“The magnificent virgin forests of Red Ironbark, Grey and Red Box, and White Ironbark, which formerly clothed the ranges in the vicinity of all northern district mining towns, have all long since disappeared. In the early days the miners and others removed trees as they saw fit, without let or hindrance, taking the best trees and those nearest the scene of mining operations. Gradually inroads were made further and further into the bush, until finally all accessible trees were completely removed. Trees were cut at all heights from the ground; only the best part of the tree was utilized - perhaps only one length of sleepers or one length of mine timbers removed - and the rest left to rot and constitute a serious fire hazard. About this time the bark of the Red Ironbark was harvested for tanning purposes, and thousands of splendid trees were killed by stripping for the tanning market, the whole of the timber, as a rule, going to waste. Some idea of what the original forests must have been at one time can be gathered from the fact that millions of sleepers of Box and Ironbark were removed from these forests during the last century, whereas now hardly a tree can be found which is large enough to convert to this use. Bealiba forest alone supplied all sleepers for the construction of the Maryborough-Donald, Creswick-Daylesford, Ballarat-Buninyong, Hopetoun, and Lubeck and other railway lines, besides furnishing all the requisite mining props and panelling for the surrounding mining population. The wholesale destruction of the forests was accomplished before any attempt was made to exercise control over the timber-getters. It was not until some 25 years ago that any degree of forestry control was exercised.” 1
The Murrindindi Forest is bounded by the Acheron River in the east, the Yea River in the west and the Goulburn River in the north with the Great Dividing Range and the Black Range forming its backbone. The Toolangi-Black Range Forest Map indicates its extent.
Tall, dense mountain forests grow at the higher elevations where the climate is cool and wet. These comprise mainly regrowth forests of mountain ash with some stands of shining gum, mountain grey gum and messmate. A variety of other tree species occur on the foothills and merge with the mountain ash – principally messmate, manna gum and mountain grey gum. Drier locations support red and brown stringybarks and broadleaf peppermint.
"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.
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.)
"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)