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MoB Sunday Stories: Paddington Tram Depot Fire

Towering green flames marked the worst blaze Brisbane had seen and accelerated discussions about the future of the city’s tram network.

Paddington tram depot fire 1962. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-S35-9311029.

Built in 1915 on the side of a hill on Latrobe Terrace, where Paddington Central stands today, the Paddington tram depot was a landmark in the district. Trams entered the depot from Latrobe Terrace on the high side of the hill. Supporting the depot on the low side was an impressive mass of timber poles, some as tall as 30 feet high.

Paddington tram depot under construction c1915. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-CD1-8.
On 28 September 1962, the two-storey depot and workshops made of galvanised iron and wood caught fire, claiming 67 trams – almost 20 per cent of the city’s fleet. It was reported that the depot was alight from end to end within 10 minutes of when the fire was noticed.
Paddington tram depot fire 1962. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-S35-9311217.

“The only men in the depot – two depot masters and a despatcher – were able to drive only three trams clear and rescue four cash boxes before power failures and fierce heat drove them from the depot. Five fire engines and four powerful pumps were used to fight the blaze but lack of water pressure hampered firemen at first.”

The Canberra Times, 29 September 1962

Paddington tram deopt Fire 1962. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-S35-9311213.
Thousands of people crowded the streets and surrounding vantage points to watch the towering blaze. Residents of the house directly behind the depot were evacuated, stripping their home of furniture, curtains and personal effects in a frantic five-minute flurry. Soon after, burning trams began falling from the blazing depot. Four monitors were set up along the street directing water onto the fire. One of thirty or so men that were called to the scene, then-rookie firefighter Brian Dutton recalls that water was being poured on the site for over a week.
Paddington tram depot fire 1962. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-S35-9311211.
While the depot’s remains continued to smoulder, Brisbane’s public transport system was thrown into chaos. The City Council put as many of its buses as possible on to tram routes and borrowed additional buses from private operators around the city, however the loss was so catastrophic that an SOS was sent to the New South Wales Transport Department and Brisbane drivers flew down to Sydney to convoy 15 loaned buses north.
Paddington tram depot fire 1962. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC- D52-8-BCC-B35.

As fate would have it, Brisbane’s oldest remaining tram was saved from the Paddington depot blaze. Built in 1885, this horse-drawn tram would normally have been kept at Paddington but was moved to another depot a few days before the fire to be prepared for an appearance in a parade.

On 4 October 1962, The Canberra Times reported that, “The worst fire in Brisbane’s history has enlivened a long-standing controversy – should the city continue to buck world transport trends or should it scrap its trams?” The end of petrol rationing in 1950 and the growing affordability of locally built cars meant more people were getting behind the wheel and public transport usage began a steady decline. By the 1960s, the overwhelming presence of cars on the road was curtailing the efficiency of trams and trolley buses.

Paddington tram depot fire 1962. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-S35-9311214.

The year after the devastating fire the Rainworth, Toowong, Bulimba Ferry and Kalinga tram lines were officially closed. Then in 1964 the State Government commissioned a comprehensive survey of Brisbane’s future traffic requirements. Proposed road widening and the addition of traffic islands did not bode well for Brisbane’s trams. That same year, the first of Brisbane’s Phoenix trams took flight – eight trams built by specialists from spare parts salvaged from the Paddington depot and embellished with an insignia of a mythical bird rising from the ashes.

Brisbane’s first drop centre tram’s final journey leaving Annerley tram depot 1969. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-B54-30756.

 

 

 

Despite this poetic return, trams were seen to be a hinderance to change. With their criss-crossed tracks fixed in concrete and overhead scramble of wires, they posed great challenges to expansion of the city’s roadways and public transport system. It was decided that diesel buses were the best solution for the growing populace and gradually Brisbane’s trams were replaced.

With a police escort in tow, Brisbane’s last tram passed along Queen Street on the night of Sunday 13 April 1969. It is reported that on that day 72,000 people travelled on trams, bringing with them a mixed bag of feelings about the closure.

From Paddington to Norman Park, reminders of Brisbane’s tram network are peppered all over the city, including a series of now heritage listed former tram shelters. Visit Making Place: 100 Views of Brisbane at Museum of Brisbane and spot some artist’s impressions of our city’s long lost public transport.

Brisbane’s first drop centre tram’s final journey leaving Annerley tram depot 1969. Courtesy Brisbane City Council Archives. Image ID: BCC-B54-30756.

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