Colonisation: early explorers try, but fail, to cross the mountains
What lies beyond the Blue Mountains? This was the question on everyone's lips during the first 25 years of European colonisation in Australia. In 1788, the First British Fleet had arrived in Sydney Harbour, and since then the colony had grown rapidly. Settlers had taken land across the Cumberland Plain, up to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. But no one could go further: the mountains were impenetrable. Sydney was hemmed in, unable to expand to the west.
The colonial authorities had tried to cross the mountains several times, without success. By 1813 there was a long list of failed Blue Mountains explorers, including:
- William Paterson, a soldier-explorer and enthusiastic botanist, who had set out to conquer the range in 1793. He'd followed the Grose River (as he named it) for some distance, but had to give up, contenting himself with the discovery of several new plants. He'd reported these to Joseph Banks, his mentor in England.
- George Bass, who'd tried a different route in 1796. He'd ventured into the Lower Burragorang Valley, crossing the Wollondilly River and pushing westward to near Kanangra Plateau. He'd turned back here.
- Matthew Everingham, an early settler in the Hawkesbury, who had attempted an unofficial exploration in 1795.
- A number of escaped convicts, who had also tried 'unofficial' explorations in search of paradise and freedom on the other side of the range.
- John Wilson, a former convict and skilled bushman, who'd been employed by Governor Hunter in 1798 to guide a small party to the southwest. Most of the party had turned back just after the Nepean River, but Wilson and two companions, Price and Roe, had carried on. They hadn't found a way across the mountains, and had ended up around 30 kilometres west of Mittagong. However, they'd collected the first lyrebird specimen, and had made the first written reports of the koala and wombat.
- Francis Barrallier, who had been sent by Governor King to find a route through the mountains in 1802. He'd started around Picton and almost reached the Kanangra Plateau, coming within 25 kilometres of Jenolan Caves - further than any other white explorer. His trip had also been notable for the contact he'd made with the local Aboriginal tribes.
- George Caley, a botanical collector for Joseph Banks, who had attempted to cross the mountains in 1804. After trying to negotiate his way through the maze of gorges west of Kurrajong, he had eventually climbed Mount Tomah and Mount Banks. Here he'd given up. The walls of the Grose River gorge were simply impassable, and it had seemed that the mountains' sandstone labyrinth went on forever. The journey was still a botanical success - Caley had discovered 30 new plants.
After the failure of so many expeditions, Governor King had declared that the task to find a way through the mountains must be given up.
A route is found, and a road is built
The failure of the explorers was bad for Sydney's graziers. By 1812 the colony had expanded across the Cumberland Plain to the Nepean and Hawkesbury rivers. There was a shortage of good grasslands - particularly when the Sydney area was hit with a severe drought and a plague of army worms in 1812 and 1813.
Gregory Blaxland, a wealthy free settler with a property near St Mary's, approached fellow grazier William Lawson and the young William Charles Wentworth to go with him on a land-finding expedition across the Blue Mountains (they hoped to be rewarded with land grants for their efforts). Despite Governor Macquarie's objections, and with a party that included four servants, five dogs and four packhorses, they set out from St Marys in May 1813.
They decided to follow the mountain ridge-tops, and quite by chance chose the main ridge of the Blue Mountains (where the railway and Great Western Highway now run). Doggedly hacking their way through thick bushland, they climbed higher and higher. At times they struggled along steep and narrow paths, with sheer precipices on either side. At one point they found themselves trapped by an impassable barrier of rock, and were forced to retrace their steps.
But they eventually made it. After 17 days, they arrived at Mount York and looked down on the fertile plains of the Western Tableland (at the time, the plains were blanketed in rich forest, but they were soon to become grasslands). When Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson returned to Sydney, they were widely praised. Each was given 400 hectares of the new land out west.
A few months later in November 1813, Governor Macquarie sent surveyor and artist George Evans out west. Evans's mission was to plan a road across the mountains, and to explore the country that lay further west. Crossing the Great Dividing Range, he descended down into the valley onto the Bathurst Plains, discovering the west-flowing rivers there, and continued 150 kilometres further west to the future site of Bathurst, Australia's first inland city.
Evans had surveyed the road; William Cox was given the job of building it. In July 1814, Cox took a convict gang of just 28 men into the mountains. They laid 160 kilometres of road in just six months - an amazing feat for such a small team, in such difficult conditions, using primitive equipment. For their efforts, the convicts gained their freedom.
