On 20 April, 1853, a meeting was held at the Royal Hotel, Sydney, for the purpose of establishing a company for the formation of a railway line between Newcastle and Maitland.
Invitations to attend the meeting were sent to prominent businessmen in Sydney and a number of members of the NSW Parliament. Those attending were W C Wentworth (Chair), Sir Charles Nicholson (Speaker of the House), W Bradley, C Cowper, T W Smart, Captain King, RN, Dr Douglas (all parliamentarians) as well as Captain W Russell, J Gilchrist, T Holt, J B Darvall, T S Mort, J E Ebsworth, C Kemp, S D Gordon, David Jones, Dr Mitchell, John Croft, J F Josephson and "a number of the most respectable commercial men in Sydney".
The purpose of the meeting was to incorporate a company called 'The Hunter River Railway Company' with capital of not less than £100,000, amounting to 20,000 shares at £5 each.
Applications for 50,000 shares were subscribed on the day. The company's office was to be in Mort's Buildings, Pitt Street and the railway was to run between Newcastle and Maitland, with sea communication to Sydney.
Controversy began almost immediately. An opinion piece in the Maitland Mercury of 8 June, 1853, queried the way in which the shares had been distributed. The citizens of Newcastle and Maitland were, it said, denied a say about a railway within their region.
However, the company was unconcerned and Norton, Son and Barker, the appointed solicitors, went ahead with preparing an application for incorporation to be made to the Legislative Council. The application was received and on the third reading of the Bill on September 30 the Act of Incorporation was passed.
The first general meeting of shareholders was held on 8 November, 1853 and no time was lost in commencing operations. Plans were purchased from Mr Lundie, who had surveyed the route about ten years previously, and Mr Wallace, engineer-in-chief of the Sydney Railway Company, was appointed as Consultant Engineer.
The first orders and remittances (£17,000) were sent to London by the Great Britain to their agents, Messrs P W Fowler and Co, for 500 railway labourers and a quantity of rails and plant. Mr Higham was contracted as surveyor and Mr J N Gale was appointed resident engineer. Mr Wright's tender for building the earthwork and bridges between Newcastle and Hexham was accepted.
The ship Ellenborough, under Captain Thornhill, arrived from Southampton on October 31 after a difficult 107-day voyage with 399 immigrants, 100 of whom were labourers for the railway.
Part of her cargo consisted of 10 pick shafts, 7 crab winches, 35 bundles of iron, 4639 chairs, 1023 rails, 164 bundles shovels, 3 casks picks, 534 bars of iron, 1201 pieces of iron, 16 pieces of machinery, 80 axle boxes, 3 castings, 14 pairs and 149 barrels wheels and axles, 23 casks, 12 cases, for the Hunter River Railway Company.
The first sod for the railway was turned by the chairman of the Company on 8 November, 1854. There was no ceremony apart from three cheers from all those present.
From articles in the Maitland Mercury.