|Historical notes: ||From the time of European settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788, the successive Governors of the nascent colony of NSW continually sought abundant arable and pasture land to feed and clothe the growing population. The extensive mountain range to the west of Sydney offered the promise of, and an obstacle to, arable and pasture land lying beyond the Great Dividing Range.
The line of mountains directly to the west of Sydney was named the Blue Mountains owing to their bluish hue caused by the dominant vegetation growing there: Eucalypt. The Blue Mountains are part of the Great Dividing Range, itself an inland mountain range which extends the length of the eastern seaboard of Australia.
Between 1788 and 1813, a number of expeditions set out from Sydney to cross the seemingly impenetrable Blue Mountains, including those led by Francis Barrallier in c1802 and George Caley in c1804. The first successful crossing by non-Aboriginal people was accomplished by Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth in 1813, although they never technically crossed the Great Dividing Range proper.
This successful crossing of the Blue Mountains was initiated by Gregory Blaxland. Following two ‘reconnaissance expeditions’ between 1810 and 1813, Blaxland had decided to ‘attack the mountains by the ridge which appeared to run westwards, between the Warragomby and the River Grose’. In other words, the exploration party followed the ridgeline across the top of the mountains.
Blaxland approached follow pastoralists William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth to join his expedition and on 11 May 1813, they and their party of ‘four servants, five dogs and four horses’ set out from Blaxland’s farm at South Creek (near St Marys). Aboriginal people from the Daruk, Gandangara and Wiradjuri language groups lived in the Blue Mountains and would have regularly traversed the mountain range in the pre- and post-contact period; they played an important, but unsung, role in guiding the exploration party across the easiest route. Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth reached Mount Blaxland (to the west of Mount Victoria) within 21 days and returned to the outer fringes of Sydney by June 1813.
As historian John Low notes, the reasons for this crossing were not purely about the spirit of adventure or exploration in the quest for geographical and scientific knowledge. All three men were prominent and wealthy landholders and had vested interests in acquiring and opening up more land for their agricultural and pastoral pursuits.
The line of road traversed and mapped out by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth was surveyed by Assistant Surveyor George William Evans in November 1813. Evans travelled a further 42 miles west beyond present-day Bathurst to the Macquarie River, returning to Sydney in January 1814. Evans and his party were the first Europeans to cross the Great Dividing Range.
In July 1814, William Cox (1764–1837) was appointed to oversee the construction of a road across the ridges of the Blue Mountains, following the route laid out by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813 and surveyed by Evans the following year. Cox was formerly the Chief Magistrate at Windsor, having been appointed to this position by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.
Cox was requested to ‘follow Evan’s survey, where possible’ and was given permission deviate from Evan’s line where ‘a better route was available’. Cox’s road was directed to be at least 12 feet wide to allow two carriages to pass each other, although Macquarie requested that ‘where it can with ease and convenience be done, I should prefer the road to be made 16 feet wide’. Construction of the road over the Blue Mountains was carried out by the ready and available supply of convict labour. William Cox’s party consisted of thirty convicts, accompanied by guard of eight. They reportedly took six months to build this road.
The crossing of the Blue Mountains was notable for its precipitous ascent and descent at both its eastern and western ends. When Cox’s convict workers built the first traversable road across the mountains, they had to negotiate an especially difficult descent at its western end.
On witnessing the steep incline from Mount York, almost a sheer drop, Cox noted that: ‘I have therefore made up my mind to make such a road as a cart can come down empty or with a very light load without a possibly of its being about to return with any sort of load whatever, and such a road will also answer to drive stock down to the forest grounds. It is a very great drawback to the new country as no produce can be brought from thence to headquarters except fat bullocks or sheep.’
Cox oversaw the construction of a road from Mount York via Collit’s Inn in order to reach the western pasture lands beyond.
According to historian Sue Rosen it took a party of thirty men around six months to complete it. This road had a grade of one in four, virtually a sheer drop.
Cox’s road across the mountains was trafficable by the end of April 1815. In this month, Governor Macquarie and his wife set out on a 21 day return trip across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst. On reaching the descent from Mount York, Macquarie’s diary entry for 29 April 1815 reads: ‘At 11 O’clock, reached the termination of the Blue Mountains ending in a very abrupt descent almost perpendicular. Here we halted for a little while to view this frightful tremendous Pass, as well as to feast our eyes with the Grand and pleasing Prospect of the fine low Country below us and now in view from this termination of the Blue Mountains.’ Macquarie named the pass down the mountains Cox’s Pass ‘in honor (sic) of that Gentleman and as a just tribute due to his indefatigable zeal and meritorious exertions in Constructing and finally Completing this grand and important Pass.’
