Timber Tramways of Toolangi and Castella Forests
by David Pockett
Although they were well known to the Taungurung people for millennia, when first discovered by European settlers and explorers, the magnificent forests surrounding Toolangi and Castella were found to contain immense stands of Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans), Messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua), Grey Gum (Eucalyptus punctata), White Gum (Eucalyptus delegatensis), Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), and a range of other trees including the unique Antarctic Beech (Lophozonia moorei). The potential commercial value of these forests, which it was estimated covered some 62,000 acres (approximately 25,000 hectares) and had a diverse range of possible uses ranging from shingles, palings and firewood right through to high-end furniture and housing, was also obvious. Leaving them untouched unfortunately was not on the agenda of the age.
Perhaps fortunately then, following early European settlement and particularly after the discovery of gold in the colony in the 1850s, timber getters concentrated their efforts in other areas, including those of the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford and close to the Victorian Goldfields which were enormous consumers of timber for boilers and mining works. However, by the later 1800s these other areas were starting to be ‘cut out’ and hence people started looking further afield. The forests of Toolangi, south of Yea and north of Healesville, were obvious new sources of timber.
The railway arrived in Yea in 1883[i] and with it the potential to exploit the forests of the Black Range/Murrindindi area south-east of the town and north of Toolangi. Six years later the railway also arrived in Healesville and Yarra Glen[ii] and thus opened up the prospect of harvesting the enormous timber resources north of the two towns (towards Toolangi) and also eastwards towards Narbethong and Marysville. But actually getting into the mountainous forests and retrieving the timber back to a rail head certainly posed a very significant problem. With no mechanisation, these were also the days of horses and bullocks being used to draw wagons, so the work was not only slow and laborious, but also potentially dangerous.
The first track for timber harvesting purposes in Toolangi was cut north of Healesville in the early 1880s, to what was called ‘McIntosh’s Selection’ on the Yea River, around Johnston Creek[iii], in the region of what is now Phillips Road, where palings were split.
The Start of an Era
At the Healesville end, Thomas Crowley is credited with permanently establishing sawmilling in the town; notably he had been in the saw milling trade since 1860 when he and a business partner Patrick Fitzpatrick opened a mill in the Wombat State Forest[iv], but after that area was cut out they moved first to the Murray River red gum forests, and then won a contract for the sleepers on the new Yarra Flats (Yarra Glen) to Healesville railway in 1888/89[v]. Upon seeing the vast forests around Healesville, both Crowley and Fitzpatrick, decided to settle permanently in the district, erecting a mill on Chum Creek at the foot of ‘Currie Hill’ in 1891. Around 1896 they opened another new mill along Myers Creek, about 6 miles (10 kilometres) from Healesville[vi]; this mill was accessed by a very early, and at times impassable, version of the Myers Creek Road.
After Fitzpatrick was killed in 1899 while trying to negotiate the terrible road with his laden wagon, Crowley applied to the Lands Department for permission to construct a tramway easement for a distance of 3.5 miles (5.63 kilometres), on which he could access his mill and bring the timber to a landing closer to Healesville where it would be transferred to horse-drawn wagons for conveyance to the Healesville Railway Station. There was, however, a lot of opposition from the local selectors which delayed his plans. It is important to note that a system of timber tramways had been used in the Wombat State Forest (and elsewhere) to extract timber and hence Crowley would have been well aware of them.
Eventually Crowley’s licence for a tramway was granted, following which a 3-foot (0.9144m) gauge track, built entirely of timber (including the rails) was opened at what was described as a ‘grand social function’ attended by around 100 guests on 27 March 1900[vii]. This line was later extended further south by another 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres) to the Watts River just outside of Healesville. In 1903, under a different business named Healesville Sawmill Co Pty Ltd, Crowley extended his tramway yet again, this time right into Healesville, along River Street and into a siding at the western end of the Healesville Railway Station[viii].
The Crowley tramline was, however, clearly the beginning of what would eventually become a quite extensive timber tramway system extending over much of the forests surrounding Toolangi and Castella, with both direct and indirect connections to the rail at Healesville, Yarra Glen and also at Cheviot near Yea. This paper addresses the tramways which provided timber to the Healesville and Yarra Glen stations.