The colony gained an even bigger prize: the fertile western plains. Governor Macquarie was the first official traveller to use the road, making his way out to the Bathurst Plains in 1815. The journey took nine days (the road was rough in places, to put it lightly). When he reached the plains, Macquarie proclaimed the site of Bathurst.
Two major problems with Cox's Western Road had to be solved:
- The descent from Mount York down the western escarpment was difficult and treacherous. In 1830, Governor Darling instructed the new Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, to find an improved line to Bathurst. Mitchell's route descended not from Mount York, but from a ridge he named Mount Victoria. The Pass of Victoria, with its spectacular stone causeways, opened in 1832.
- The route up Lapstone Hill, in the foothills of the mountains, was a difficult one. A new route was needed before a permanent settlement could be established at Emu Plains. Mitchell employed David Lennox, a master stonemason, to build a bridge across the gully of Lapstone Creek. It was completed in July 1833, and still stands today - the oldest bridge on the Australian mainland. It carried traffic to the west for almost 100 years.
But the Western Road wasn't the only way to get through the mountains. In 1823, 19-year-old Archibald Bell discovered a new route (most likely an Aboriginal trail) over the mountains via Kurrajong. Bell reached Mount Tomah then, on a second trip, found the ridge connecting Mount Tomah with Mount Bell. From here, he could descend into Hartley Vale. Assistant Surveyor Robert Hoddle was ordered to survey the new route, which is now known as the Bells Line of Road.
The railway follows the road
The west was never really ready to be settled until a railway had been built. Sheep farmers had moved out there, and were thriving. Prospectors had also rushed across the mountains after 1851, when gold was discovered at Ophir. Roadside inns and military posts had sprung up alongside the Western Road, to service and supervise the travellers. But until there was a railway, settlement would remain sparse.
The Western Road was chosen as the best route for the rails to follow. By July 1867 the line had been completed as far as Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls), and by May 1868 it had reached Mount Victoria. Meanwhile, work continued on the Zig Zag Railway on the western escarpment. One of the great engineering feats of its day, this project involved three large viaducts and a tunnel being built on the sheer face of the mountainside. It was completed in 1869, and the Great Western Railway finally reached Bathurst in 1876.
Suddenly the Blue Mountains were within easy reach of Sydney. They were accessible as a health and recreational area, and a place for rich people to build their country estates. They had even become a practical place to live - even if you worked in Sydney. Townships began to emerge around the railway stations, populated by railway families, miners, timber merchants, blacksmiths, hotel and guesthouse owners, storekeepers, small-scale farmers and market gardeners.
The Blue Mountains become a city
More people had started moving up to the Blue Mountains during World War Two. It was feared that the Japanese might invade Sydney - so what better thing to do than head for the hills? Temporary schools were set up in the mountains and defence posts were established. The Japanese never arrived.
The electrification of the railway in the mid 1950s really kicked off urban development in the Blue Mountains. Far from just being a holiday area, the mountains were now a practical place to live - even if you worked in Sydney. Through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, people followed the Western Road to cheap land and a quiet, healthy lifestyle.
The Blue Mountains is now officially a city. It has a population of more than 70,000 people, scattered across 100 kilometres of ridgeline in 26 towns and villages. Tourism is the major industry, employing around 2000 local people. As the mountains' population grows, careful planning will be needed to protect the unique natural features of the area.
The mountains become an up-market Victorian playground
In the late 19th century, parts of Sydney were filthy, poverty-stricken and overcrowded. Epidemics of cholera, typhoid and smallpox were a constant threat. Sydney's wealthy residents felt uncomfortable about this.
For both the rich and the not-so-well-off, the opening of the Great Western Railway in 1868 was a godsend. Now they could easily escape to the fresh air of the mountains, leaving Sydney's pestilence to the poor. Guesthouses sprang up everywhere, and members of the elite built fashionable summer residences in the mountains. They included:
- Henry Parkes, five times Premier of New South Wales, who purchased 200 hectares in Faulconbridge and had other extensive landholdings across the mountains, particularly at Wentworth Falls
- Frederick Darley, Chief Justice and Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, who bought 14 hectares at Echo Point. Here he built his summer residence 'Lilianfels'
- The Fairfax family, who built their mountain home at Mount Victoria
- Eccleston Du Faur, Chief Draftsman in the Crown Lands Office and prime mover behind Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Du Faur bought land in Mount Wilson and set up an artists' camp in the Grose Valley. Since then, many creative people have lived in the mountains and drawn inspiration from them - including artists Norman Lindsay and George Finey; writers Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant and Dymphna Cusack; poets Harry Peckman, David McKee Wright and Zora Cross; and photographer Harry Phillips.
