All Credit Buried By The Railway Line
The narrative of the poem ‘The First Surveyor‘ gives voice to the overlooked pioneer wife whose husband actually discovered the pass credited to the railway’s surveyor. Paterson reveals the injustice of history forgetting the true explorers.
The poem contrasts the fanfare honoring the surveyor against the anonymous sacrifice of the woman’s husband. While the engineer enjoys parades and speeches, her husband perished alone searching desperately for a stock route to save his family.
Paterson masterfully conveys the grief and irony of the husband being “buried by the railway line” marking the trail he heroically forged. The wife wonders if his spirit knows the trains roar over his achievement.
Through her imagined humble grave-side feast for her husband, Paterson shows the quiet dignity of pioneering women supporting their men. The simple homemade fare reflects what truly built the nation – not self-important officials.
The poem gives voice to forgotten builders of the land, represented by the old wife. Her polite but firm rejection of official honors at the end is a subtle protest against erasure of the common folk’s sacrifices. Paterson reveals the wife as the real hero who persists despite neglect.
The First Surveyor
“The opening of the railway line!—the Governor and all!
With flags and banners down the street, a banquet and a ball.
Hark to ’em at the station now! They’re raising cheer on cheer!
‘The man who brought the railway through—our friend the engineer.’
“They cheer his pluck and enterprise and engineering skill!
’Twas my old husband found the pass behind that big red hill.
Before the engineer was grown we’d settled with our stock
Behind that great big mountain chain, a line of range and rock—
A line that kept us starving there in weary weeks of drought,
With ne’er a track across the range to let the cattle out.
“’Twas then, with horses starved and weak and scarcely fit to crawl,
My husband went to find a way across the rocky wall.
He vanished in the wilderness—God knows where he was gone
He hunted till his food gave out, but still he battled on.
His horses strayed (’twas well they did), they made towards the grass,
And down behind that big red hill they found an easy pass.
“He followed up and blazed the trees, to show the safest track,
Then drew his belt another hole and turned and started back.
His horses died—just one pulled through with nothing much to spare;
God bless the beast that brought him home, the old white Arab mare!
We drove the cattle through the hills, along the new-found way,
And this was our first camping-ground—just where I live today.
“Then others came across the range and built the township here,
And then there came the railway line and this young engineer;
He drove about with tents and traps, a cook to cook his meals,
A bath to wash himself at night, a chain-man at his heels.
And that was all the pluck and skill for which he’s cheered and praised,
For after all he took the track, the same my husband blazed!
“My poor old husband, dead and gone with never feast nor cheer;
He’s buried by the railway line!—I wonder can he hear
When down the very track he marked, and close to where he’s laid,
The cattle trains go roaring down the one-in-thirty grade.
I wonder does he hear them pass, and can he see the sight
When through the dark the fast express goes flaming by at night.
“I think ’twould comfort him to know there’s someone left to care;
I’ll take some things this very night and hold a banquet there—
The hard old fare we’ve often shared together, him and me,
Some damper and a bite of beef, a pannikin of tea:
We’ll do without the bands and flags, the speeches and the fuss,
We know who ought to get the cheers—and that’s enough for us.
“What’s that? They wish that I’d come down—the oldest settler here!
Present me to the Governor and that young engineer!
Well, just you tell his Excellence, and put the thing polite,
I’m sorry, but I can’t come down—I’m dining out tonight!”