Shady Creek and the road into Gippsland
Most of us would be familiar with the folklore of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson finding a path across the Blue Mountains, thus freeing our earliest settlers at Port Jackson to move inland. In a Victorian context, it is sometimes surprising to recall that their expedition only took place in 1813 (200 years ago this year) -- a full 25 years after the arrival of the First Fleet and barely 22 years before the settlement of Melbourne. Far fewer people understand that Victoria's pioneers faced similar obstacles to the development of Gippsland.
In Patrick Morgan's book, "The Settling of Gippsland", he distinguishes four common stages in the development of the region's roads, typically beginning with a bridle path (one horse width) through the scrub, which over time would become wider to accommodate teams of horses as a pack track; then later still a bullock track (wider for a herd of bullocks or a team pulling a dray, but with the consequent effect on the track's quality that might be expected); and finally a coach road -- narrower, but hopefully (although not always) with a firmer surface, and one that would be more appropriate to year-round use by wheeled traffic.01
He points out that within a very few years of the settlement of Melbourne in 1835, the pastoral core of Gippsland was being settled and supplied from New South Wales via Omeo, and from van Diemen's Land via Port Albert -- in neither case all that satisfactorily -- but certainly not from Port Phillip. Early progress in finding a reliable year-round path between Gippsland and Melbourne had stalled from both directions, due to mis-perceived obstacles.
The central plain was far more flood-prone than it is today, and there were extensive swamps at Koo Wee Rup and Moe, which are still evident today outside Traralgon, Morwell, Sale (originally, of course, “Flooding Creek”) and Bairnsdale. In his report to Governor La Trobe in March, 1847, surveyor C J Tyers wrote, "The Moe Swamp, rising near Streleskis, or the Coast Range, is surrounded by very heavily timbered forest and dense scrub, and is said by the Natives to be all but impassable on foot." Hand-written notes on his own sketched map confirm his frank opinion that in his view also, this swamp was "impassable."02 And the first few daring Gippslanders who had nevertheless managed to work their way past the Moe swamp at first wrongly imagined that the Great Dividing Range formed a further barrier, extending as an unbroken chain all the way south to Wilson's Promontory.03
Meanwhile, those attempting to penetrate Gippsland from Melbourne were initially stymied by the density of timber in the vicinity of the Tynong hills and the plains around the Bunyip River, at that time covered with (heavily- to very) heavily-timbered forests, for as difficult as that might be to believe today. In the same 1847 report, Tyers had written of the prospects for a line of road from the La Trobe to the Bunyip ("Bunnup-Bunnup") River that this section was "over a succession of hills and Gullies so thickly timbered and offering so many impediments in the shape of fallen timber -- some about eight or ten feet [up to 3 meters] in diameter, and dense scrub -- that I fear the cutting and clearing of that portion will occupy two or three months beyond the time for which the men were engaged."04 So even without imaginary impediments, “the belt of timbered country which stretched from the Baw Baws south to the sea, and was bordered on both the east and west with swamps, created a barrier between these settlers and their markets in Melbourne.”05
Late in 1845, barely 10 years after the settlement of Melbourne, an 8-day expedition consisting of Sgt Walsh and a party of Black Police had blazed a trail from Traralgon to Dandenong, roughly following the east-west line of today's highway, but north of it as far as Moe, and then south of it, westward to Mt Ararat. Tellingly, the slowest part of their journey even then had been the middle. The expedition was reported in the "Port Phillip Herald" of 28th November, 1845, as follows:
Tyers had reported to Governor La Trobe in 1846 that “James Riley, who was with Strzelecki, had informed him that a much better line could be found than that traversed by Dana.”07 By late 1847, Governor La Trobe in turn was reporting to the Colonial Secretary in Sydney that “Every day the necessity of a certain mode of communication with Gipps Land becomes more and more evident. I am at the same time disposed to consider that the construction and maintenance of a bridle track is all that the Government can be required to undertake at the present time.”08 Within four months, however, he was able to write as follows: “I now have the duty to state for His Excellency's information that the work has been satisfactorily brought to a termination during the course of the summer and that this line of communication thus opened is found to be of very great public convenience.”09
