Discharged from the armed services after WW11, two jobless mates pooled their money and decided to buy a truck to cart bagged cement from Portland west of the Blue Mountains to Sydney. To do that, they needed to conquer mountains.
Jim Gibson, co-founder of this Historic Vehicles website, recounts how he became involved in the fledgling road transport business, back in the 1950s.
My father Ken and his best mate Stan Bales returned from a post-WWII government auction as the proud owners of a 1940s, flathead-V8-powered ‘Jailbar’ Ford prime mover, with a four-speed gearbox and mechanical-shift, two-speed differential. It was coupled to a 28-foot (8.5metre) Freighter flat-top trailer, painted in drab RAAF grey livery. Bales & Gibson Haulage Contractors was open for business.
On their initial trip, Stan drove the Ford and Ken rode ‘shotgun’ as they set off from the Sydney suburb of Petersham to pick up their first load from the Portland Cement Works, between Lithgow and Bathurst.
After passing through Parramatta they headed west along the Great Western Highway (it’s never been ‘great’, but was even less so then). It was narrow, slow going to the Nepean River and the climb began: up Lapstone Hill; the winding grades to Katoomba and past the ‘Explorer’s Tree’. The two men felt like pioneers on their epic journey across the Great Divide.
As a youngster, I often accompanied them on the trips to ‘help out’. I vividly remember the town of Portland with its veil of silky grey dust over the buildings and the taste of cement lingering in the back of your throat.
Empty trucks lined the road to the works waiting to load. Each truck backed under a hopper from where the bags of cement slid down; the driver caught one on his shoulder; ran along the tray and placed it in position; then hurriedly returned in time to catch the next bag to be stacked.
Bags were stacked in a ‘battered’ form: seven across the floor, then six in the next row, then five and so on. Cement was packed in ‘hundredweight’ bags — 112lb (50kg) – so that 20 of them weighed a ton (2240lb). Modern cement bags weigh less than half that, at 20kg.
Ken and Stan thought 10 tons would be a fair weight for the maiden voyage and pointed the Jailbar’s grille east towards Sydney. However, it wasn’t long before disaster struck.
On the run down the Marrangaroo Hill a sickening noise developed from the engine: a con-rod bearing was shot.
Downhearted, they nursed the Ford into Lithgow and organised another operator to take the load, while the truck was repaired.
A week passed before they were back in Portland for another go – this time with a less ambitious six-ton on board – but, unfortunately, there was more trouble to come.
Halfway along the very steep pull up Victoria Pass a loud explosion made them jump and a cloud of steam billowed from under the bonnet. The engine had ‘thrown a leg out of bed’and its internal workings peered at the outside world from a hole on the side of the V8 cylinder block. Heartbroken, as well as almost financially broken, they arrange for it to be towed back to Sydney.
It was decided to chuck in the last of their savings and buy a replacement side-valve V8 engine. With great trepidation they returned for a third bout – hopefully third time lucky – and they did it!
An eight-ton load delivered and their first pay cheque in the bank … at last.
The old ‘Jailbar’ continued to serve the boys faithfully, apart from the occasional trip to the dentist for a set of new teeth in the gearbox and it dragged 10 tons on a regular basis. Soon, enough money had accumulated in the bank account enabling them to buy a second truck.
You guessed it: another ex-services Ford, but this time a 4×4 Blitz that faithfully and regularly carried seven tons over the mountains, although every three months, almost to the day, the clutch centre would tear out.
Tricks of the trade
The now-wiser two Blue Mountains’ pioneers had learnt a few tricks-of-the-trade: like climbing the western escarpment via Berghofers Pass that was a lesser gradient than Victoria Pass. However, it was a much narrower dirt track with no room to pass.
There were places where logs had been positioned under the road for support. They acted like judder bars and the trucks almost shook themselves to bits as they crossed over them.
If a truck broke down there was no room to pass and those following had to wait until it was mobile once more.
I recall us being stuck on Berghofers for some hours one afternoon, when one of the trucks well ahead of us had a battery collapse. Fortunately, a driver behind us carried a spare battery, so the drivers formed a chain passing the battery from one driver to the next until it reached the disabled truck. After it was fitted we were on our way once more.
My dad also mastered the art of assembling a ‘roll-your-own’ cigarette while driving the rough-riding utilitarian beast: a sight to behold.
He pulled the yellow Champion Ruby packet from his shirt pocket, then with a Tally-Ho paper stuck to his bottom lip, dragged the precise amount of tobacco from the satchel, rolled it in the paper with great dexterity, licked the side and turned out a fag that W.D. & H.O. Wills would have been damn proud of.
