow gauge South Park Line in Colorado, at nearly 12000 feet (3658 metres). Opened in 1882, it was closed in 1910 because it was impossible to keep open due to high snowfalls. The Donner Pass section of this railway was superseded in the 1990s by a tunnel.

The engines used on the US Transcontinental

Railway and the Zig Zag

The engines used by our relatives in 1876 (in the US) and in the very early 1900s (the Zig Zag) were quite different, primarily because the engineering had improved significantly in the intervening period. In the United States a particular design was used from the 1850s well into the 1880s, involving a wheel configuration of 4-4-0 (4 small wheels at the front, 4 connected big wheels in the middle, and none under the cab), known in the USA as the "American". Similar designs were used in New South Wales at the time also. It is this type of locomotive that would have hauled the Jerrems family's train in 1876, with the assistance of an additional engine up the steep grades to Donner Pass.

The brightly coloured trains of this era, with their large timber cabs, polished funnels and large head lamps and cowcatchers, probably reflected the romance of the period.

By the mid 1890s in New South Wales the more sedate-looking P6 (later renumbered as the "32 Class") was hauling trains over the Blue Mountains. This was a more powerful loco with a 4-6-0 configuration, having 6 smaller connected wheels in the middle. These engines would have hauled the trains used by my grandparents, assisted on occasions by another engine "double heading" on the front.


Hopefully you have some restored steam trains which operate occasionally in your area, or there are miniature steam trains there, to remind you of the marvellous days when steam trains reigned supreme. Or perhaps you have a small grand daughter named Jessica (as I have) who has a toy steam engine which has a whistle which sounds just like a steam train whistle. It takes me back to the whistles I used to hear echoing in the Blue Mountains when I was a boy, and to my grandparents who would have done likewise. No doubt you have memories also.

The caboose/guard's van has arrived

When you are watching a steam-hauled goods train passing by, you know when the end of the train is getting close because you see the caboose approaching (in the United States) or the guard's van approaching (in Australia). The caboose/guard's van has arrived for my article and it is time for me to sign off.

It has been interesting to see how two of the best known railways in the world had a connection with the Jerrems family, and that without these railways perhaps many of us would not be here today.

Image Old Engine
  Original P6 engine (later renumbered as ?32 Class?) typical of express engines used from the 1890s on the Zig Zag Railway
Image Old Tunnel
  Original single track tunnel (now superseded) in Donner Pass area, showing rough hewn granite

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