By Bella Greaves

One of Australia’s most famous paintings shows the building of the Glenbrook Tunnel, also known as the Lapstone Tunnel, in 1891.  Painted by Arthur Streeton and perhaps inspired by his friend Tom Roberts, it shows men at work, including one unfortunate who was killed by a dynamite blast. “Fire’s On” was supposed to be a warning call, but in this case it didn’t work.

Streeton was born in Melbourne and became Australia’s first great landscape artist. He started out as an exquisite painter of gentle landscapes, and at the age of just 22, one of his works was bought by the Art Gallery of NSW. The next year he moved to Sydney in search of subjects to reflect the romantic nationalism then very popular, telling Tom Roberts, “I must produce bigger more serious things … expressive of the hot trying winds and the slow immense summer”. While living in Sydney he wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph protesting the expansion of a coal mine at Cremorne, of all places, which would have required cutting down a great number of trees. His protest was successful. 

During summer he travelled out to the lower Blue Mountains in order to turn around and paint the Nepean Valley down below. While wandering in the area he came upon the sun-baked construction works around the infant tunnel, and became entranced.

He later described to a friend, the painter Frederick McCubbin, how he reached the mouth of the tunnel “which gapes like a great dragon’s mouth at the perfect flood of hot sunlight … a vast hill of bright sandstone … below me the men work, some with shovels, others drilling for a blast.”

Streeton set up and painted quickly, using watercolours to produce his first impression of the scene. He heard the yelled warning, “Fire’s on!” and saw the workers scatter, and then “a boom of thunder shakes the rocks and me. It echoes ‘mid the crashing of tons of rock … lumps fall and fly among the trees; then a thick cloud laden with the fumes of blasting powder … I’ll soon begin a big canvas oil colour of this. I think it looks stunning. ‘Tis like painting in the ‘Burning Fiery Furnace’.”

Streeton began his oil painting outdoors, and witnessed the tragedy that went into the final painting.

“I hear ‘Fire! Fire’s on!’ … and BOOM and then rumbling of rock. The navvy with me and watching says ‘man killed’ … we peep over and he lies all hidden bar his legs … they raise the rock and lift him onto a stretcher, fold his arms over his chest and slowly six of ‘em carry him past me – Oh how full of dread is the grey expression of death”.

The deceased’s name was Thomas Lawless.

In a country shaped by dangerous manual labour and mining, the painting was an immediate success, and was also snapped up by the AGNSW for 150 pounds. It has become one of our most beloved images on canvas.

The single track tunnel, which is 634 metres long and lies to the east of the old Glenbrook Railway Station, was opened in late 1892, as an alternative to the previous zig-zag arrangement of track that had got trains up and down the escarpment. It was not a success, being steep and poorly ventilated, on account of its single-track build and the fact it was built on a curve. Heat, smoke and grit would enter the compartments and set passengers to coughing and cover them and their belongings in dirt. The engine crews covered their faces with wet cloth and in mid-summer had difficulty retaining consciousness. 

So steep was the track it was necessary when going up for passenger trains to be pulled by two engines, while with goods trains there’d be one engine pulling and one pushing from behind. To add to the woes, water dripped onto the rails much of the time, making them slippery.

Often the crews, defeated by the heat or the water, would have to reverse the train out of the tunnel and have a second run at the slope. The fact there were two engines involved complicated this. One disaster occurred in 1908 after the pushing engine stopped, because its crew were about to fall unconscious, and rolled back. The rest of the train stopped too and the crew of the lead engine, almost overcome by funes, reversed the rest of the train back out, too quickly because it collided with the other engine at the mouth of the tunnel.

The unhappy tunnel was closed in 1913, and strangely the leaking stopped: apparently it had been caused by the vibrations of the trains loosening the brickwork. It was later used for growing mushrooms and, in World War II, storing mustard gas in case needed to ward off a Japanese invasion. After the war, the gas was burned and the tunnel returned to its use for growing mushrooms. It is now abandoned.

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