A Visit to the Canning Jarrah Saw Mills

By our Special Reporter

A report from “The West Australian” Tuesday 5th December 1893

The old saying is that there is nothing like leather, but if this refers to its durability then West Australians will make bold to disagree. When the question of durability arises it would be better, in the colony, at any rate, to allege that there is nothing like jarrah. This timber, which is really a mahogany, and which can be put to quite as good and ornamental uses as the famous timber from Honduras, is now acquiring a world-wide reputation, and the trade is growing apace. Unyielding to the severest attacks of teredo, ehrlura, or termites, it is as valuable for jetties as it is for underground works of all kinds, and in these respects in fact is, almost unique. Whether for piles, sleepers, the supports for houses, flooring boards, joists, furniture, or ship-building it is equally useful: and a recent use has been found for it in London and other cities, which promises to give a great stimulus to the trade. It has been discovered to be a most valuable material for road_making, when cut into suitable blocks, and is better able than any other material to stand the wear and tear of the incessant traffic of the City of London. Its increased cost over other road materials is far more than compensated by the vastly greater durability and suitability, and although strong and interested efforts are being made in London and elsewhere to prevent the use of jarrah for street paving, a majority of the vestries and councils are deciding in favour of our hardwood, and the trade in consequence is bound to grow enormously. The jarrah tree grows on the plains as well as the hills, but the superior timber is found on the ironstone ranges, were it is particularly sound as well as big and straight.

A visit to a large timber station in the Darling Ranges is fraught with considerable interest. In the first place there is the fine natural scenery that strikes the eye of the most unobservant, and nowhere in the South Western portion of Western Australia are more beautiful views to be obtained than from the summits of the Darling Range, over-looking Perth, Fremantle and the Indian Ocean. Here the bush loses its eternal sameness and somber colouring, and becomes varied, majestic and even beautiful. Tall trees rear their heads aloft on the steep and rocky ranges, tier upon tier: palms, blackboys, bracken and beautiful ferns and plants grow in dense profusion to its present luxuriant growth would bear fruit-trees and vines in abundance. Streams and water-courses pour down these verdant hills, and although the reservoir which supplies Perth prevents much of the precious fluid from running to waste, simple modes of conservation would serve to irrigate miles on miles of country. These certainly would be no need to fear that the city will ever suffer from a water famine, as a supply for millions could be collected and conserved in these hills alone.

The Canning Jarrah Mills, although some 20 miles out of the city, and over a thousand feet above the sea level, are reached by rail. The enterprising company which purchased the station about three years ago have constructed a railway connecting with the Eastern line and the former is. I may almost say, among the engineering wonders of Australia. This line, called the Zigzag, bears some resemblance to that other marvel of the same name in New South Wales, although it was not so costly and is by no means on a similar scale. The range is mounted by a series of lines rising tier upon tier, “Z” or zigzag fashion, and the train is alternately pushed and pulled by the engine until the summit is attained. As one mounts higher and higher the air becomes rarer and more exhilarating, and a lovely panorama unfolds itself until an area fully equal to that of three or four British counties, lies at one’s feet. In the far distance is the Indian Ocean, with Rottonest Island nestling in its bosom, its gleaming sands and snowy white building and lighthouse showing up quite plainly at what must be a distance of fully thirty-five miles. Nearer at hand the Swan and the Canning rivers mark a sinuous silvery course, whilst the quarry at Rocky Bay forms a clear landmark: and nearer still is Perth itself, looking quite an imposing city. Still nearer, and almost nestling at one’s feet, is the pretty village of Guildford, whilst settlements here and there dot the wide-spreading scene, and stimulate visions of the time, let us hope not far distant, when the virgin bush will be cleared away, and in its place we shall see scores and hundreds of smiling farms and vineyards. As we rise we pass Mr. Statham’s bluestone and granite quarries, where the commencement of a very important industry, on which quite a large amount of capital is being expanded, are to be seen. Higher yet, we pass gardens and orangeries, notably Messers. Burt and Haynes’ Gooseberry Hill groves. Then, after much puffing and straining by the engine, the summit is reached, and a fairly level course of six or seven miles is pursued until we reach the timber station itself. This has the appearance of the typical Australian forest settlement. Small timber huts and houses are everywhere to be seen, presenting the grey dingy appearance inseparable from such structures. The many dead trees around are of the same grey colour, whilst old logs and lumber are scattered about the place. To say that the scene is exactly picturesque would be wrong, but it is, as I have seen, typical and interesting. In the distance is heard the whirr of machinery, at work in the long, low sheds, or mills, as they are called. Huge jinkers, for hauling timber, pass along, wearily dragged by teams of heavy-eyed oxes, who look more stupid than patient: a small puffing and snorting locomotive whisks along one of the lines of railway, pulling after it trucks laden with the rich brown-coloured timber; and there are many signs of life, bustle, and activity. In the company of Mr. Frank Wilson, the kindly and capable manager director of the mills, I proceeded to the only hotel on the station, The Forrest Inn, kept by Mr. Gibbs, and where we were treated to an excellent luncheon, the menu including prize lamb from the recent Guildford Show, which would have easily passed for well-grown fat mutton. Conversing with the manager, I learned that there is a community of about 400 people upon the station, of whom 150 men are employed at the mills, or in felling and hauling timber, the total wages paid out ranging from 1,800 pounds to 2,200 pounds per month, so it will be at once recognised that this is a large branch of an important local industry.