- Some wealthy landowners even constructed their own private platforms along the railway line to get to their properties. Public platforms were established at Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls), The Crushers (Katoomba), Blackheath and Mount Victoria.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the 'ozone-laden' mountain air was promoted as a health tonic for all kinds of ailments - tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, malaria, stress, anemia, heart troubles and more. Sydneysiders were told they would enjoy a healthy appetite, more restful sleep and a long life.
The best-known health resort was the Hydro Majestic in Medlow Bath, which opened in 1904. Known as the 'Hydropathic Sanatorium', it offered electrotherapy, mud baths and various treatments such as bowel kneading and centrifugal douching. Another early sanatorium, the Queen Victoria Hospital in Wentworth Falls, starting treating tuberculosis patients in 1903.
And then there were the views and bushwalks. At first, tourists were attracted to the popular scenic spots of Govetts Leap and Wentworth Falls. They then moved their attentions to Echo Point and the Three Sisters in Katoomba. In the 1920s and 30s, rich holidaymakers and honeymooners flocked up to Katoomba and Leura in their new cars. By 1917 there were around 60 guesthouses in Katoomba alone, and it was considered the holiday capital of New South Wales. When they weren't bushwalking, the visitors were trying out the new facilities: golf courses, bowling greens, skating rinks, swimming pools, tennis courts and theatres.
Myles Dunphy proposes a national park
While the property developers were rushing to please the holidaymakers, other people started making moves to protect the natural environment of the mountains. The first problem was to work out which areas of the Blue Mountains qualified as 'wilderness' and could be set aside for protection in parks. Myles Dunphy, one of the state's true environmental visionaries, took up the challenge.
For 10 years, Dunphy worked on a scheme to establish a national park in the Blue Mountains. It was eventually submitted to the Surveyor General and Blue Mountains Shire Council in 1932. The proposal was this: that all Crown lands of the Greater Blue Mountains region should be set aside as Blue Mountains National Park. The park would preserve the mountains' outstanding bushland, for the protection of wildlife and the enjoyment of people.
Bushwalkers buy the Blue Gum Forest
Myles Dunphy wasn't the only one working to conserve the Blue Mountains at this time. In 1931, hikers from two Sydney bushwalking clubs were camping in a magnificent forest of blue gums in the Grose Valley. They heard the sound of chopping, and found a landholder ringbarking the tall trees. Approaching the landholder, they offered to buy his rights to the land, in order to save the trees. He demanded £130 - a large sum of money, especially given that Australia was in the midst of the Depression.
The bushwalkers agreed, and raised the money through donations and loans. So, around the same time as Dunphy was proposing his larger scheme for a Blue Mountains National Park, the Blue Gum Forest was established as a conservation reserve. For nearly 30 years, it was managed by the Blue Gum Forest Trust.
Another nature reserve also came into being at this time. In 1933, a well-known Blackheath conservationist, W. J. Baltzer, persuaded the Blue Mountains Shire Council to help create a Grose Valley Species Park. The park would protect the valley's native plants and animals.
Local councils and government authorities had become more supportive of conservation efforts during the 1930s, and Dunphy's national park didn't seem far off. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War Two brought a halt to the negotiations.
The national park is created
Myles Dunphy had mapped out the various areas of his proposed national park. Now someone had to bring all the pockets of land together, and coordinate all the people who had interests in them. Charles Elphinstone, the Deputy Surveyor General, took up this role in 1953.
Elphinstone's problem was that there were various groups of sightseeing reserves scattered along the central ridge of the mountains. These had to be combined into one group, which would be at the core of the new national park. The additional areas proposed by Dunphy would then be added to the park, surrounding this core area.
Elphinstone accomplished the task and eventually, in 1959, the first stage of the Blue Mountains National Park was established by Government Gazette. It covered an area of approximately 63,000 hectares, which was considerably less than Dunphy's full proposal, but it was a start. The process of exploration, negotiation and hard work had taken almost 30 years.
The park to the present day
From 1959 to 1971, the park was run by the Blue Mountains National Park Trust. In the hands of this trust (whose members included Myles Dunphy and Charles Elphinstone), the park area jumped from its original 63,000 hectares to 110,000 hectares. Then, in 1971, the management of the park was handed over to the Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Since 1971, the park has continued to expand. Crown land water catchment areas were added in 1978, almost completing Myles Dunphy's original vision for the park. It now covers 248,148 hectares, including 50,000 hectares in the Grose Valley which have been identified as Wilderness. The Greater Blue Mountains Area included on the World Heritage List.