After the first sod was turned on November 8, 1854, railway construction began from Newcastle towards Hexham.
But the Hunter Valley Railway Company fell into financial difficulty and a meeting was held on January 4, 1855 in order to dissolve the Company and dispose everything to Her Majesty's Government for the fully paid amount, plus 7 per cent.
On April 23, the railway was sold to the Government and the shareholders eventually recovered their capital and 5 per cent in debentures.
Ships continued to arrive from Britain with workers and material for the Hunter Valley Railway and the construction continued under the watchful eye of the Railway Commissioners.
The Governor General of the Australian colonies, his Excellency, Sir Willian Thomas Denison, paid a visit to the Hunter on March 17 where he inspected the public works around Newcastle.
Monday was taken up with delegations, speeches and dinner, and on Tuesday, went up river on the Tamar to Morpeth. Thence, with a mounted escort, to East Maitland and West Maitland, where he spent the night.
The next day, he returned to Newcastle on horseback, inspecting the line of railway works.
On 3 July, the first sod was turned on the second section of the railway, from East Maitland to Hexham.
In contrast with the Newcastle start, this occurred with great ceremony.
Dignitaries from Newcastle were escorted from Morpeth wharf to the Brickfields, East Maitland by a brass band. People on foot, horseback and cabs arrived from East and West Maitland.
Major Crummer, to loud cheering, used the spade to turn the turf, whereupon the dignitaries retired to the tent to partake of refreshments, toasts and speeches.
Outside the tent, the navvies working on the railway were provided with a hogshead of London stout.
As they had some difficulty in broaching the cask, they simply knocked in the head, and dipped their pannikins in.
The end of the line was at "the hill at the back of the East Maitland gaol", where a temporary terminus had been built prior to the selection of a permanent station.
Rivalry arose between the people of East and West Maitland as to where the permanent terminus would be. Petitions from both sides were sent to the Governor General. The GG, Sir William Denison, an engineer and seeing the bigger picture, informed them that there would be no terminus, as the line would continue up the country. By late December, things were happening rapidly. Three locomotives and a number of carriages and other rolling stock had arrived by ship, along with turntables and other machinery.
The grand opening of the railway was held on Monday, March 30, 1857. The Governor General arrived in Newcastle after an overnight trip from Sydney on the Collaroy.
The train with the Vice Regal party and dignitaries from Newcastle arrived in East Maitland to be welcomed by a crowd from East and West Maitland and Morpeth.
After a number of speeches, the GG named it the "Great Northern Railway" and declared it open.
- From articles in the Maitland Mercury.
Next week: Part 3 - Maitland's Grandest Party
Maitland and District Historical Society