HAILED locally as the hero of the Great Southern Railway Line, stretching 116.6 miles from Dandenong to Port Albert, Andrew O’Keefe doesn’t enjoy the same esteem up in the Bendigo area.
In fact, it was quite a shock to read on a commemorative plaque entitled ‘Blood On The Tracks’, along the O’Keefe Rail Trail between Bendigo and Heathcote a month or two ago, an altogether different assessment of the not-so-great railway entrepreneur.
“This lovely spot is known as Sportsman Hill after the long-gone Sportsman’s Arm’s Hotel. While it was a popular spot for scenic views it was also the site of a revolt against the line’s builder Andrew O’Keefe…”
The story goes that “persons unknown” placed a large log across the tracks in an effort to derail O’Keefe’s personal locomotive, called Sue, and kill the track builder.
The sabotage, it says, could have been perpetrated by any of O’Keefe’s enemies including the poorly paid rail workers, the adjacent farmers who’d been ripped off during compulsory acquisition of their land or any of O’Keefe’s competitors.
A report in the McIvor Times records that “a man named Russell” met O’Keefe at Sandhurst on November 15, 1888 and fired four shots at him, one hitting him in the arm and breaking a bone.
No wonder then that O’Keefe left the area after the Heathcote project was finished, turning up in South Gippsland in 1891 to direct the construction of the line from Korumburra to Toora.
Also the founder of Australia’s cheese brand, OK Cheese, and operating three large station properties in the Riverina, O’Keefe died 1904.
Descendants of O’Keefe and his 10 children continued to live locally, in the Koonwarra area until the 1970s.
The Great Southern Railway Line remained in use until July 1993.