In "Buln Buln" (1979), Graeme Butler notes that “C. J. Tyers, the Government Surveyor, had blazed the very first Gippsland Road about 1850. It was referred to then as 'the Marked-Tree Road from Melbourne to Gippsland'.”10 The path had improved to skirt north around the “impassable” Moe swamp and come down from the hills on the Melbourne side at today's Robin Hood, north-west of what is now Drouin. As a result, “By the late 1840s travellers rode to Hobson's (Traralgon) in about three days on a pack track, except on the Moe-Bunyip section which was still more like a bridle path. ... The [overland] mail service from Melbourne to Alberton took four days.”11 This was the track along which a party of native troopers escorted Bishop Perry and his wife when they rode from Melbourne to Sale in 1849: “Mrs Perry must have been an intrepid horsewoman to ride side-saddle along tracks so steep at times that, on the downward slope, she feared she would slip over the horse's head, and on the upward climb, that she would slip over his tail. The journey took four days.”12
With the discovery of gold in the 1850's, graziers on the central Gippsland plains and at Kilmany Park and The Heart pressed more urgently for a cattle trail to the Melbourne markets in order to feed central and western Victoria's gold miners and Melbourne's booming population, and to further exploit the new market opportunities that were developing in New Zealand. This trail eventually brought herds of cattle down from Maffra via what is still known as Jackson's Track, taking 7 to 8 days for the journey at an average of roughly 30 km per day, but the combined effects of its traffic and the weather inevitably meant that it quickly became unusable in winter. By the mid-1860s, however, parts of this route would become the basis for the Coach Road -- “It was lower than Jackson's Track, and went through Robin Hood, Brandy Creek, Buln Buln and Shady Creek. A notorious section from Brandy Creek to Shady Creek was known as 'The Gluepot'. This section never had a satisfactory hard surface.”14
This was because of what today's Department of Primary Industries calls the area's “hard setting yellow duplex soils”. According to their website, these soils are typical of what they (and some locals) speak of as ‘bayonet country’ -- “north of the Moe River (for example, Shady Creek, Yarragon North, Westbury), south of Willow Grove, in the Haunted Hills south of Yallourn, and on the higher parts of the valley associated with the Morwell River" -- a far broader area than some of the more specific localities such as those described below, and more consistent with the "section from Brandy Creek to Shady Creek" referred to above. "These soils ... usually have a hard setting, shallow, grey sandy loam or sandy clay loam at [a depth of] approximately 200 mm. A bleached sandy loam layer is often present just above the sandy clay and has no strength or structure at all ... hence, ‘once a tractor goes through the topsoil, it may sink straight to the axles.’”15
Exactly as -- in earlier days -- many coaches, and of course, the teams of horses drawing them, also did.
Settlements of “The Gluepot”
The original Bunyip township site (now Tonimbuk) had been surveyed in late 1857, and that was where David Connor located his "Buneep Hotel" around 1858 to cater to the travelling public undertaking the arduous coach journey between Sale and Melbourne. A new road, eventually to become known as today's "Old Telegraph Road", was surveyed in 1859 to skirt around some of the worst parts of the original track, but by 1860, "there were further improvements made for coach traffic with the opening of the Old Sale Road three miles (5 km) to the south of "Buneep Village" ... In 1867 Connor selected land to build the "Bunyip Hotel" on the west side of the Bunyip River along the new road ... The new hotel had 14 rooms as well as a 25 stall stable."16 So when William Cuthill wrote that by Christmas 1862, Cobb and Co. coaches “ran three times a week from Connor's Bunyip Hotel to Melbourne, the fare being 17/-”, 17 it was clearly the "Buneep Hotel" that he had in mind, and they may not quite yet have been branded as Cobb and Co.'s coaches, although they soon would be (the seventeen shilling fare of 1862 would have a present value closer to $65 than the $1.70 to which you might unconsciously equate it).
From a Traralgon (or "TARALGON") perspective, however, he also correctly noted that "The road to Melbourne was still all mud during the winter. Who would think of trying to ride to Melbourne that way when you could travel fifty miles over to Port Albert in comfort in a gig and then catch a steamer to Melbourne in the afternoon, arriving there the next day? For £5 you could have a cabin, but if you could afford only 45/-, you would travel in the steerage or second class part. So the Melbourne road was still being used chiefly by the cattle who stamped the mud with their hooves and made it deeper."
