FORMER CABLE TRAM ENGINE HOUSE AND CABLE TRAM TRACK FORMATION SOHE 2008
Statement of Significance
Last updated on - October 22, 1999
What is significant?
The former North Melbourne cable tramway engine house, which operated between 1890 and 1935 to power the cars of the North and West Melbourne lines, was one of eleven engine houses built by the Melbourne Tramways Trust for the central cable tramway network. The Melbourne cable tram system became one of the largest and most complex in the world. The entire network (except the local and separately built Northcote line) was constructed by the Trust between 1884 and 1891 and leased to the Melbourne Tramways & Omnibus Company until 1916. The trams were soon an integral and much-appreciated feature of Melbourne.
The building, thought to have been designed by the Trust's architect Robert Gordon, was constructed by J Small. It is a finely detailed and crafted Italianate composition in polychrome brickwork and intricate sandstone dressings. The large circular louvre ventilator, incorporating spokes and central boss, high in the east facade, is a motif reminiscent of the large wheels of the cable-driving machinery previously housed within the building. The engine house originally featured a 45 metre chimney, of which a substantial portion of the base remains. The Abbotsford Street frontage contains the remaining front wall of the original outbuilding which housed reels and winding gear for handling used and replacement cables, and weighbridge equipment to monitor deliveries of fuel for the boilers, remains an important part of the complex.
In 1935 the North Melbourne line was electrified and the West Melbourne line closed with buses replacing trams. During roadworks in 2007 a 200 metre track formation of the West Melbourne line in Abbotsford Street was uncovered. This line travelled into Elizabeth Street in the city, via Abbotsford, Spencer and Lonsdale Streets. The typical track formation comprised a double set of tracks, each track containing a continuous central open slot which allowed the "grip" device of the "dummy" or leading vehicle to access the moving cable in a concrete tunnel below. The cable was carried on pulleys located regularly along the bottom of the tunnel and the road surface was paved with red gum blocks supported on a concrete slab. In 1893 the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company installed separate dummy and car shunts outside the engine house so that West Melbourne line trams could shunt and return to the city without travelling through to the original terminus they shared at Flemington Bridge. This was one of a few changes to the original system made by the company to reduce operating costs during the sharp slump in patronage caused by the 1890s depression. The "dummy shunt" contained the continuous slot to allow passage of the dummy's grip from one track to the other whereas the separate "car shunt" had no slot, as the car was simply a trailer towed by the dummy.
The uncovered tram track formation in Abbotsford Street also revealed the metal access covers for maintenance access to the tunnel pulleys, signal markings set within the road surface to advise the "gripman" of how to operate the grip at the track intersection outside the engine house (where three cables entered and left the building), and a section of stone paving where the vehicles shunted.
How is it significant?
The former North Melbourne cable tramway engine house and cable tram track formation are of historical, architectural, scientific (technical) and archaeological significance to the State of Victoria.
Why is it significant?
The former North Melbourne cable tramway engine house is of historical significance as a substantially intact remnant of Melbourne's early tramways infrastructure, and the only engine house with remnants of its chimney and an outbuilding. Engine house chimneys were conspicuous features of Melbourne during the life of the cable tram system. Each tram route possessed its own engine house, usually located near the middle of the line. The substantial external intactness of this engine house provides a valuable symbol of an important phase in Melbourne's transport history and the development of the city, a phase which saw mechanical power supersede horse power on Melbourne's streets and allowed further development of the city's outer reaches.
The former North Melbourne cable tramway engine house is of architectural significance as an excellent example of a 19th century industrial and transport infrastructure building. The fine architecture provides evidence of the pride with which Melbourne viewed its tramway system and of the importance of the system to the life of the city.
The cable tram track formation is of historical significance for its association with the history of the cable tramway system in Melbourne. The dummy and car shunt is important as an extant example of the few minor alterations made to the original system by the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company to ensure profitable operation of the tramways during changing social circumstances.
The cable tram track formation is of scientific (technical) significance for its ability to assist in an understanding of the operation of the cable tramway system. It is typical of the entire Melbourne system designed by George Duncan (1852?-1930), the New Zealand born engineer who was appointed as engineer for the Melbourne Tramways Trust, the constructing authority for Melbourne's cable tram system. Duncan made many innovations and advances on the American cable tramway practice including the ability to construct lines around sharp curves with greater success than achieved elsewhere, and the design of an emergency slot brake.
The cable tram track formation is of archaeological significance as the only known cable tram track to survive intact in Melbourne. The archaeological remains of the tram track infrastructure provide information about the operation of cable trams. The section of Abbotsford Street outside the former engine house has the potential to contain archaeological remains explaining the connection between the engine house and the underground cable tunnels and the track arrangement for the shunting operations.