All of these gymnastics were carried out without any loss of momentum or positioning of the truck! Gee, I thought he was clever…
Two new trucks
More work came their way, including a contract to deliver prefabricated houses to Parkes, which meant they could backload with cement from Portland.
The two old Ford warhorses were too old to handle the task in the long-term and the much-admired American Mack and British Foden ‘super trucks’ were far too expensive. After much perusing of new truck specs and prices, they ordered two new REO C19 Gold Crowns to be imported from Lansing, Michigan in CKD (Completely Knocked Down) form: one as a prime mover and the other with a longer chassis as a tray top.
It seemed to take ages, but eventually the big day arrived and the tray top was ready to pick up. Dad dressed in his sports-coat and best casual clothes for the big occasion – I just had to go along too.
The new 1949 REO looked resplendent in a smart grey, highlighted with blue mudguards, and Bales & Gibson Carriers sign-written on each door.
The C19 had a REO Gold Crown 245cu.in. (four-litre) six-cylinder, side-valve engine, rated at 89bhp (66.3kW) at 3000rpm, with a 12-inch (300mm) clutch mated to a five-speed direct Clark gearbox and a Timken double-reduction, vacuum-actuated two-speed rear axle. It was fitted with a 16ft 6in (5-metre) steel and timber tray top.
The owner’s manual said that it should not be driven more than 25mph (40km/h) for the first 500miles (800km). Now I’m certain we didn’t travel at 25mph to Portland on its maiden voyage.
Here I was sitting up on the new bench seat between Dad and Stan as we rolled into Portland and pulled up in line. Drivers congregated to look at and chat about the latest in truck technology from North America. I sure was proud, being the son of one of the owners.
With seven tons on board, its biggest challenge on the return journey was the 3432ft (1043-metre) climb up Victoria Pass (no ‘sooky’ Burghofers Pass for us three ‘men’ in our new REO with its Gold Crown engine). We’d tackle the big hill head on!
We climbed it at walking pace and it only took a couple of ‘roll-your-owns’ to reach the summit and Mrs Shay’s Café for a cup of tea. Mrs Shay, as she was known by all, was an angel to all those tired and hungry truckies who traversed the Great Divide during the late 1940s and 1950s.
It wasn’t too long before the second REO joined the tray top, with a 28-foot (eight-metre) trailer bringing up the rear.
These two well-engineered trucks served the partners admirably, clambering back and forth over the mountains and stopping only for scheduled maintenance.
The concrete on Concord Road and Parramatta Road in Sydney used the bagged cement that came from Portland all those years ago. These are just a couple of examples and many other Portland-concrete roads have been topped with bitumen over time.
All was well with Bales & Gibson Carriers until the NSW Government introduced a road maintenance tax in addition to the hated co-ordination (‘co-ord’) road tax that subsidised the inefficient railways and severely affected intrastate and interstate road transport.
Many transport operators fell by the wayside and it was also the end of the ‘Mountain Men’.
Now, you’re probably wondering about Berghofers Pass: who was Berghofer?
John William Berghofer was born in Munchhausen, Germany, arrived in Australia as a 12-year-old lad in 1855, died 1927 and is buried in Mt Victoria cemetery.
In 1892, having worked as the manager of the large Kanimbla station in the valley west of Mt Victoria, he purchased the Mt Victoria Inn at the bottom of Victoria Pass. He modified the building for use as his residence and renamed it ‘Rosenthal’ (it has been anglicised to ‘Rosedale’ and remains today), a name he remembered from his childhood in Germany, meaning Valley of the Roses.
He was very civic-minded and made many contributions to the community. He served as Chairman of the Mt Victoria Progress Association and was elected as the first President of the Blaxland Shire Council in 1906.
Early motor vehicles had trouble climbing the steep grades of Victoria Pass, often suffering the indignity of having to be assisted by horses. It was due to the efforts of Berghofer that an alternative pass with gentler grades was constructed over a period of five years, opening in 1912. It became the main road up and down the mountain.
By 1920 cars had become more powerful and Victoria Pass was upgraded. Both routes were then used, until Victoria Pass was further improved and widened. In 1934 Berghofers Pass was supposedly closed, but it was still being used until 1952, when it was officially decommissioned.
The Pass is now a popular walking track and evidence of the herculean tasks required in its construction, during the early part of the last century, are obvious. The high cuttings into the cliffs are dramatic and the stone culverts built to cross the many small watercourses are impressive. The dual water trough near the hilltop carved into the sandstone, having both a large and a small cut-out to quench the thirst of the horses and of the dogs, indicate this road was well planned, in addition to being well built.
If you are travelling east along the Great Western Highway, look to your left as you approach the base of Victoria Pass before the ascent, and you will see the start of Berghofers Pass in the bush.