A BLOCK of land, where sheep once grazed, will from this weekend mark a tragedy that saw Violet Town join the list of locations for train catastrophes.
Until February 7, 1969, the Hume Highway settlement’s biggest claim to fame was that it was the first inland town surveyed in Victoria.
But when the southbound stainless steel Southern Aurora express train struck a northbound goods train head-on at an estimated speed of 172km/h early that morning, Violet Town attracted notoriety it had not sought and has since underplayed.
Nine died in the trauma, including the two train drivers from Wodonga, Laurence Rosevear who was in charge of the goods locomotive and Jack Bowden who had been at the controls of the Southern Aurora.
Mr Bowden had a fatal heart attack at least nine kilometres before the collision and therefore missed a passing loop.
Coroner Harry Pascoe found he had been “extremely negligent in persisting in driving what might be called our prestige train, knowing that he was a candidate for death at any moment”.
He heard evidence that Mr Bowden was advised by his doctor that he could die at random due to a heart complaint.
Five passengers, including Nora Newell and her daughter Lorna, 14, as well as Mary King, Doris Reddick and Kathleen Vider, died, with conductor Frederick McKenzie and electrician Allan Wilson also killed.
Scores more were injured with a black plume drawing businessman Doug Brockfield to the ghastly sight as he drove from Beechworth to Melbourne for a meeting.
“It was a terrible scene and something you don’t forget in a hurry,” Mr Brockfield, who was 27 at the time, recalled.
“It was on fire and we could hear people screaming.
“Emergency services weren’t there at that time, just a handful of locals, perhaps farmers and business people, so we attempted to get them out.”
They struggled to smash the thick windows of the train before professional helpers arrived.
After spending an hour at the scene, Mr Brockfield, who now lives at Milawa, left for Melbourne.
“I was late for the sales meeting and (the boss) said to me ‘Brockfield you’re late’ and I said ‘yes I am but I’ve got a pretty good reason’,” Mr Brockfield said, noting he still had grime from the crash scene on his hands.
“They hadn’t heard on the news what was going on, so they were totally unaware of why I was late.”
Wodonga resident David Cox, 83, was a senior shunter at Albury station in 1969 and helped swap the Southern Aurora’s engine from a NSW to Victorian model that morning.
He finished his shift at 7am and was at his railway cottage in Young Street when his workmate arrived to tell him of the crash and suggest they drive to Violet Town.
“It was a shocking thing; there were engines tangled with each other and cars laying everywhere, there were a truckload of cars that were hit,” Mr Cox said.
“There was a lot of movement and a lot of ambulances, it was very sad.
“Everyone was running around like a dog with its head cut off.”
The emergency response consumed Violet Town with hundreds helping in various ways.
But while the tragedy attracted global attention, locals preferred not to dwell on the calamity.
Mick McLaughlin, who moved to Violet Town from Kinglake 30 years ago and has since been involved in countless groups ranging from the Lions Club to the fire brigade and footy club, said the train smash “was more of a tourist type of story”.
“A lot of people didn’t talk about it, because they felt it was very painful because they saw so much death and destruction,” Mr McLaughlin said.
“You talked to people and say ‘Southern Aurora’ and you would either have people that would say they saw things and no-one counselled them or they’d say ‘that’s where the Southern Aurora had its crash.
“It wasn’t really acknowledged up until 10 years ago.”
Indeed when the 25th anniversary passed in 1994, it was marked by the unveiling of a plaque with a basic outline of the disaster and the only name mentioned was that of Ian Dobbs, the then chief executive of the Public Transport Corporation.
A quarter of a century on and 15 individuals, who received medals for their gallant rescue efforts, will have their names displayed alongside summaries of the disaster, the Southern Aurora and Violet Town’s rail history.
The recaps will sit on the block of land which once was a backyard for former Violet Town railway stationmaster Garrie Moore.
“It was a disgrace,” Mr Moore said of the area which has been transformed into a memorial garden that now houses a former Southern Aurora carriage.
“It was a vacant block of land, it was fenced off.
“I used to have a few sheep there, just to graze it down, and I had a garden there.”
Mr Moore, 72, has been part of the Southern Aurora Commemorative Committee set up to mark the 50th anniversary.
He said the memorial garden had been formed in the heart of town, rather than at the location of the crash, for pragmatic reasons.
“It’s in the centre of town and there’s a walking path out to the site itself, it’s only a kilometre away,” Mr Moore said.
“This will allow people to reflect in town and businesses can benefit from it.”
Mr Moore added it was important the tumultuous day was not forgotten.
“I’ve been saying to young kids in another 50 years time you can tell your kids ‘there was an accident here 100 years ago’ and this will be in place,” he said, looking over the garden from the platform of the Violet Town railway station.
“It will also be important for the 75th reflection on it.
“It’s very significant, it’s not everyday you have a head-on crash that kills nine people and injures over 120.”
While The Border Mail is speaking to Mr Moore two V/Line staff arrive to conduct a health and safety check of the station.
They know nothing of why the Southern Aurora carriage is sitting on a section of rail in the garden and are surprised to learn of the looming commemorations.
Mr Brockfield has no doubts about the value of marking the milestone.
“I’m glad that the committee and that the people putting it on for the 50th have done so, because it is something that should be remembered in the appropriate manner and I think that’s exactly what they’re doing,” he said.
“It was an amazing incident at the time, particularly considering it was the Southern Aurora, that was the flagship of the fleet so to speak.
“I was staggered that there weren’t more people killed, I thought the number would have been much higher.”
The garden will be opened at 10am on Sunday, with an emergency vehicle parade at 1.30pm, while memorabilia will be on show at the Violet Town community hall and museum on Saturday and Sunday.