S for Sandhills


Over 20 years ago I visited Mildura and saw the remains of “Big Lizzie” in a park at Red Cliffs.  I knew she played an important part in the clearing of land in the area but now reading  her story has taken on new significance.  Thanks again to Mary Chandler for her chapter entitled “A Most Remarkable Lady”.

It all began when Frank Bottrill observed camels carting wool into Broken Hill from outlying stations.  When a steam tractor was used for the same purpose it became bogged in the drifting sand so Frank decided to design something that would work in that environment.  In a backyard in Richmond, Melbourne, he built his traction engine with the help of A.M. McDonald.  She was 34 feet long and had two wagons of 32 feet.  3,000 gallons of fuel were carried on the vehicle and she trundled along at two miles per hour.  Bottrill had invented an improved road wheel in which a series of flat bearers rotated with the wheel and provided a track for it to run on. Somewhere on the vehicle he built a house for his wife and in 1915 they set off for Broken Hill.

What a sight she must have been crawling through Melbourne’s streets. She looked like a half tank, half house, belching smoke and trailing two wagons.  She travelled 174 miles  before stopping in Kerang for six months where Bottrill could not refuse a haulage contract.  Frank moved on, this time proving he could handle the Hattah sandhills.  Two years after leaving Melbourne, Big Lizzie arrived in Mildura.  The Murray River was in flood so she was unable to cross to the NSW side and so travel on to Broken Hill.  Frank found work for her carrying up to 899 bags of wheat at one time. 

Source: Museums Victoria


After WWI Frank obtained a contract to help with clearing 15, 000 acres at Red Cliffs.  A combination of hooks and steel cables were used to pull up to eight stumps out of the ground at a time. By 1924 her work was completed but Frank was doomed not to make it to Broken Hill.  He was asked to travel to Glendenning Station, west of the Grampians, so packed up his wife and cow and headed south.  Here he stayed until 1928 cleaning up sawn red gum trees which went off to Melbourne as blocks to support tram tracks.  Then the engine was sold to a quarry and the rest abandoned.

Big Lizzie lay rusting in a paddock until 1971.  Mary Chandler, the author of “Against the Odds” spent many a childhood holiday clambering over the decaying remains.  The Red Cliffs Jubilee Committee successfully returned Big Lizzie to Red Cliffs on a low loader and now she has been restored and placed in Barclay Square.

big lizzie1
Giant 60 hp oil engined tractor/truck Big Lizzie at Red Cliffs, Victoria, Australia.

I wondered what happened to Frank Bottrill.  He and his wife had no children. He worked as an engineer, a mechanic and a blacksmith in various locations.  He established the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Mildura and returned to that city in 1953 to die at Base Hospital.  The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of him “independent, modest, of strong build and unusual endurance, Bottrill was a vegetarian and teetotaller; he had a rich bass singing voice. His favourite book was the Bible.”

11 thoughts on “S for Sandhills

  1. This story is so fascinating to me. You have made the people, and their challenges, so real — I feel like I knew them personally.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hari Om
    am so glad Big Lizzie got a do-over; a buxom beauty of engineering to be sure! She stands for the quiet achiever too… YAM xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Two miles an hour is very slow. Apparently average walking pace is 3 miles per hour. However that the enormous machine could achieve so much meant the slow pace did not matter. Still two years to get from Melbourne to Mildura and find steady work was a big investment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. And he lived on it while it trundled along and pulled up trees and did amazing things at 2 miles an hour. Wow! I guess it’s lucky they didn’t have children. It would have been hard for the whole family to travel like that. amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Would’ve been amazing seeing that thing roll down the street. Freaky even. Thank goodness for innovators like him. We’re needing these people to help us beat the coronavirus. Saw an Australian respiratory doctor who has adapted a snorkel from a camping store as a mask. It was amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s