Heritage trails bring to life NSW Mid North Coast history with quirky and colourful, but little-known tales

When a steam train rolled into a northern New South Wales town for the first time in 1913, 4,000 people dressed up in their Sunday best and swarmed the tracks to witness the event.

It marked the extension of the North Coast Railway Line to Taree, which became a boon for the town as it was connected to Sydney for the first time.

“Before the railway came to Taree it was difficult, the roads were very difficult, it was hilly,” local researcher Penny Teerman said.

“They had been waiting for many years for the railway to inch its way here.

“Taree became a railway town, so many people were employed here, the station was always busy, it would have been full of noise and vibration and steam.”

The extraordinary photo of the day is one of many bringing pivotal stories from the Mid North Coast’s past brought to light in a series of heritage trails.

‘Things that don’t get recorded in books’
The MidCoast Stories Heritage Trails app created by Ms Teerman along with fellow local-history buff Janine Roberts allows people to take a self-guided tour in the Manning region, including Taree.

Their aim is to ensure the often undocumented social history behind regional towns was preserved.

“It’s a bit like having an old house and you think: ‘What’s happened here, what can these walls tell us?'” Ms Teerman said.

“They are things that don’t get recorded in the general history books … so we hope we are presenting history in a slightly different way.”

Ms Roberts said it was a way to share stories with the next generation.

“Very often the stories of the makers of the town, or early settlers, are recorded and told … but we miss out on other stories, the diversity in the community, so all our stories try to tap into those,” she said.

Dreadnought Boys: British child migrants
The trails are based around various themes, including the Taree railway station, which brought people from all walks of life through regional NSW.

In 1929 when flooding rains stranded a train travelling from Sydney to Grafton at Taree it was a huge inconvenience for some.

But a group of British teenagers looking for work in rural Australia, a type of migrant known as a Dreadnought boy, saw it as an adventure.

“The Dreadnought boys decided to have a lark basically, they went off mushrooming, and swimming in the floodwaters, which of course we do not recommend,” Ms Roberts said with a laugh.

Ms Teerman said locals meanwhile provided meals for the thousands of people who were stranded on the train.

“Passengers were hungry, and with no railway refreshment room yet at Taree station, the town’s people rallied around and brought food and local ladies brought porridge for the babies.”

Racing pigeons

Perhaps surprisingly, the Taree rail station was also a focal point for pigeon racing.

Pigeons had long been used for their navigational and homing abilities to carry messages, and the races would test how far towards home they could go.

“As early as the 1920s, pigeons were freighted from Newcastle to Taree on the train in wicker baskets, they were released from the Taree station about six days a week,” Ms Roberts said.

After the war, the popularity of racing pigeons continued through until the 1960s, and up to 10,000 birds were regularly released at Taree railway station, with children paid sixpence to help.

Lebanese migrants: Dahdah the Wonder Draper

The heritage trails also shine a light on life in the 1920s and 1930s, a time of both optimism, after the end of the World War I, and struggle, during the Great Depression.

During that time many Lebanese migrants, who initially set out as hawkers from Redfern in Sydney, arrived in Taree and set up shops.

Ms Roberts said the town was home to one of the largest Lebanese migrant populations outside of Sydney, with many descendants still living there today.

Among them was Anthony Dahdah, who arrived in Taree in 1933 and established a drapery store on the main street called Dahdah the Wonder Draper.

“Anthony Dahdah become a much-loved resident of Taree … he would stand outside his shop each day greeting customers and passers-by,” Ms Roberts said.

“He was able to get fabrics in cheaply and sell them cheaply, which was fortunate during the Depression.”

Another of the trails is aimed at children, with a focus on stories associated with the “Mighty Manning River”, including a Biripi Dreamtime story.

Three trails have been launched so far and another seven will be progressively released, featuring a range of regional towns.