Coaches departed from both Melbourne and Sale in daylight hours, so “the bad part through the forest between Moe and Nar Nar Goon was always done at night. ... Kerosene lamps had just been invented and the coaches still used candles for lights.”18 In fact, it was precisely because of this deficiency that Cobb and Co. introduced a uniquely distinctive innovation, in the form of a third large, high-mounted central coach-lamp to light the way through the forest. This was subsequently referenced, if only incidentally, by Henry Lawson, who was himself at one stage a decorator of coach bodies, in one of the verses of his nostalgic and evocative poem, “The Lights of Cobb and Co.” -- “Three lamps above the ridges and gorges dark and deep”.19
On today's maps, like Shady Creek itself, the nearby community of Crossover (originally Crossover Creek), to the near north-west, is no longer exactly where it once was, its focus having shifted several kilometres over time. Also like Shady Creek, its first "settlers" were gold prospectors: “Crossover Creek diggings followed Shady Creek in sequence; being just the crossover point, at the Tarween [Tarago] River, for those bound from Melbourne, before following what was described as a rather hazardous track, even for pack horses, to reach the Shady Creek fields or Baw Baw and beyond. ... Shady Creek was first publicised in 1860, by James King, one of the gold pioneers of Gippsland. ... in October 1864, the Crossover Creek was reported as being worked by a number of diggers or alluvial gold seekers. However it was known at the time that all of these fields had been active in one way or another for a number of years before their 'discovery', so that exact precedence is hard to verify.”20 Shady Creek was well enough known by 1860, for example, that Duncan Campbell, a pioneer of the Traralgon township, “was advertising in the 'Guardian' in October, 1860, that his store was the nearest to the Shady Creek diggings, and that, besides groceries, he stocked picks, shovels, tin dishes and blankets for the diggers.”21
As the centrepiece of what would become a small village, Nicol Brown opened the “Drover's Rest” Hotel at Shady Creek in 1859,
As the centrepiece of what would become a small village, Nicol Brown opened the “Drover's Rest” Hotel at Shady Creek in 1859,just in time for the discovery of the Tanjil and Walhalla goldfields to the north soon after, and later still to cater to the through traffic of Cobb and Co. and other coaches en route to Sale.. Originally an early West Gippsland squatter, Brown lost his first wife, Julia (née Costella), in April, 1860, when she died at the age of 35. He buried her in an ungazetted graveyard on a rise above and to the east of the site of the hotel, where, barely eight months later, he also buried his daughter Isabella aged 4 years when she was tragically scalded by a fatal spill of boiling water, an unfortunately all-too-common domestic hazard for infants in busy early kitchens.
Old Telegraph Road east of Crossover today
The original northwest approach to Shady Creek “for those bound from Melbourne” shows up on today's (better) maps as the Old Telegraph Road, along the route of 1864's telegraph line from Melbourne to Sale, but by late 1865, Archibald Campbell “had blazed another route through to Shady Creek which could, he thought, take wheeled traffic. This became the new gold-cum-cattle route”22, known today as the Old Sale Road. The route was laid down “in an effort to find a track to Sale which was trafficable by a mail coach on a regular run. In fact, it was always referred to as Campbell's Track.”23
Just as was the case in many other locations along the coaching routes, providing sustenance for the weary traveller soon became an additional incentive to settlement, and as staging posts were designated, companion shanties at those points would offer a quick drink and a robust meal, or even, in some cases, ad-hoc overnight accommodation. One such was alluded to in the report of the patrolling Traralgon mounted police constable in October of 1865, as follows: "The New Bridge over Shady creek on Campbell's Track will be completed in the course of a week. It is a very good structure, but the approaches are wretchedly bad. There is a Public House in course of erection close to the bridge on this side [ie, the Traralgon, or eastern side] of the creek."24
This was a common enough story: “On busier routes and in villages where change stations were established, stables, pubs, hotels and townships sprang up to cater to the number of passengers who passed through. Some of these hotels were little more than primitive shanties, while others became large and prosperous establishments.”25
The new, more direct Sale Road clearly failed to live up to initial expectations, even in the early months of a Victorian summer, judging by the police constable's report of December, 1865: “The Const. also visited the New and Old Bunyip via New Track, along which there are five accommodation houses in the cource of erection. In the Const. opinion, this track will be impassable for Coaches during the winter months as it is composed of a loose rich red soil. Even now although the weather has been remarkable fine for some weeks, the Const's horse was taken to the knees in mud.”26 (... in December!!)
It may have been for this reason that coaches from Melbourne continued to approach Shady Creek down the Telegraph Road from Crossover, further north than seems necessary when viewed on today's map, rather than directly from Bunyip along the “Old” (then-new) Sale Road -- particularly in winter.
Also in 1865, a “Cobb and Co.” service was advertised by Meigs and Anderson, claiming the fastest route possible to Melbourne from Sale ... only 30 hours, but via steamer from Port Albert!
In the same year, Hewitt & Co. (soon to become a Cobb and Co. line) began offering an “overland” service between Melbourne and Sale, with coach “stages” from Melbourne to Oakleigh, then Dandenong, Beaconsfield, Pakenham, Bunyip, Robin Hood, Brandy Creek, Shady Creek, Westbury (the Retreat Inn, west of Moe), Morwell Bridge, Traralgon, Rosedale and Kilmany. Paradoxically, the eventual construction of the main Gippsland railway line, several miles to the south (completed in 1879), was to prove to be “the death knell to the settlements along the coach road ... Only the old hotels and some small stores lingered on along the coach road for the next thirty years or so, but of these, only the Robin Hood ... remains today.”27
Once news of the discovery of gold at Stringer's Creek to the northeast had become public in early 1863, Shady Creek also became the branch point for overland traffic from Melbourne, initially by way of the Tanjil goldfield along the "Tangil Track" via Willow Grove that had been blazed by Brown himself.
