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Walhalla's Italian Community (ii)







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An earlier view of ...


(... written in the 1960's by Mary Hague)

In the latter part of last [ie, the 19th] century, a community of Italians living in Northern Italy, in poor conditions, heard that gold was being discovered in Australia. Naturally they wanted some of it.

Without hesitation, they packed their few belongings, and set sail. Surprisingly, they were not the lean dark type, but strong framed, with light complexions.

A group from Northern Italy, a few with families, found their way to Walhalla. Here, they took on, not actual mining, but contracted to supply the fuel to keep the ever hungry furnaces stoked so that the mine engines could be kept working around the clock.

The tourists that browse around the old gold town have to use their imagination as to life there, of the inhabitants in the deep mountain valley in that exciting era.

Not many who lived there in those days are here to tell the true tales.

The famous Long Tunnel Mine has long been silent. When working, it reached a depth of 4,000 ft. It was from this mine that most of the 72 tons of gold was produced.

Fuel was all important, wood abounded on the mountain sides, convenient and handy to the mine. The woodcutters were even more important than the gold miners.

For fifty years axes rang out in the forest. Small trams running on rails and pulled by horses hauled the cut wood. All tracks led to the mine. The horses became so used to the steep hills and treacherous descents, they knew every inch, men were not needed to drive them.

Not all men wanted the back breaking toil of cutting and splitting iron hard wood, but these strong Italians were eager to tackle any work to make a living.

So south of Walhalla, on the banks of the River Thomson, sprang up a small settlement, which was given the name Poverty Point.

On arrival they set to work, built bark huts. The advantages of these dwellings were that they were cosy in winter and cool in summer. The thick bark being durable and weatherproof. Building materials were unobtainable, and, even if they were, the terrain made wheeled transport impossible. Fireplaces and chimneys were built of rocks, the mortar used for binding the stones together was made from anthills. The remains from these are still hidden in the bush.

The Italians had a keen knowledge of agriculture. Soon, small gardens were flourishing in small pockets of fertile soil washed down from the mountains, and lodged between rock outcrops. Tended carefully, they soon produced the family's vegetables.

A cow, or goats were able to be kept, the latter thriving on the rough grazing. Butter and cheese were made from the surplus milk. These products could be kept, as cool rooms or cellars were made by digging into the hillside, timbering the sides and making adequate ventilation. Delicious food suited to the Italians' palates came from these pantries, so that the diet wasn't monotonous corned beef and damper. Needless to say, the people were hard workers, most who knew life in Walhalla district, when the mine was working had an affection for the memories. What leisure they had, they enjoyed in simple pleasures.

There was no shortage of humorous events, or keen sense of it. Parties for fishing and picnicking were organized, blackfish were plentiful in the crystal clear Thomson River water. Sometimes all the family took part in the outing, cooking a bush meal.

More than one party had to camp the night when darkness fell, as it does quickly in the deep mountain valleys. They were afraid of getting lost in the thick bush, so they waited till daylight came.

The aim of dwellers in this isolated country was to be as self supporting as possible for the necessities of life, but groceries were delivered by packhorse, the goods needed being kerosene, and flour, etc. These had to be carried up steep hills around 2,000 ft. high.

The woodcutters led a hard life, dreading any injury or sickness, there was no pensions or compensations, wages being approximately 2/10/- per week. Tradespeople had to allow credit as the wood cutters were not paid till the cut wood was used, sometimes up to one year [later], but the Italians were noted for their honesty.

Mostly, they were strong and healthy, working in the clean mountain air.

Many gravestones in the old hillside cemetery tell by the time-worn inscriptions that many miners died before their allotted span from the unhealthy working conditions such as dust and dampness.

Poverty Point was three or four miles from Walhalla, the children of the woodcutters had to walk there to school. Little five year olds had no choice but to trudge through bush in freezing winter and hot summer days.

After a few years, the timber on the north side of the Thomson River began to thin out. Wood was a vital necessity and it grew on the other side of the river, to get it a bridge was essential. So, in 1902 a bridge to span the gorge was shipped out from U.K. made of steel. It became known as the 'Steel Bridge'. It still stands high above the river some few miles upstream from the road bridge to Walhalla.

The Steel Bridge was cleverly designed to withstand the severe floods that sweep down from the mountains. Unused, now, the paths that lead to it are overgrown with blackberry bushes and scrub.

In a way, the old bridge is a monument to the men who once worked there. Standing high above the river like a sentinel guarding the memories of the past and a tribute to the skill of the engineers of that era. Poverty Point was a hive of workers, axe sounds rang through the air, so that the lyrebirds soon mimicked the new sound with accuracy in their repertoire.

As the trams rattled over the bridge and down to the mine, the bush also rang with the singing of songs from their homeland. Most of them were happy in the workaday world.

Of course, all was not Utopia. There were hotels and sly grog shanties, the latter hidden in the bush. The thrifty man kept away from these places, but there were many single and lonely men whose hard earned cash ended there. Then they staggered back to their tents.

Walhalla had two breweries, and the beer was famous. The mountain water was given the credit for the excellent brew which won many prizes in Australia and overseas.

What unique stories lie hidden; belonging to that era, never again to be told. Some tragic, others humorous - many arising from a community speaking different languages, they had not much opportunity to learn English, mostly in the company of their countrymen.

If they went shopping and needed potatoes, they would take along a small "spud", or an onion-skin if they wanted onions. One man went to buy dynamite, the storeman could not understand what he wanted, so a demonstration was enacted. The man made hissing noises, rushed outside and threw a stone against the shop wall, eventually the message got through. Another man described a horse collar as a necktie.

The closing of the gold mine in 1914 finished the rip-roaring days. There was no other work available. Together with the miners, the woodcutters had no other choice but to seek work elsewhere.

Some descendants are still residing in Gippsland. By hard work and thrift they have prospered, some have their own farms.

The woodcutters who worked and slaved to keep the mines working were cheerful and worthy emigrants.

There is no monument to their memory -- only the Steel Bridge and a few chimney stones in the silent bush. The scars their axes made have healed, where the trees grow thick.


For more information about Walhalla or its Italian community, contact:
Walhalla Heritage and Development League Inc
c/- Post Office, Walhalla, Victoria 3825
Tel: 5165 6250


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