Grouped about the station are several structures, including the office, where a staff of book-keepers and accountants are kept busily occupied, and where also there is that great convenience of modern times, the telephone, communicating with head office in Perth, and thus with the system which serves Perth and Fremantle. There is also a Government school, the company giving the use of a room, which the Board of Education have come to regard as their own, judging by the way in which they would endeavour to limit its uses. This is also at present used as a post office, a place of public entertainment, and also of worship. At present there is neither a properly appointed post office or telegraph station at the mills, despite the size of the community. The Post Master General should give his attention to this, as both are urgently required for the public convenience. It cannot be expected that the company will much longer give their room or their clerks for that which is the work of the Post Office, without fee or reward. Whilst briefly describing the community, it should also be mentioned that there is a doctor on the station, who has a well-equipped surgery: and also a general store, belonging to the company.

We first visited the Yankee, an American Mill, where timber is being cut, with a rapidity almost amazing. The huge logs are hauled to the bench, cut into the requisite lengths by the aid of twin and circular saws of various dimensions, ranging from 5ft. 6in. in diameter, the refuse either going to a heap where it is destroyed, together with enormous quantities of sawdust, or it is sent down to Perth as firewood. Only a small portion of the waste material is used for fuel. and enough wood is allowed, perforce, to run to waste at the mills to supply the city. The timber turned out from the mills include jetty piles, sleepers, joists, beams and planks of all kinds, flooring boards, scantlings, posts and rails, in fact everything that is useful in the different branches of building, & etc. The contract for sleepers for the Yilgarn Railway is held by the Company and is being rapidly carried out, and with the splendid machinery at the three mills, these essentials to railway construction are being turned out at the sleeper mill alone at the rate of about 900 per day of 10 hours. In the Yankee mill, which was the first I visited, there is an engine of 40 indicated horse-power, with large tubular boiler, and the machinery here, as elsewhere at the mills, is of the best character. Leaving this mill we got on board some trucks attached to a locomotive, and proceeded through into the forest. The way was strewn with fallen trees and huge logs, six or seven feet high: piles of fencing poles and posts, neatly stacked, and heaps of fuel. Away in the distance we heard the constant tapping of the axes of the fellers, and the occasional dull thud of a tree, as it was brought to the ground. Mr. White, the station manager, informed us that the company is still extending its branch lines, and some of these pass through virgin forest, hitherto untouched by the axe or saw. At a distance of about three miles from the main camp we stopped at Number One Mill, where we found another considerable settlement. Here were piled huge stacks of sleepers, and a steam cross cut saw was busily doing the work of a dozen men with unerring exactitude. Leaving this mill. where the machinery is quite as complete and elaborate as at that which I had previously visited, we returned to the train. This time we mounted the engine, and our last glimpse as we were whisked away was the portly form of Mr. McLarty, the Government Inspector, passing the sleepers. We crossed and recrossed the now famous Munday’s Brook, which does not seem improved by its contact with the mills. Proceeding up the line we were met by a small puffer or locomotive, the hero of the late collision on the Zig-zag, looking and behaving none the worse for that startling mishap. We passed siding after siding, with piles of timber of various kinds, shapes and sizes. The palms, blackboys and vegetation generally were in luxuriant profusion, whilst the rich chocolate soil and the running brooks and streams, demonstrated that here is one of the most fertile spots to be found anywhere in Western Australia. The engine stopped and we dismounted and strolled away into the bush, the tall trees towering above us and almost shutting out the sky in places. Some of these giants had been laid low, and we passed fellers hacking at the trees with their axes from rough stages several feet above the ground. It seemed almost sad to reflect that are many years the best of the timber – the veritable kings of the forest, would be dethroned, but against this was the mental picture of fertile orchards and vineyards, which will assuredly clothe the sides of these ranges, just as the once forest-clad Pacific slopes are now covered with orange groves and fruit farms. Remounting our snorting steed we proceeded back to the main camp and visited No. 3 Mill, yet another human hive of industry and mass of whirring, whirling machinery. Here another of the steam cross-cut saws was at work, this and the rest of the machinery being driven by an 80 indicated horse-power engine, by Tangye. We passed into the large blacksmith’s shop, where all the most important branches of smithy work are carried on, and into the workshops, where the company make their own wagons and trucks; and then into fine stables, where between thirty and forty horses are accommodated. These are the animals belonging to the station, but besides them a number of teams are hired during busy times, the latter, to the number of about 150, including bullocks. There is not an idle man on the station – everyone is working as if prosperity depended on his own individual exertions, and everyone seems contented. Strikes and disputes, I learn, are unknown, for the men know when they are well off and well treated. It is, in fact, a model station in its way, and those who are anxious to acquaint themselves with the conditions of labour and life on a timber station in Western Australia cannot do better than visit the Canning Jarrah Saw Mills.