Saw milling in Toolangi itself was initially spurred on by the arrival of the railway at Yarra Glen in 1888. This encouraged paling splitters and also some saw millers, to position themselves at Dixons Creek and on the higher slopes of the range[ix]. The first mills were set up in 1889 by Kerr & Parfitt, near Dixons Creek, and by Kerr and Friar near Castella[x]. Unfortunately, the 1890’s depression put a big dampener on things, with several short-lived mills coming and going before sawmilling was permanently established in Toolangi itself, between 1896 and 1899. This beginning involved three separate businesses, namely Frank Beach & Sons, Scherber Bros and A. Mattei & Sons[xi], but of these it appears that only Beach and Mattei had their own sections of tramway.
Of particular note is that, just like Thomas Crowley in Healesville, Frank Beach had also worked on saw milling in the Wombat State Forest[xii] and consequently would have been similarly well aware of the various methods used to extract timber from the forests.
Transporting any timber products out of the Toolangi/Castella forest was a massive problem due to the mountainous and largely inaccessible terrain, not only in the forest itself, but also then dealing with the required descent to a suitable rail head. This issue was one of the major drivers behind establishment of the Yea River Railway League, a collective of local people who set about trying to get a railway to Toolangi via a line through Dixons Creek and up to Castella, then a spur line to Toolangi itself (with another to Kinglake also proposed), something they hoped would be a means of more easily transporting timber from the forests. A separate article exists on the website about the efforts which went into securing the railway, which was first surveyed in the early 1880s[xiii]. However, ultimately it was not approved, and the saw millers were all forced to keep making their own arrangements to get their products to market in this era before motor cars and trucks.
There were at this time very few roads and often none at all near some of the mills, particularly those which were more remotely located in the forest. Any roads which did exist were often impassable during the winter months, so just getting workers to the mills, along with supplies, presented yet another big challenge. Carriage of timber on the existing roads in horse-drawn wagons also caused significant damage to the roads and consequent issues with the relevant Shire Councils and, on many occasions, with local residents. All of these issues were largely addressed by having an extensive timber tramway system which ran separate to the roads.
The tramways were however never designed as an integrated transport system. They developed one by one as each saw miller or saw milling company saw the need, either to bring timber to a mill or take it away. Eventually some of them did interconnect, but not all. Very fortunately as it turns out, all were built on the standard 3-foot gauge, which made interconnections possible. Eventually they had extensive features including gracefully curving timber bridges which were often significant in size and/or height. The bridges also featured full decking and substantial handrails, due to the fact horses were used on the tramways.
The tramways were at various times operated not only by horses and steam driven winches,[xiv] but also in one case, for W.C. Cone & Co after 1934, by tractor engines. Unlike in some other timber extraction areas however, there is no information to suggest that steam locomotives were ever used on any of the timber tramways in the Toolangi/Castella forest.
One might wonder why these were called tramways rather than trainlines or railways. This was entirely due to there being an Act of Parliament preventing anyone but the government from operating trainlines[xv].
One unusual sight on the Granton Company/Dindi Mill Tramway certainly was the mill managers car, custom built to drive on the rails of the tramway[xvi], much like the Victorian Railways Commissioners of the era, who themselves also had a similar but much more luxurious vehicle for exploring their own domain.
There is no doubt also that the tramways traversed some truly beautiful country, which included huge groves of tree ferns, bubbling creeks, massive trees and even waterfalls, and hence they remained very popular with tourists for many years. The alignments of some can also still be seen today, such as that of the Granton/Dindi tramway, which was exposed in the Myers Creek valley below ‘Brentwood’ after the fires in 2009[xvii]. ‘Dunstan’s Track’ which veers off at the base of the road to Mount St Leonard and heads along the bottom face of the mountain in a generally northerly direction, also runs along the original alignment of the same tramway[xviii].
The Crowley/Granton and Dindi Tramway
The first major tramway extension into the Toolangi forests was done by Crowley, who by 1904 was also being inundated by requests from tourists to travel on his tramway from Healesville up to the Myers Creek Falls[xix]. The first extension, built between 1900 and 1904[xx], went from his Myers Creek mill up to Johnston Creek, i.e. to the general area of ‘McIntosh’s Selection’ on the Yea River, previously explored for palings in the early 1880s and was also accompanied by an extension to a second mill on Coles Creek[xxi].
To service the tramway, a set of stables was established half-way between each of the mills at Toolangi and Myers Creek. Three and four horse teams were used on both sections of the tramline; on the descent from what is now ‘Cones Landing’ on the Myers Creek Road and down to Healesville, the tramway trucks travelled by gravity alone, with the horses following behind either on the tramway or an adjacent road[xxii] until they reached the river flats, at which point the horses would be reattached for the final journey to the railway station. Braking on the steep descent was managed by men riding the trucks to operate the brakes as required. Once the load was delivered at the station, the horses would bring the wagons back up the tramline to the mills.
