"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

The Missing Forest

Murray Paine

This article, and the art that accompanies it, was provided by Arnis Heislers and Ian Weir. The date the article was written is unknown but it was probably in the 1990s.

There was a woodland of large red gums on the plains between Traralgon, Briagolong and Sale, in the Latrobe Valley, and they were felled, cut into small blocks, and exported in sailing ships to London for use as paving blocks for the streets. It is those red gum blocks from Gippsland (and jarrah from WA) that produced the sound of horses' hooves in Sherlock Holmes films.

Forest Red Gum

That is the legend of the Gippsland woodland of forest red gums, Eucalyptus tereticornis. It was more open and grassy than a forest, but it certainly covered a large area - 1200 square kilometres. Its boundary extended from Morwell to Heyfield, to the Macalister Valley, to Boisdale, the Mitchell and Tambo Valleys, and to the coast near Sale and Yarram. It was a good source of heavy timbers for bridges and wharves, and suddenly, at about 1867, there was a great surge of interest in it, not only as a source of timber, but as potential farmland which could meet an urgent demand for food.

There was a gold mine at Walhalla, about 30 kilometres away, and it was some mine. It began in earnest in 1863, tunnelling into the side of the mountain, along Cohen's Reef, the largest single reef in Victoria, producing prodigious yields of gold, (55 tonnes of it in 40 years, worth 800 million present-day dollars all told). All the miners and the workers transporting materials and supplies to Walhalla needed food. So the red gum woodland, which looked to be growing on fertile soils, like Gentlemen's estates of parkland in England, was released for development as farmland.

The settlers struck trouble from the start. If they ploughed the heavy alluvial soils on the grassy lower flats, they put them out of use for many years, and other soils also that looked promising proved to be unsuitable for farming. The settlers had to make a living by working at the mine or in support of it at the railhead at Toongabbie, and that interfered with their obligations as settlers.

The Upper Yarra Forest District

 

This article was written in February 1970, and it comes from the files of what was then the FCV's Upper Yarra Forest District, based at Powelltown.
This is probably a photo from 1912 of Mountain Ash near Warbuton. 
(See this gallery for more information.)

 

The virgin forests of the Upper Yarra Valley have yielded a substantial proportion of Victoria's sawn timber for over half a century. The whole area is densely timbered and the forests have been intensively cut-over, and repeatedly and severely damaged by fire.

Early sawmilling operations in Victoria were concentrated in the more easily worked out and accessible forests of the north and north-central zones, particularly those in the vicinity of the principal goldfields. It was not until the early years of the present century that attention was turned to the mountain forest as a source of building timber - forests of the Upper Yarra Valley being among the first to be exploited. Early sawmills were of a steam-powered type and fed by a system of wooden or steel tramways. Logging generally was by bullocks or horses, with winch logging in the steeper of country. Sawmills were situated within the forest and the sawn timber exported by tramway to railhead at Yarra Junction and Warburton. Haulage was by horse or steam locomotive.

Powelltown eventually became established as a major sawmilling centre, taking its name from the Victorian Powell Wood Process Company which constructed a mill and seasoning kilns in 1912 to cut Mountain Ash for railway sleepers, using a "powellising" preservative treatment. These works were later taken over by the Victorian Hardwood Company and a steel tram line linking Powelltown with the main highway at Yarra Junction, 11 miles distant, was constructed. This was then extended as a log haulage line into the forest in the headwaters of the Little Yarra and Latrobe Rivers. Until about 1944, when road haulage and tractor logging were developed, log transport continued to be by tramline using "Shay" type steam locomotives, and stump to tramline logging operations by steam winches, using both high spar and ground snigging methods. Other sawmills became established in the district, the sawn timber being transported by the Hardwood Company over its tramway system on a freight basis. Over the same period, mills operating in the valley of the River Yarra proper transported the sawn timber on independent tramways to railhead.

In 1926, a major forest fire swept through the district, resulting in serious loss of life and the destruction of sawmills, tramways and extensive areas of Mountain Ash forest. Many mills were rebuilt and operated on fire-killed and remaining pockets of green timber. Prolific regeneration became established. Further destructive fires occurred in 1932, followed by the devastating fires in 1939 which caused tremendous havoc throughout the State including the forests of this district.
 
