Heading towards Bangalow from Bexhill, a turnoff descends onto a floodplain surrounded by low hills, with the road winding through the countryside to the village of Eltham. Today this is a quiet backwater with a notable Masonic Lodge, and a lively pub in the form of the Eltham Friendly Inn. Close by, the old butcher’s shop, now converted to a historic cottage, has an ancient wagon wheel attached to its front façade. A general store on the main street shut down years ago, and was reinvented as the Village Gallery, which has in turn closed its doors for the time being.
Eltham is small but very well-preserved. Not long ago, the Australian Heritage Council acknowledged that it considered Eltham to be the only village in New South Wales with an intact late 19th century / early 20th century streetscape.
Once it was far busier, at a time when the country lane running through Eltham was the main route linking Lismore to Bangalow and Ballina. But it was the railway that was the big magnet. As the region developed during the late 19th century, a rail line running between Lismore and Murwillumbah was completed in 1894, and was later extended west to Casino in 1903. Due to the lack of major cities along its route, this stretch was known as the ‘railway to nowhere.’
Despite its small population, Eltham was a major rail transport hub. Pigs and containers of cream originating in places such as Rosebank and Clunes were transported from here to Norco’s original Byron Bay factory. With no viable road links, the finished products were sent to Sydney via ship.
Alongside the rail line is a gate-keeper’s cottage that was built in 1894 from Big Scrub timber, and which has a special significance for Eltham. One of its functions was to provide 24-hour access to operate the level-crossing gates on what was then the Lismore-Bangalow Road.
Its first residents were Mary Stewart, who took on the roles of gate-keeper and postmistress, while her husband who had the role of platform attendant. Unfortunately Mary’s reputation fell into ignominy in 1895, when she was found guilty, alongside another defendant, of stealing cream from the station.
Many occupants later, in 2004 the NSW State Government abruptly announced the closure of the Casino-Murwillumbah line, almost exactly 110 years to the day from its opening. The last resident in the railway cottage was Craig Pearson, a railway worker who lived there from 1985 until 2005 when he was paid out by the state government agency RailCorp.
Then, in May 2006, things took a more dramatic turn. At dusk one evening, a couple of local women saw a yellow bulldozer in the village close to the railway cottage, and confirmed that it was there to raze the building despite no community consultation having been carried out. Soon the local phone lines were buzzing.
Very early next morning about thirty community members turned up. The bulldozer was working for the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), which was set to proceed with the demolition despite a lack of liaison with Lismore City Council. Blocking its path, the protestors bought time until they could alert then Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell, who arrived and put a stop to ARTC’s plans.
Later, when ARTC put in its own request to demolish the building, a November 2006 council meeting saw an impressive unanimous vote for preservation despite a staff report favouring demolition. In a positive development, the building has since been heritage-listed by Lismore City Council.
Collectively, these events led to the formation of the Eltham Community Foundation (ECF), a group that has been liaising with various agencies about the building’s future. To raise funds, the ECF organises monthly meals and film nights at the Eltham Hall, and at present these are held on the last Saturday of the month. To be added to the film night email list, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website at www.eltham.org.au
For the past few years, the railway cottage has been fenced to keep out vandals. However, in 2010 an unknown team of ‘elves’ visited, carrying out garden maintenance, removing encroaching trees, and boarding up a smashed window. A banner was put up that read ‘I am 116 years old. Save me please.’
For nearly a decade, the government agency Transport for NSW resisted community attempts to lease and restore the cottage, but fortunately there has been a recent breakthrough. In 2015, Lismore City Council arranged to lease the property from Transport for NSW, with a view to subleasing it to ECF, and discussions are still ongoing. A community survey has found fairly strong support for the cottage to be used as an archive and museum, visitors’ centre, and community centre.
Despite years of neglect, the cottage remains in a fairly good state of repair. One outstanding issue is contamination around the property, involving arsenic, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. However, ECF has found that the contamination hotspots are localised, and that they could be managed via the strategic use of barriers.
One future proposal involves relocating the railway cottage to a nearby council-owned site formerly occupied by a church that was itself moved a long time ago.