The most significant timber enterprise ever to operate in the Toolangi/Castella forest, and also the most significant one to operate a very extensive tramway, was that of the Granton Sawmills and Timber Seasoning Ltd, a business of Sydney-based investors led by C.R. Ferguson. The name reflects the original parish on which the main Granton mill was located[xxiii]. This tramway was not only the first to be built, and ultimately the most extensive, but it also featured the last known section of tramway ever constructed in the Toolangi forests in April 1942.
The origins of this tramway can be traced directly back to Thomas Crowley and the Healesville Sawmill Company, who built the original tramway to service the Coles Creek mill in Toolangi and the Myers Creek mill. Although the tramway was no longer serviceable by 1912, it had connected right through to the railway station at Healesville.
The Granton company, using a survey plan provided by the Healesville Shire Engineer J.T. Noble Anderson, rebuilt Crowley’s tramline but with some improvements, including some alignment adjustments and light steel rails (rather than timber ones) on the curves and road crossings. The line reached the Healesville Railway Station in 1914. In 1916 the Granton Company obtained permission to enter the railway land itself, so that timber could be directly transferred from the mill-owned tramway trucks onto the waiting goods wagons of the Victorian Railways.
The plan was to operate two mills, one on Myers Creek about 1 mile (1.6 kilometres) above the Myers Creek Falls (the so-called ‘No.1 Mill’), and another larger one (the ‘No.2 Mill’) at Roberts Spur in the heart of the Toolangi forest, a quite significant 14 miles (22.5 kilometres) north of Healesville[xxiv]. This mill at Roberts Spur was to become the very well-known ‘Granton’ or ‘No.2’ mill. An associated seasoning and tongue and grove plant was later constructed in Healesville itself (in 1922), on Don Road adjacent to the Graceburn, and on what is now the site of the Maroondah Retirement Village[xxv].
The Granton Mill alone initially had a capacity of up to 8,000[xxvi] super feet of timber a day. A ‘super foot’ is a unit of measurement by which the volume of timber can be measured. A ‘super foot’ of timber is equivalent to a board 12″ x 1″ x 12″, i.e. approximately 305mm long and 305mm wide, by 25.4mm thick or 0.00236 cubic meters[xxvii] in metric terms.
To service the Granton No.2 Mill, and also considering that daily visits to and from the mill by employees living elsewhere was impossible due to its remote isolation, a settlement grew adjacent to the new mill, at which lived the employees and their families, including some contractors to the mill. A range of associated buildings were also constructed, including a recreation hall[xxviii]. Between 1921 and 1927 there was even a school which operated part time, sharing a teacher with Toolangi State School[xxix]. The importance of the timber tramway to this mill in particular, and to its later constructed sister mill ‘the Dindi’, cannot be overstated; both mills were deep in the forest and hence the tramway became the lifeline, not only for timber products leaving the mills bound for the rail head at Healesville, but also for the people who worked and lived at ‘the Granton’ and later at ‘the Dindi’.
As a clear indication that transport of timber of the tramway remained a slow business, despite all of the investment, it still took two days for a load of timber to be carefully taken by the tramway to Healesville, and then for the tram crew to complete the return trip back to the Granton Mill[xxx]. Stables at Coles Creek and near the No.1 Mill in Myers Creek provided facilities along the way, along with accommodation for the crew and horses.
In 1918 the tramline from the Granton was extended north-east towards Kalatha Creek, so that access could be gained to new reserves of timber. After a bushfire in 1920, the newly formed Forests Commission directed the Granton Company to salvage the fire-killed timber in the Yellowdindi Creek area. As a result of this, a further new mill had to be built, soon to be widely known as the ‘Dindi Mill’. This required a further extension of the tramway which went across Kalatha Creek, then north and east over the Woodmore Range to the Murrindindi River itself, before going up a valley where a permanent source of spring water finally decided the location of the new mill[xxxi].
All equipment for the Dindi Mill was brought in on the newly laid company tramline. On one occasion, the mill boiler, along with some supplies, proved too much for the Kalatha Creek bridge, which apparently weakened by heavy rain, collapsed under the heavy load. As a result, five horses, twelve men and the entire load fell 25 feet (7.62 metres) down into the creek, but very fortunately there were no serious injuries[xxxii]. Shortly afterwards, one of the men with a clearly dry wit reported that a ‘butter dish’ destined for the boarding house had however, somehow been broken in the incident! Once the Dindi Mill started operating, the Granton No.2 Mill was closed down for some time, however the new Dindi Mill and the original No.1 Mill in Myers Creek combined had a substantial capacity of up to 20,000 super feet per day.
