The much-loved Bally Hooley steam trains that have been a part of the Douglas Shire since 1897 are taking on a new life that will share the remarkable part they have played in the region’s history with a new generation of locals and visitors. They are about to become a very trendy – yet traditional – dining experience at the Marina Station.
Purchased from Mossman Mill in 2002, the John Morris family have owned and maintained the trains, as well as the tracks with a core team including a dedicated group of volunteers allowing it to operate over many years in Port Douglas between the Marina and St Crispins.
At 93, John Morris has been keen to ensure that these historic trains remain forever within the shire, and over the last couple of years, has sought in vain to find a committed group to continue its operation. Approaches were made to several organisations, including the Douglas Community Sports Club and the Douglas Shire Council, but none were able to commit to the long-term future of the trains.
Unable to operate over the last 18 months due to Covid, the trains have been stored and maintained at the depot. During this time a new vision emerged, one that would ensure they remain in the Douglas Shire in the future. With the help of designer Sofia Goncalves, plus artisan carpenters and builders Peter and Frank Goncalves, the trains have been quietly undergoing a transformation that reflects both their history and creates a whole new way to take a step back in time. Some of the earliest photographs of the trains in action will be on display, dating back before 1900. Over the coming months the tracks will be removed by Mossman mill and put to use in the cane carting operation.
Timeline of the Trains
The trains’ history is woven throughout the Douglas Shire. Originally, Port was established in 1877 to service the booming goldfields and growing agriculture with access over the Bump Track. The thriving township with 27 hotels and a population of 12,000 was the regional centre until a rail route from Cairns to Kuranda was established to service the goldfields.
Luckily, sugar boomed at the same time and with it, Mossman Mill was established in 1897 with cane trains being used to transport from the mill to the lighters (a type of barge), originally on the Mossman River and then in 1900 to Port Douglas for transport to Cairns.
With poor or non-existent roads, this network of ‘two-foot’ rail gauge also became the way people moved about, with the ‘tramway’ extending from Mowbray Valley to North Mossman. In the year of 1900, 23,000 passengers were carried. 35 years later, the last passenger was carried on Christmas Eve.
Sugar remained key but from 1958, it was transported by road direct to Cairns and the population of Port dwindled then down to as low as 100 in 1960. Over the next 20 years, Port was rediscovered by an eclectic mix of artists, entrepreneurs and adventurers, and by the 1980s it became the place to holiday for everyone from celebrities and movie stars to US presidents.
Tourism took off and in 1987 Mossman Mill re-laid tracks and put in place a passenger service from Port to the mill so that visitors could tour a working sugar mill. Over the years the trip was reduced back to just the 4km Port Douglas component, eventually only running on Sundays supported by a team of enthusiastic staff and volunteers.
In 2002, with the mill in some financial difficulty, the Bally Hooley was bought by John Morris. Over the last 20 years, the mill’s original steam trains, Speedy and Bundy, have operated several days a week in the season, or just Sundays in quiet periods, enthralling kids and ‘kids at heart’ as it rollicked back and forth past Mirage Country Club between St Crispins and the Marina.
By late September, steam engines Speedy and Nelson will have completed their transformation allowing for everyone to be able to access and experience the operating controls in a safe way. Along with totally refurbished carriages, they will be relocated to their new home at the Marina Station, surrounded by newly created native tropical gardens. With lead lighting windows, iron ware, tables and seating that will reflect a bygone era, the Douglas Shire will provide an entirely new historical dining experience.