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.
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.
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.”