Between 1814 and 1829, a number of different routes from Mount York to Lithgow and Bathurst beyond were established, as a means of descending the Blue Mountains. The first was Cox’s Road 1815 from Mount York via Collit’s Inn, and it was followed by the Bell’s Line of Road in 1823, which avoided the western road and instead approached Cox’s River from Richmond via Mount Tomah, and Lawson’s Long Alley (which also descended from Mount York) built in c1823–24.
In 1827 Governor Darling offered a reward to ‘any free person’ to find ‘a better route to Bathurst’ which avoided Mount York and Mount Bathurst. Although other routes were suggested, including one proposed by explorer Hamilton Hume, and another was partially built (Lockyers Road, see below), these were not proceeded with and instead a direct route from Mount Victoria, as suggested by the Surveyor General Major Thomas Mitchell (1792–1855) in 1830, was adopted after much conflict with Governor Ralph Darling.
Thomas Mitchell arrived to NSW in 1827 as assistant to Surveyor-General John Oxley. Following Oxley’s death in 1828, Mitchell was appointed Surveyor-General. The Roads and Bridges Department, previously a stand-alone department, was incorporated within the Surveyor General’s Department by 1829. Mitchell was ‘responsible for the survey of roads and bridges’ in NSW from this time until 1836.
While in charge of roads and bridges, Mitchell oversaw major improvements in the route between Sydney and Parramatta (Parramatta Road), as well as a new major road leading south from Sydney to Liverpool (today’s Liverpool Road which begins at Summer Hill) and then to Goulburn via Berrima (the Hume Highway to Melbourne follows this line of road). He was also responsible for overseeing improvements to the Great Western Road over the Blue Mountains. It was the difficulty in building this road west that would lead to conflict with Governor Ralph Darling.
Mitchell was a ‘skilled draughtsman and surveyor’ and also ‘an ambitious man who saw in the colony of NSW numerous ways to both create and bestow a legacy of public works and exploration’. Historian Grace Karskens has suggested that ‘his ideas about roads revolved about his love of rectilinearity and symmetry’ and as such, his main concern was with finding the straightest, or most direct, route between two points. In the case of the Great Western Road, this was regardless of the topography of the Blue Mountains: the ravines, rocks, boulders and rivers that lay in its path, and the steep inclines from Mounts Victoria and York to the flat pasture land below.
In October 1827, explorer Hamilton Hume travelled the Bell’s Line of Road and discovered a new line of road from Hartley Vale to Bathurst. Mitchell was dispatched to investigate this discovery but ‘proposed instead a more direct route to Bathurst, avoiding Mount Blaxland and descending Mount York (near Cox’s Pass) by an inferior ridge or colline which falls gradually’. This road was partially built, overseen by Edmund Lockyer, then Surveyor of Roads and Bridges, and required ‘considerable cutting and filling and heavy masonry retaining walls, side drains and culverts’. This road has become known as Lockyers Road.
In early 1830, Mitchell discovered an alternative route which spanned ‘a deep abyss at Mount Victoria which would cut off the displeasingly roundabout route via Mount York’. Mitchell stopped work on Lockyers Road and moved the convict road gangs to the new site in January 1830, without seeking approval from Governor Darling.
Mitchell’s action on this matter raised the ire of Darling, and in July 1830, Darling wrote to Mitchell (via the Colonial Secretary) stating ‘that unless the disadvantages of any existing line of road are of a very serious nature, it is better under present circumstances, to put up with them than commence a new line which cannot be completed but a considerable expense and abandonment of that which has been accomplished at the cost of years of labour.’ Mitchell retaliated by stating that he defied ‘any man ever to point out any material improvement in the lines laid down by me’. After some heated correspondence between the two men, Darling capitulated. With the conflict resolved, work on Mitchell’s new road was in full swing by September 1830 under the superintendence of Assistant Surveyor P. Elliot.
Construction on the Victoria Pass Causeway was begun in January 1830, and although Mitchell’s route was the most direct, it proved the most difficult to negotiate of the five Blue Mountains descents. This was largely due to a deep ravine, or abyss, that lay in its path, which necessitated the construction of a stone causeway to cross it.
Works to build the Mitchell’s new road from Mount Victoria were carried out by both ironed gangs and road parties. Sue Rosen claims that ‘after the discovery of the Mount Victoria descent, Mitchell planned new convict stations for sites where cutting was required or bridges needed construction. These were to be given initial priority in the road building program.’ Stockades and garrisons to accommodate the convict road gangs were established at points along the Western Road, including Mount Victoria (No. 1 Stockade) and the Cox’s River (No. 2 Stockade).
The works to build the Victoria Pass Causeway were labour intensive and took two and a half years to complete. Stone was quarried on-site for the large sandstone blocks that made up the walls of the structure, as well as the retaining walls. Grace Karskens states that the ‘convicts cleared, blasted and excavated the line with simple tools such as cross-cut saws, hoes, spades and hatchets, hand held jumpers (drills), hammers and gunpowder’.