Something more remains to be said in regard to the Zig-zag railway, a journey on which is an experiences not to be lost by visitors and residents of the colony. This clever piece of engineering was surveyed by Mr. E. White, and stamps him as a man of great ingenuity. Its cost of construction was considerable, but it stands the exceptional wear and tear due to the grades, curves and traffic remarkably well. Some of the grades are as much as 1 in 25, and the ascent and descent are remarkably interesting and even stirring. Whilst the journey is to alarm the timid, is exercised by experienced and specially selected drivers and guards, that there is little or no danger. Upon this line and in equipping the mills and developing operations something like 100,000 pounds has been expanded, and all this is foreign capital.

We returned by the regular passenger train from the mills, for the company finding that numbers of persons who had friends and relatives at the mills were in the habit of endeavouring to reach them by the timber trains have arranged a regular bi-weekly service. Trains now run to and from the mills for the conveyance of passengers every Wednesday and Saturday, and the fares and rates of freight for goods are the same as upon the Government lines. The service is comfortable as well as convenient, and those desirous of seeing picturesque scenery as well as a very important industry should avail themselves of the facilities now presented for doing so. On the way back I stopped with my , Mr. Wilson, at the Perth yards of the company. These are extensive, covering about three acres, and are conveniently situated alongside the Eastern Railway, from which lines of rails run into the yards, permitting 30 or 40 trucks (about the number belonging to the company) discharging their loads of timber in a few hours. In these yards are stored, under roomy sheds and upon stagings, timber of all sorts, shapes and sizes; and builders and contractors can without trouble, select what they want in any quantity upon the spot. There is something like 600 loads of jarrah of all sorts in stock, and about the same amount in Baltier and deals. The buildings of the head office and , and a considerable clerical staff is employed. There is yet another yard owned by the company at North Fremantle, where 200 to 300 loads of timber are kept in stock, and here the important shipping and export business is done. In reply to my question as to the future of this export trade, Mr. Wilson said it was practically boundless, and was almost certain to rapidly grow. In addition to the timber now so largely used for street making purposes, it should, he said, be valuable for building and railway construction purposes in the Mother Country, and should certainly ere long be extensively used for sleepers and the main lines of the railway there. The average durability of the creosoted fir sleepers now used on the British Railways is only about three years, whereas jarrah sleeps had been known in this colony to last fifteen, which would more than make up for the extra first cost. In regard to the suitability of the jarrah for building purposes, Mr. Wilson showed me, adjoining the yard, the foreman’s residence, beautifully constructed of jarrah, worked and painted in front to resemble stone, raised on stout timber supports to prevent the dampness rising through the boards, and in fact an altogether suitable and pretty residence for this climate. It has the additional merit of being 25 to 30 per cent cheaper than a brick structure of the same size. Speaking of the local trade in jarrah Mr. Wilson added that it was growing space, and that the present large influx of people due to the development of the goldfields, gave the assurance that it would go on increasing. Taken altogether there seems a highly prosperous outlook for our important timber industry, and in this industry the Canning Jarrah Timber Company should not have the least share. Let it be added in conclusion that already the colony is deriving considerable direct benefit from this company. In addition to the large sum which it pays in wages – over 20,000 pounds (40,000 dollars) a year – it contributes about 500 pounds (1,000 dollars) a month to the railway revenue, or about one-tenth of the total receipts, so additional interest should be felt in the fortunes of this large and flourishing concern.

Article: National Library of Australia