Heritage trails bring the history of NSW’s north coast to life with quirky and colorful but little-known stories

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When a steam train first entered a town in northern New South Wales in 1913, 4,000 people dressed in their Sunday best and packed the tracks to witness the event.

It marked the extension of the North Coast Railway line to Taree, which became a boon to the city as it was connected to Sydney for the first time.

“Before the railway came to Taree it was tough, the roads were very rough, it was hilly,” said local researcher Penny Teerman.

“They had been waiting for many years for the railway to make its way here.

The day Taree Station opened in 1913.(Supplied: MidCoast Taree Bookcase)

“Taree became a railway town, so many people were employed here, the station was always busy, it would have been full of noise, vibration and steam.”

The extraordinary photo of the day is one of many crucial stories from the Mid North Coast’s past brought to light in a series of heritage trails.

“Things That Are Not Recorded in the Books”

The MidCoast Stories Heritage Trails app created by Ms Teerman with fellow local history buff Janine Roberts allows people to take a self-guided tour of the Manning area, including Taree.

Their aim is to ensure the preservation of the often undocumented social history behind regional towns.

A black and white photograph showing a crowd gathered around a building in a regional town in 1918.
A crowd gathers in Taree in 1918 to hear about the armistice.(Provided: Australian War Memorial)

“It’s a bit like having an old house and you think, ‘What happened here, what can these walls tell us?'” Ms Teerman said.

“These are things that aren’t recorded in the general history books…so hopefully we present the story in a slightly different way.”

Two women stand smiling in a country station.
Janine Roberts and Penny Teerman created the MidCoast Heritage Trail Series with funding from Heritage NSW.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Ms Roberts said it was a way to share stories with the next generation.

“Very often the stories of the creators of the city, or the first settlers, are recorded and told…but we miss other stories, the diversity of the community, so all of our stories try to tap into those,” said she declared.

A black and white photo of a steam train roundhouse.
This roundhouse was the locomotive depot for Taree’s steam trains.(Provided: Janine Roberts)

Dreadnought Boys: British migrant children

The trails are based around various themes, including Taree Station, which has brought people from all walks of life across the NSW region.

In 1929, when torrential rain blocked a train traveling from Sydney to Grafton in Taree, it was a huge inconvenience to some.

But a group of British teenagers looking for work in rural Australia, a type of migrant known as the Dreadnought boy, saw it as an adventure.

    A group of teenagers wearing long pants and casual shirts in 1922, standing in front of trees.
A group of Dreadnought boys, who emigrated from the UK to Australia in 1922.(Provided: Janine Roberts)

“The Dreadnought boys decided to have a big lark, off they sprouted like mushrooms and swam in the flood waters, which of course we wouldn’t recommend,” Ms Roberts said with a laugh.

Ms Teerman said locals were in the meantime providing meals for the thousands of people stuck on the train.

“Passengers were hungry, and with no railway refreshment room at Taree station, townspeople gathered and brought food and local ladies brought porridge for the babies.”

Carrier pigeons

A black and white image showing a flock of pigeons in flight above a country train station.
Thousands of carrier pigeons were regularly released at Taree Railway Station until the 1960s.(Provided: Janine Roberts)

Perhaps surprisingly, Taree Railway Station was also a focal point for pigeon racing.

Pigeons had long been used for their navigational and homing abilities to convey messages, and races tested how far home they could go.

A black and white photo showing a man in military uniform releasing a pigeon.
Carrier pigeons were used to send messages during World War II.(Provided: Janine Roberts, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial)

“As early as the 1920s pigeons were transported from Newcastle to Taree on the train in wicker baskets, they were released from Taree station around six days a week,” Ms Roberts said.

After the war, the popularity of carrier pigeons continued until the 1960s and up to 10,000 birds were regularly released at Taree Station, with children being paid sixpence to help them.

Lebanese Migrants: Dahdah the Wonder Draper

A black and white image showing shops on the main street of a regional town in the 1930s.
Anthony Dahdah arrived in Taree in 1933 and opened his store, Dahdah the Wonder Draper.(Provided: Janine Roberts)

Heritage trails also shed light on life in the 1920s and 1930s, a time of both optimism after the end of World War I and struggle during the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, many Lebanese migrants, originally leaving as peddlers from Redfern in Sydney, arrived in Taree and set up shops.

Ms Roberts said the town was home to one of the largest populations of Lebanese migrants outside of Sydney, with many descendants still living there today.

A Lebanese man standing next to a Maonite priest, dressed in his robe, in a black and white image.
Anthony Dahdah with his uncle Joseph Dahdah, who helped establish the first Australian Maronite Catholic Church in Australia.(Provided)
A black and white image showing women inside a hardware store in the 1950s.
The Dahdahs’ store in the 1950s in Taree.(Provided: Janine Roberts)

Among them was Anthony Dahdah, who arrived in Taree in 1933 and established a drapery shop on the high street called Dahdah the Wonder Draper.

“Anthony Dahdah has become a much loved resident of Taree…he stood outside his shop every day to greet customers and passers-by,” Ms Roberts said.

“He was able to get fabrics cheap and sell them cheap, which was lucky during the Depression.”

A black and white photo of a store with a large sign saying
The Dahdahs’ family store near Taree has thrived in the town for years.(Provided: Peter Dahdah)

Another of the trails is aimed at children, with a focus on stories associated with the “Mighty Manning River”, including a Biripi Dreamtime story.

Three trails have been launched so far and seven more will be gradually released, featuring a range of regional towns.

A black and white photo showing a huge mass of people crammed onto a bridge.
Huge crowds turned out for the opening of the iconic Martin Bridge at Taree in 1940.(Provided: MidCoast Library Collection.)
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