Early travellers to Walhalla from Melbourne would transfer to horseback at Shady Creek for the final hike of 40 kilometres or more north-east into the hills, but improving Brown's "Tangil Track" soon became the objective for residents of Walhalla demanding a more direct route to Melbourne than the pioneer track from Walhalla via Toongabbie to Sale. At a public meeting in "the large room at Cox's Empire Hotel" in Walhalla on January 17th, 1867, convened by "some of the principal inhabitants of this place", a number of matters were raised, including "the desirability of having a practicable track formed between this town and the Drovers' Rest, near Shady Creek, main Melbourne road. A plan was exhibited by Mr [J.] G. Peers, Mining Surveyor, by which it seems that between Walhalla and Melbourne sixty miles of ground can be saved to the traveller, that hence to Drover's Rest is, according to Mr. Peers' plan, only forty miles [64 kilometers]; that according to the present route it is about one hundred miles [160 kilometers]. This proposition met with general favor, it is a benefit so direct and plain in its nature that the meeting at once received and welcomed it."28
Notwithstanding the clear advantages of such a route, it was not until almost three years later that the "Argus" was reporting that a "deputation consisting of Messrs. A. C. Akehurst29, C. Peterson, and W. Meyer, yesterday asked the President of the Board of Land and Works to cause a survey to be made of a line of road between Shady Creek and Walhalla. The survey had been repeatedly promised by the department but never carried out, though the construction of the road would shorten the present route between Walhalla and Melbourne by 100 miles [160 kilometers]. Mr McKean promised the deputation that the desired survey should be made in March or April next."30
But only gradually did the gap between Melbourne and Sale finally close, and the delay was always the central “gluepot”: “... a furlong [about 200 meters] of the track near the present Christie's Road [east of Buln Buln] was known as the Glue Pot. Anthony Trollope, who travelled by coach from Melbourne to Walhalla in 1871 or 1872, reported that 'the horses rolling up to their bellies in mud pull the coach through. This happens in the darkness of night, in the thick forest. And the Englishman, in his enthusiasm, tells the coachman that no English whip would have looked ar such a place even by daylight. The man is gratified, lights his pipe, and rushes headlong into the next gully!'”31
Writing about the struggle for schooling in the settlements along the road, Graeme Butler noted that even as late as 1873, "[Schools Inspector] Charles A. Topp had to decide firstly, whether a school was needed, and then, whether it should be placed at Gum Scrub Creek, or at the Brandy Creek village. His findings were clear: the Brandy Creeek area was well known in Gippsland as the Glue Pot. The crossing of the Coach Road, at the creek itself, was the precise location of this and thus, the nearby village was not a place for a school. ... If a school was placed at Brandy Creek, children attending from the west would be forced to wade through up to two miles of impassable mud."32
As late as the end of 1867, newspapers were still carrying reports such as the following: "In the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, Mr. Smith called the attention of the Minister of Roads and Railways to the state of that part of the road from Melbourne to Sale between the Bunyip and the Moe; and asked if any steps would be taken to put the same in a passable state of repair? And also asked, when it was the intention of the Minister to station a toll keeper at the toll-gate recently erected at that portion of the road. Mr. Sullivan replied that it was his intention to put the road in a state of repair as soon as he had got money for the purpose; and that a toll-keeper had already been appointed."33 Without ever actually fully solving the problem, maintenance of the Coach Road began to receive the attention it deserved from 1868 onwards, as parts of it were “gazetted, incrementally, as Main Roads”.34
By the late 1860s, "The coach left the Albion Hotel in Bourke Street, for Sale, at 1:30 pm, and passengers had a long and exhausting journey ahead of them, twenty-two hours in summer and possibly twenty-seven in winter."35 According to Patrick Morgan, “Roughly speaking it took three days to get from Melbourne to Sale in the mid-1850s, two days in the mid-1860s, and one day in the mid-1870s. Then there were 15 stops, at an average 15 kilometre interval, and 50 horses were used on the journey."36
The following paragraphs, from a series that was first published in the Melbourne "Argus", as late as May, 1873, describe what a traveller at that time might have expected of a coach trip into Gippsland, and in particular, the harrowing approach to Shady Creek. They also hint at the remarkable powers of recall and the coachmanship skills of drivers in "road" conditions that were marginal at best, navigating their way in the dead of night to boot.
With this graphic description as a background, we now need to study the outcome of two particular (but distinctly different) coach trips that ended at Shady Creek in mid-1869 – those of Sarah Hanks, and of William Henry Hadden. However, before we do, we first need to turn our eyes back to the metropolis, where a vessel named the “Avonvale” arrived from China on October 22nd, 1868 with a most unwelcome cargo.
© 2013 Bernard Bolch for the Walhalla Heritage and Development League.
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