Ben Verdon Recalls
On September 6th, 1878 the railway between Christchurch and Dunedin was opened. It had been opened to Timaru early in '76.
A special train carried the Governor and members of Parliament- through, and Mr. Conyers the railway engineer, Mr. Allison Smith and Mr. Dickerson were on board.
The train was of six of the old 'Six-Wheeled' carriages - 'bone-shakers' we call them now - and a van, (Guards Van) and the train was pretty full.
A 'K' engine was ordered to pull it, and I was told off to drive it.
These 'K's' had a lot of brass about them, and you may be sure it was well polished up for that trip.
It was a great trip, with a banquet at every stopping place.
We engine men could have had as much banquet as we liked too, but we had made up our minds that we would touch nothing that might do us any harm.
At Oamaru we picked up the old English engine 'Josephine' to double-bank the rest of the way. There was a nice little dispute as to which engine should lead; and all the time the passengers were banqueting the dispute went on whether the Scotch or the Yankee should lead.
They asked me, and I said I had nothing to do with it; I should go where I was told. Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Beattie thought an Englishman should go before the Yankee, but Mr. Smith said his engine was the pride of the road and he wasn't going to have a clumsy Englishman in front of it.
Mr. Conyers was sent for, and he said:
"Leave it to the driver."
I refused to settle such a question; I was going to do what I was told.
They had a lot more discussion about it; Mr. Smith saying he would not have his beautiful engine disgraced by playing second fiddle to a clumsy, dirty old Englishman.
At last it was decided that my Yankee K should lead, and they sent me with a local man to show me the road.
Mr. Smith was on the engine too. I kept my engine pretty close, to see what the 'Josephine' could do going up the Waiareka bank, and found that she was making hard work of it. Mr. Smith noticed it and said:
"Look here Verdon, this won't do. You mustn't play up on the 'Josephine'."
"All right. I only wanted to see what she was like."
They also carried a fitter on her, and by the time we got to Palmerston he was wanted. All the time they were banqueting there, the fitter was at work, and after the banquet the party came and sat around on the bank waiting till the fitter finished getting the 'Josephine' ready for work again.
When we got to Seacliff, 'Josephine' was in a fearful state. The fitter wasn't able to do her any good, so she was cut and left behind.
We got on very well and reached Dunedin at 6.30 PM, only half an hour late.
Mr. Conyers promised me a five pound note for doing so well; I got it and shared it equally with my fireman, Tom Scott, who deserved it as much as I did.
As we were going down one of the steep banks nearing Port Chalmers, we let them (the train) go because we were a bit behind time, and that lost no time.
Mr. Conyers looked back and saw sparks flying, so he ordered the train to be stopped, because the axle-boxes or something were on fire.
I knew what it was and told him, but he would not believe it.
In the 'Six-Wheelers' the front carriage used to swing till the wheels touched the frame, and then the sparks would fly.
We had a fearful time when we got to Dunedin; we could not get the engine away through the crowd for about two hours.
Then there was no turntable. We had to break off the tender and turn one first and then the other.
My fireman and I had to sleep in chairs - we could not get a bed; and then we had to be up early to start back at 7.30 in the morning.
I got out early, and went to the shed, and got into the pit to have a look underneath.
I never expected to find water in the engine pit, but the 'tide was in' and I plumped into water up to my middle.
We had to get some sleepers and make something to stand on so I could have a look over the engine.
Some local men came to the shed while I was in the pit, and began discussing the 'K'.
It was all sorts of rubbish and so on, just because it was not a Scotch man.
Then I popped out and told them of its days work the day before, and that it was going to repeat it that day.
We took the first train back to Christchurch without any difficulty, and then Mackenzie and I ran through trains from Christchurch to Oamaru for some considerable time.
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Last Updated: Wednesday, 05 April, 2017