There has been speculation that works to build the road continued until at least 1838, as shown in pencil drawings by Conrad Martens dated to March of this year. More recent scholarship suggests that there was a serious collapse of the structure which necessitated rebuilding, and even replacement of the masonry walls and possibly the addition of the buttresses on the eastern side of the structure. It appears that this major collapse of the ‘sustaining’ wall and parapet of the central part of the Victoria Pass Causeway occurred in 1832, and was repaired by 1839 by way of a lifting machine, as depicted in the drawings by Martens and in the Surveyors correspondence.
Regardless of this collapse (or despite the threat of its collapse), the Victoria Pass Causeway was officially opened in October 1832.
Originally the causeway had a simple parapet. A more decorative parapet was added later, some time between the 1850s and 1880s.
In the early twentieth century, motor cars were introduced on NSW roads, competing with horse-drawn transport. Victoria Pass was too steep for the first generation of motor cars, which had to be hauled up by horse. An alternative route was sought and found by J. W. Berghofer, a local resident and the inaugural president of the Blaxland Shire following the Local Government Act 1906 (DMR p 14).
Berghofer’s Pass, as this road deviation became known, is to the north of the study area. It was completed and ready for use in 1912 after five years of construction. The Berghofer’s Pass deviation was used exclusively between 1912 and 1920, and during this time Victoria Pass was abandoned.
Following improvements motor transport technology, Victoria Pass was reopened in 1920 and the two descents were used concurrently. Berghofer’s Pass was officially closed in 1934 as motor cars became more adept at the crossing, although unofficially it was in use until the early 1950s. Berghofer’s Pass is now a walking track running alongside the Great Western Highway.
Since the closure of Berghofer’s Pass, there have been many proposals to either by-pass or augment the Victoria Pass Causeway.
In 1988, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) proposed to bypass the Victoria Pass Causeway through the construction of a new 40 metre wide road with a bridge and approaches, to the north of the study area. The RTA commissioned a Conservation Management Plan to assess the impact of these works on both the Victoria Pass and the Berghofers Pass, along with recommendations for where to locate the new road and bridge.
Victoria Pass is not only a major thoroughfare at the endpoint of the Great Western Highway across Blue Mountains. It has been essential for the transportation of goods and people for 175 years, but it has also became a tourist destination in its own right, both because of its status as a convict-built engineering feat and its picturesque qualities.
Since its completion in the 1830s, the Victoria Pass Causeway has captivated the popular imagination of both local residents and visitors to the Blue Mountains. Victoria Pass Causeway was undoubtedly one of the most significant engineering feats of the first half of the nineteenth century, and is a testament to the engineering skills of the Assistant Surveyors who oversaw its construction and the strength of the convicts whose sweat, blood and tears saw the project through to completion in 1838.
Although the Victoria Pass Causeway was labour-intensive to build, and would have originally been somewhat of a scar on the landscape, it soon became a picturesque pit stop on the Great Western Road due to the views of the Bathurst Plans to the of north and the Grose Valley to the south. The line of road from Mount Victoria to Little Hartley, along with the sandstone causeway that lies at its mid-point, has been well traversed by visitors to the Blue Mountains since the mid-nineteenth century. By the close of the century, Victoria Pass Causeway had become a scenic diversion on the road to Jenolan Caves and other tourist destinations in the mountains region.
The slower pace of travelling over the road in the nineteenth century, which was primarily horse transport, meant that road travellers had the time to take in the beauty of the place. The picturesque qualities of the massive buttressed sandstone walls of the structure have been extensively documented by visual artists since it was completed.
The Victoria Pass Causeway also holds a grisly place in the local history. In 1891, it was immortalised in a poem by Henry Lawson as the scene of the murder of Caroline Collits, nee James on New Years Eve 1841 by her lover James Walsh. Lawson’s poem told the story Caroline’s ghost, which was said to haunt the bridge:
We talked about the ‘Girl in black’
Who haunts the Second Bridge.
We reached the fence that guards the cliff
And passed the corner post,
And Johnny like a senseless fool
Kept harping on the ghost.
‘She’ll cross the moonlit road in haste
And vanish down the track;
Her long black hair hangs to her waist
And she is dressed in black;
Her face is white, a dull dead white
Her eyes are opened wide
She never looks to left or right,
Or turns to either side.’
Today, Victoria Pass and the Causeway are heavily traversed by road traffic (including heavy vehicles). From the 1980s onwards, engineering and road works have been under way to widen the Great Western Highway across the Blue Mountains to up to four lanes. Although works have been completed to widen the Victoria Pass in the vicinity of the causeway through widening the cuttings, the road continues to narrow at two lanes over the Victoria Pass Causeway.