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The "Coffee Pot" (Kerr Stuart No. 643) on the big bridge east of Powelltown (see Arsenic and Molasses p35) : Logs heading to the sawmill
About 1920
Source: FCRPA

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Shay locomotive near Powelltown (Source: FCRPA) - l to r - WM Flentje, KN Simmonds, KR O'Kane, CRG Fleming
1938
Source: FCRPA

Mount Disappointment Forest

 

Timber harvesting, with sawmills located in the forest, was probably occurring before 1870, and by the 1890's a major sawmilling and seasoning industry was established based on the town of Wandong. The company, the Australian Seasoned Timber Company, (Fig.1) operated tramlines and sawmills in the forest as did other separate concerns.

The quotes below are from an article about these early years by John Slater, in the December 1970 VSFA Newsletter.

"Early sawmilling is reputed to have commenced in the Mt. Disappointment forest in the year 1870 when Mr. Abe Neil established a mill on Strath Creek. This was a forerunner of a number of mills to be operated in the forest by the Neil family up until 1939, when their sawmill was transferred to Broadford."

"Numerous other mills operated on different locations and at different times within the forest between 1870 and 1939, but in the 100 years of sawmilling history of the Broadford forests there has been no sawmilling venture, or is there likely to be again, to compare with that of the Australian Seasoned Timber Company."

"The Company which ran between 1880 and 1902 was said to be the largest sawmilling and timber processing industry in the Southern Hemisphere at the time, running a seasoning and joinery works at Wandong and over the period, four sawmills in the forest supplying timber directly to the works. The largest of these mills was the renowned Comet (which was linked with Wandong by a steel railed tramline eleven miles in length.)" (Fig.2)

"Along the line from the Comet were the other mills, the Planet, (Fig. 3) the Planet No.2 and the Bump."

"At the height of its activity the Company employed 420 men in the area."

"A magnificent high trestle bridge, a quarter of a mile long, 52 feet high and with 10 foot decking, complete with hand railing and other trimmings was constructed over a deep gully for the Company by Lee Brothers, specialist bridge builders in Victoria of the time." (Fig. 4)

"An interesting feature of milling during these early days was that the large messmate logs of the virgin forest were sought after as seasoning and joinery timbers in preference to mountain ash, which was not accepted as suitable for these purposes."

Ribbentrop (then the Inspector-General of Forests to the Government of India) visited this forest in 1896 and said:

"Near Wandong I visited some forests which serve a couple of sawmills owned by the Australian Seasoned Timber Company. Here again the work is carried on, so far as the forest is concerned, without any pre-considered plan. The State has no security that the forest will not be over-worked and finally ruined, and the company none as regards the permanency of supply."

From the late 1800s into the early to mid 1900s there were many sawmills in the forest, and the tramline network was extensive. You can see this network on this Web Map. The tramline locations and many sawmill locations have been provided by Colin Harvey. There is still some work to do on this map, but it does provide a picture of the extent of the tramline network and the location of sawmills.

If you have a particular interest in tramlines you should look at this gallery.

 
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Fig. 1 Australian Seasoned Timber Company, Wandong
1898
Source: FCRPA

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Fig. 2 Comet Mill
1898
Source: FCRPA

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Fig. 3 Planet Mill
1898
Source: EG Stuckey

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Fig. 4 Perrin (White Elephant) Bridge
1898
Source: FCRPA

History of Timber Production From the Lower Murray

Malcolm McKinty 2018 (bio)

(from a paper written in 2006)

While Aboriginal demands on the forests and woodlands of the region were for shelter, implements and food, early European settlers sought local building materials and fuelwood. This meant when the intensity of settlement and the development of infrastructure increases, so too did the demand for timbers.

The tough, strong wood of river red gum is durable in the ground, resistant to white ants and borers and, when mature, fairly resistant to ship-worm and thus has a wide range of uses. For this reason, large quantities of round river red gum piles were used to underpin road and rail bridges around the state and the wharves and piers of Melbourne and Geelong’s harbour infrastructure. River red gum was used for house stumps, road paving blocks, mining and fencing timbers and culverts, and to build the river steamers and barges that plied the Murray. Red gum poles were used to carry telegraph lines from the early 1900s and power transmission lines from about 1920. While used mostly for the south-eastern Australia’s burgeoning infrastructure, significant volumes of the heavy timbers and railway sleepers were also exported, particularly to India.