In Timber Mountain: A Sawmilling History of the Murrindindi Forest, Norman Houghton reports that by 1921 the Granton tramline alone was a substantial 22 miles (35.4 kilometres) long, but this didn’t include the various logging spurs which ran off the track to gain access to assorted stands of timber on the route. It must have been a truly remarkable sight and photographs taken at the time likely only give a glimpse of what was a truly remarkable piece of engineering in very tough terrain. By this time, a telephone line also ran alongside the track, connecting the mill to Healesville.
In 1921 other millers sought to negotiate access to the Granton tramline. The first of these was Dennis and Smedley whose mill was based at Coles Creek. As a result of the increased traffic on the line, further improvements had to be made and they included four passing loops. Timetabling allowed for all trips in the mornings to be for travelling from the various stables towards the Granton Mill or else towards the Healesville Railway Station, with the afternoons being reserved for trips away from the railway station and away from the mills[xxxiii].
Typical loads in busy periods around 1921 would consist of eight bogie loads of 2,500 super feet each. The company required a total of sixty horses to cater for the job, with ten resting at any one time in the stables at Myers Creek[xxxiv].
Transport to and from the Dindi Mill was either by foot, horseback or on the tramway. Houghton says that a solo, one-way trip by horseback from Healesville to the mill would take three hours using the tramway route, but around 1925 the mill manager Clement Morath constructed a car-like, four-wheeled, iron-framed motor trolley, using a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine. This enabled him to traverse the distance in about an hour, as long as the rails were not slippery from rain or snow. A fantastic photo of the mill manager’s car and the mill crew appears on page 36 of Houghton’s Timber Mountain, but it’s uncertain whether the photo depicts the original vehicle or a later replacement.
When the seasoning plant was finally constructed in Don Road, Healesville in 1922, yet another extension of the tramline was made along St. Leonards Road to the plant[xxxv].
Severe bushfires affected the area in 1926, as a result of which large sections of the Granton/Dindi tramway were damaged or destroyed. This included destruction of the Coles Creek bridge, along with bridges over Boiler Creek, Jim Creek and Morganer Creek, and the damage was severe enough to force closure of the Dindi Mill. The company tried to keep operations going from the Granton site, but eventually it was impossible, and all of the employees were ‘thrown out of work’[xxxvi]. Fortunately, by April-May 1926 the burned bridges and tramway assets were rebuilt, as a result of which the company restarted operations. However the road ahead proved to be very difficult for a host of reasons, including industrial relations issues and a four-month strike by workers[xxxvii].
By 1931 the Healesville Shire had built an all-weather road connecting Healesville and Toolangi via Chum Creek. The Granton Company realised the new Chum Creek route offered a better option to transport timber using ever improving road vehicles, rather than persisting with the tramway down the Myers Creek valley. Approval was sought and given by the Healesville Council for the company to use the new Chum Creek road. A chain block and gantry was then erected on the tramway 8 miles (12.87 kilometres) from Healesville, where loads were transferred from the tramway to road transport trucks. After this, a combination of methods was used, both road transport and tramline, often depending on the weather and road conditions, as on some occasions the Council would refuse access to the road due to damage being caused by the log trucks[xxxviii].
Over the ensuing few years, the preference for road transport became apparent, end eventually in 1934 the company abandoned 8 miles (12.87 kilometres) of the tramway altogether[xxxix]; this appears to have been the section between what is now called ‘Cones Landing’ (see below) and Healesville. The era of bush tramways in the Toolangi/Castella forest was slowly drawing to an end.
In March of the same year, W.C. Cone & Co, sawmillers formerly from Noojee, acquired the assets and timber rights of the Granton Company, then immediately began discussions with the Healesville Shire Council about further work on the Myers Creek Road, on the basis that W.C. Cone & Co made a financial contribution towards the costs of doing so. The Council agreed[xl], the work was completed and so road transport on the final leg to Healesville via Myers Creek also became well established.
The landing on the Granton/Dindi tramway at the base of Mount St Leonard was subsequently renamed ‘Cones Landing’, a name the location still has today. After World War Two, the area was also incorporated into the Potato Research Station and the large metal barn on the site also retains to this day the name of ‘Cones Barn’[xli].
