Arsenic and Molasses

A Pictorial History of the Powelltown Tramway and Timber Milling Operations - by Frank Stamford

Published by the Light Railway Research Society of Australia Inc, December 1998

96 pages, A4 size; 104 photographs, 8 maps & diagrams.

By all rights my railroad interests should probably be in mainline freight trains and heavy haul unit trains. After all, I grew up in a Canadian prairie city which was absolutely dependent upon the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway and, like most western Canadians, agonised over the railway's slow movement of wheat from prairie elevator to port each year.

My enduring memories, however, are of the overnight steam hauled mixed passenger on the branch line between my home city and the provincial capital and the meandering freights on numerous prairie branch lines. I also spent several summers tracing the remains of long abandoned logging lines on Vancouver Island, observed the last steam hauled log train in Canada, and had a cab ride in a Shay locomotive on the lumber wharves of North Vancouver. I am, in other words, a sucker for branch line operations in general and narrow gauge logging lines in particular.

Having made my biases clear, I thoroughly enjoyed Frank Stamford's Arsenic and Molasses. The (mostly) large format photographs provide a good sense of time and place, the photo captions are generally informative, and the maps and illustrations are professionally presented. The author acknowledges a reliance on photographs obtained from several amateur photographers, but it is the quality and variety of these photographs which makes the book. Company photographers and citybased historians have their place, but it is the local resident with a camera, sketch pad or pen who provides the detail necessary for a successful local history.

Powelltown was a company town, initially dependent upon a wood preserving process (the arsenic and molasses of the title) which failed under Australian conditions. Others took over the assets and the result was Victoria's only timber tramway providing a regular passenger service. With two geared Shay locomotives as well as more conventional rod-driven locomotives, and a mile long 1 in 4 cable-worked incline, the Powelltown tramway and mill occupies a unique place in Victoria's history.

Photographic reproduction is generally excellent. I would have omitted one or two of the fuzzier images, even if they did come from the Society's archives, as they add nothing new. One or two of the captions could also have used more care. It is difficult for someone who doesn't know the locale, for example, to determine which of two photographs of a building is being described or if it matters that the photographer is looking east.

Arsenic and Molasses can almost stand alone. It does not, however, have a list of references, referring the reader instead to the LRRSA's previous book Powelltown: A History of its Timber Mills and Tramways (Stamford, Stuckey and Maynard, 1984 with several reprintings). While none of the photographs are duplicated in the two volumes, most of the detailed information came from the earlier volume. Given that, I would value the included index more if it covered both volumes.

But these are minor quibbles. As an occasional model builder I was particularly intrigued by such examples of unique trackwork as the removable rails where the steel-railed Federal tramway crossed the wooden-railed Powelltown tramway and the mixture of steel and wooden rails in some locales. Operational methods were obvious from the photographs of tramway and bush and the people of the area receive a sympathetic treatment.

I'd recommend the book highly for anyone who is interested in bush tramways or the timber industry of the first half of the century. As well as being a good read itself it inspired me to go back and reread Powelltown.

A. C. Lynn Zelmer , Light Railways No.145 February 1999