Maryborough celebrates 150 golden years

In October 1867, Queensland was broke and on the brink of collapse.


It had been eight years since the State separated from NSW, and it looked unlikely it would reach a decade. The harsh climate, along with vast distances and poor communication between settlements, had combined to cripple Queensland’s export industry and clip its economy.

But just when it looked like the State would fold, someone in Gympie struck gold. Loads of it. News travelled fast and sparked a gold rush, as prospectors flocked to the region to strike it lucky, and the injection of money saved the State from bankruptcy.

Word of this gold rush reached the ears of Victorian miner, John Walker, who had founded Ballarat’s Union Foundry four years earlier.

Walker joined the migration north, but he wasn’t interested in battling it out with other prospectors on the Gympie goldfields. He had other ideas.

Walker could foresee that all those gold mines would require machinery. So, along with three others, he headed north to open a manufacturing facility to supply machinery to the mines, as well as heavy castings required by the Queensland sugar industry.

They set up camp 100km north of Gympie in Maryborough, secured a site on Bowen Street and opened the doors to the new foundry in 1869. Those doors are still open today.

Since the first casting, the Maryborough factory has been a hub of industry in regional Queensland. From manufacturing countless sugar mills to building ships for the Royal Australian Navy, Maryborough is known for producing the equipment that keeps Australia running. Rail has always been a core capability for the site. Queensland’s first locomotive – the ‘Mary Ann’ – was constructed on the site in 1873, and the factory would go on to manufacture over 900 locomotives and 1,000 rail cars, the most recent of which was completed earlier this year.

Originally known as Walkers Limited, the site was sold to Evans Deakin in 1980, and acquired by Downer in 2001.

On 6 December, staff at Downer’s Maryborough Service Centre were joined by Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, to celebrate the facility’s 150-year anniversary.

Downer now employs over 250 people at the site and is recognised across the country as a leading manufacturer and maintainer in the rail sector. Trains that travel all over Australia have been built in the Heritage City – from the Cairns Tilt Train to the entire Transperth B-Series fleet. 

“The Maryborough factory is an icon of the Fraser Coast community and Downer is proud to play a part in its 150-year history,” Downer’s Executive General Manager Rollingstock Services, Tim Young, said.

“With upgrade work on Queensland’s New Generation Rollingstock fleet well underway, and 14 apprentices starting in 2020, now is the perfect time to celebrate our proud history and bright future.

“It’s an especially important time for our 250-plus employees on site. Some of them have worked here for over 40 years and their contribution to our business is undeniable. 

“And with a steady flow of work over the next few years, one thing’s for certain – Downer in Maryborough is here to stay.”  

The start of something big

It was an odd-looking machine, even for its time.

And Queensland’s first locomotive, built in 1873 at our Maryborough Service Centre on Bowen Street, was met with mixed reviews.

Commissioned to haul timber on the new Cooloola tramway, the ‘Mary Ann’ – named after the daughters of customer William Pettigrew – was described as “very primitive”.

“Queensland’s first locally-built locomotive was a queer contraption,” one newspaper report read. “The engine was upright on a frame of iron and wood, a flywheel on the side opposite to where the driving crank was placed was used when the locomotive became a stationary engine. The engine weighed six tonnes and ran six miles an hour.”

It may have been met with some skepticism at the time, but the Mary Ann was the start of something big. Today, our Maryborough facility is regarded as a leader in rollingstock manufacturing and maintenance.

Maryborough: A proud history and bright future

  • 1868 – John Walker opens the Union Foundry in Maryborough, Queensland
  • 1869 – The facility celebrates its first casting, officially marking the start of manufacturing on site
  • 1869 – Walkers begins manufacture of sugar milling equipment for the Queensland sugar industry. From 1869 until 2003, the factory was a major supplier of sugar milling equipment across Australia
  • 1873 – Queensland’s first steam engine locomotive – the Mary Ann – is built at the Maryborough factory for William Pettigrew and William Sims. The pioneering locomotive is designed to haul logs from the Cooloola forests to Tin Can Bay
  • 1877 – Ship building operations on the Mary River commence
  • 1888 – The Union Foundry is renamed Walkers Limited
  • 1896 – Walkers receives an order to build 30 B15 class steam locomotives for the Queensland Government Railways. The first trains enters service from 1897. The company built more than 500 steam locomotives between 1896 and 1958
  • 1938 – The largest single crushing unit in the Australian sugar industry (at the time) is made by Walkers Limited and installed at the South Johnstone Co-op. Sugar Milling Association plant
  • 1940-44 – Walkers builds ships for the war effort, including the HMAS Maryborough and Diamantina (the latter is preserved in the museum at Brisbane’s Southbank Drydock). Between 1940 and 1974, 36 ships would be built for the Royal Australian Navy
  • 1956 – The factory builds its first diesel powered locomotives, the 1170 class diesel-electric trains for Queensland Railways
  • 1974 – The Maryborough shipyards close
  • 1977 – Walkers, in partnership with ASEA, secures a contract to design and build what will eventually total 264 stainless steel Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) carriages. These trains herald the electrification of the Brisbane suburban and introduction of air-conditioned trains for Brisbane commuters
  • 1980 – Walkers Limited is sold to Evans Deakin Industries
  • 1991 – The first of 96 electric multiple unit trains for the Transperth (Western Australia) rail network, known as the A-Series fleet enters service
  • 1993 – Downer awarded a contract to build the 100 series Interurban multiple units (IMUs) for Queensland Rail. The trains are delivered in 1997. The first of several orders of IMUs, the Maryborough factory would go on to deliver a total of 228 trains for Queensland Rail’s suburban and interurban network by 2011.
  • 1996 – Deliveries commence of the first of 90 Light Rail Vehicles exported to Malaysia for use on the Kuala Lumpur transit system
  • 1998 – Two six-car electric tilt trains built in Maryborough enter service in Queensland between Brisbane and Rockhampton
  • 1999 – Maryborough commences design and build of Queensland’s diesel tilt trains to service the Brisbane to Cairns route. The two innovative, nine-car diesel-powered vehicles are manufactured in Maryborough, including fabrication of the bodyshells and bogies as well as full assembly, testing and commissioning
  • 1999-2005 – Downer builds 62 GT42CU AC diesel electric locomotives
  • 2001 – Evans Deakin Industries is merged with Downer to become Downer EDI
  • 2001-02 – Four IMU120 series sets are delivered and enter service on the Airtrain line to Brisbane Airport
  • 2004 – Maryborough constructs 78 three-car sets for the Transperth network, known as the B-Series fleet. The last of this fleet is completed in 2019
  • 2006-11 – Downer, in partnership with Bombardier, delivers a total of 64 trains to Queensland Rail, known as the IMU160 and SMU260 series
  • 2007-13 – Downer builds 132 GT42CU ACe diesel electric locomotives for use on narrow gauge railways in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia
  • 2013 – A third nine-car set tilt train, The Spirit of Queensland, is delivered to replace the Sunlander train
  • 2017 – Walkers inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame
  • 2019 – Downer awarded contract for modification of Queensland’s New Generation Rollingstock fleet
  • 2019 – The final Transperth B-Series train is completed. Downer begins work on the New Generation Rollingstock modification program
Queensland’s first locomotive, built in 1873 at our Maryborough Service Centre