"In connexion with the diminished supply of our most durable hardwoods, I must call special attention to the fact that by the alienation three years ago of about 30,000 acres of Moormbool forest, between Heathcote and the River Goulburn, we have lost the best part of the most valuable reserve in Victoria for the production of sleepers, beams, and piles. The young belts of timber in this reserve had been carefully protected for 25 years, and when its alienation was discussed the local residents sought, and expected to get, only 7,000 acres. They were permitted to get more than four times this area, despite strong protests from this Department, and repeated assurances to myself that no really good timber would be sacrificed. The soil of this land, a poor sandy loam running up on the higher levels to ironstone and gravel, was not of a kind to justify close settlement, and it is almost inevitable that in this dry district the history of earlier alienation from Moormbool reserve will be repeated, viz., the small selections will quickly, merge into bigger holdings, and become poor sheep paddocks. Already, the greater part of this once valuable forest is ringbarked, and the extensive belts of young spar and pole trees are dying or dead. Meanwhile, the State is called upon to expend large sums in costly plantations which cannot for 50 years at least replace what has been so wantonly destroyed." Conservator of Forests, H Mackay in the Department of State Forests, 1908-09.
For forty or more years from the 1880s, the then-named Warrowitue and Moormbool Forests produced wood in the form of mining timbers, firewood, sleepers and poles that was important for the development of Victoria. From about 1906 to 1927 many of these products were transported on tramlines operated by the McIvor Timber and Firewood Company.
The Company decided to cease operations in 1927 because the Bendigo mines, which were major customers, were reducing operations significantly, there was little firewood remaining available from private property and briquettes from Yallourn were significantly reducing the overall market for firewood . The future of the Tramway became a subject for discussion by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways. The Chairman of the FCV, W Code, presented evidence to the Committee.
Frank Stamford1 provides a wonderfully detailed account of the operations of the Company's operations out of Tooborac, and he has allowed us to produce maps from his publication which are linked above. In his account, Frank references the a Report2 prepared in 1927 to examine if the Government should purchase the tramways. Obviously such a purchase did not proceed although it was proposed that the Victorian Railways or the FCV might be a potential purchaser. Both documents provide some information about the scale of forestry operations in the Warrowitue and Moormbool Forests. Some of that information is provided in the extracts below.
"The principal timbers growing in the Moormabool and Warrowitue forests are red and white ironbark, grey, yellow, and red box, redgum, golden and black wattle. The whole of the forest area has been operated on for the last 40 years, and the mature trees fit for sleepers and piles have been cut out. Mr. Code, Chairman of the Forests Commission, considered that there was an abundant supply of green firewood which would require cutting and drying, and also a supply of dead firewood. In his opinion, after ringbarking the trees should stand for six or seven years at least before being properly dry for cutting into firewood blocks. He was aware that lesser periods were stated to be sufficient, but he did not agree with those views. The Commission now had about 2,000 tons of firewood cut and stacked in the district for drying purposes ; they had tried unsuccessfully to sell it last year after three years' drying, the reason for refusal being that it was too green."1
"The district traversed by the McIvor tramway comprises a comparatively narrow strip of alienated land surrounded almost entirely by the Moormbool and Warrowitue (or Kilcorran) forests. Taking the area defined by the Railway Department as tributary to the proposed line, there are 191,500 acres, of which 84,000 acres are forest reserves, leaving 107,500 acres privately held, but this embraces land in the parishes of Gobarup, Cornell, and Redcastle, which are separated from the line by the Moormbool Forest, approximately 3 to 6 miles in width at those points. For the first few miles from the Mclvor Junction the soil, which is of silurian formation, is a light sandy loam interspersed with some ironstone gravel, and generally unattractive for agricultural purposes, while further north, except for occasional small patches, there is very little improvement."1
1 The McIvor Timber & Firewood Company,Tooborac, Victoria. F Stamford, 2014
2 Purchase of the McIvor Timber Tramway, near Tooborac. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways, 1927.
See also: McIvor Tramline Maps
Grey Box ( Eucalyptus hemiphloia) was the most valuable species being harvested. It is described as - "Greyish, very hard, heavy, very durable, interlocked grain" and useful for "Sleepers, piles, poles, bridge and wharf timbers, heavy constructional work, posts, pit props, wheelwright's work, fuel." See: Wood is Good.
While most of the firewood produced by the Company came from private property it was also taking wood from State Forest as the royalties indicated below illustrate.
As usual the pressure was on the forest manager to forsake a more valuable wood supply in the long term for short term commercial gain. Some things never change.
"One of the reasons for the shortage of suitable timber arose from a difference of opinion between the Company and the Forests Commission on what type of timber was fit only for firewood. In 1923 the Company approached the FCV suggesting a lot of timber in the district should be ringbarked, so that it would become available for use as firewood. The Commission's officers felt that this timber was of better quality than firewood, so the ringbarking was not done." 2
Apart from firewood, there were obviously significant numbers of sleepers and poles cut from these forests.
A large area of the Moormbool Forest is now within the Heathcote-Graytown National Park, and most of the Warrowitue Forest is in the Puckapunyal Military Training Area.
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.
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 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.
Map - Central Highlands Tramlines & Sawmills - late 1800's to the 1940's
Tramline Photo Gallery
Slackline Ground Snigging - GW Dyer (1937) (In The Victorian Forester Vol.2 No.2, pp 30-36.)
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:
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.
(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 increased, 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.
"Let us regard the forest as an inheritance, not to be destroyed or devastated, but to be wisely used, reverently honoured and carefully maintained. Let us regard the forest as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care, to be surrendered to posterity as an unimpaired property, increased in riches and augmented in blessings, to pass as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation."
Baron Ferdinand von Mueller - Suggestions on the Maintenance, Creation and Enrichment of Forests (1879)