The Cones family, Bill and son Ken, brought further modernisation to the tramway and to operations overall. This included the introduction of two ‘rail tractors’ to operate on the tramway between Cones Landing and the mills and log harvesting areas. The logging systems themselves were also modernised away from the traditional ‘snigging’ operation using horses or bullocks, and eventually a type of ‘high lead’ system[xlii] involving the use of suspended cables to drag logs from the forest was also introduced[xliii].
In 1936 the Granton No.2 mill was finally closed and the Dindi Mill, which had apparently been lying idle for some time, was rebuilt to what Houghton describes as ‘the most modern standards’[xliv].
Of the large workforce employed at this time, around seven or eight workers were employed solely on the tramline between the Dindi Mill and Cones Landing. The tramline was significantly rebuilt at this time by Jim Wollin, including a number of the bridges. A tractor garage for the rail tractors was also constructed at Cones Landing. The first rail tractor was a six-wheel ‘Day’ type driven by a McCormack Deering engine. The second was a Fordson tractor powered unit[xlv]. Driver Syd Edwards and brakemen Eric Wollin and Wattie Chandler were located at the landing[xlvi].
Despite the modern improvements with the rail tractors, which included being able to use them at night after they were fitted with headlights, it was still not plain sailing, as the risks of such a system carrying very heavy loads of timber in mountainous and heavily forested terrain remained real. Over the years there certainly had been serious accidents and deaths on some of the horse-drawn tramways in the area,[xlvii] including at least one death of a Marchbank/Knott employee on the Granton Company tramline. This came about because the two businesses had shared running on the line since 1921 via a spur line connecting to the Granton Company line from the Marchbank/Knott Mill at Luke Creek[xlviii]. That accident occurred in 1925 when a loaded bogie descending towards Healesville jumped the track near ‘the Cascades’ in Myers Creek and crushed the employee[xlix].
According to Houghton, the steeper sections of the line were the main problem, particularly near Coles Creek. In this location post 1934, three truck arrangements (standard for the time) would have one truck removed and separately taken to the top of the next rise, before the rail tractor would come back and then take the other two trucks. Apparently, it was just too dangerous to try and take a combined three-truck load over this section of the track, even with a rail tractor in charge. When it snowed or if there was ice on the track, the brakeman would also often be required to walk ahead clearing the rails with hand tools and this must have made progress on those days painfully slow[l].
The catastrophic fires of 1939 caused yet more damage to the Granton/Dindi tramline, and to the Dindi Mill itself to some extent, but according to Houghton, neither were apparently of any great concern to the Cones family, simply because the fires had resulted in the need to salvage massive areas of fire-killed timber in the Mount St Leonard and Mount Tanglefoot areas[li], relatively close to the Dindi Mill, which ended up operating day and night to keep up with the demand.
In response to the massive recovery operation, the Forests Commission constructed a large camp at Kalatha to house its personnel and a range of other workers, but perhaps more relevant to the fate of the timber tramways, the Forests Commission also arranged for the salvaged timber to be removed exclusively by road transport to the Healesville Railway Station. Logging roads were also extended into various areas of the forest as needed, but as no suitable roads yet reached the Dindi Mill itself, the tramline in that area was repaired after the 1939 fires.
In April 1942 a brand-new section of tramline was also constructed north of the Dindi Mill to an additional mill plant on the Murrindindi River. This small tramline operated until 1944, when it was finally abandoned[lii]. It appears this was the last section of tramline ever constructed in the Toolangi/Castella forests, but it was not the last to be operated – that line was the one in Spraggs Road Toolangi, servicing Evans’ Mill[liii].
The Cones family subsequently took up a new timber lease at Club Terrace in East Gippsland in 1951, at which point their operations in the Toolangi and Healesville areas were closed[liv].
Other Toolangi/Castella Tramways
Mattei came to Castella in 1899 with his sons and then constructed a mill on Campbell’s Creek, near its junction with the Yea River. At some point (date unknown), a small timber tramway was constructed north of the mill for one mile so as to access timber[lv]. According to Houghton, the site was worked until 1909, then later taken over by P.J. Mattei and operated until 1920[lvi], but there is currently little further information about either the mill or the tramway. In more recent material however, Houghton suggests the lease was later taken up by T&C Cherry in 1939.
Australian Hardwood Timber Co
In 1909 this Melbourne-based company took over a mill from Thomas Crowley, located on Campbell’s Creek, but Crowley had only been working the mill a few months beforehand[lvii].
From his earlier efforts in the Myers Creek and Wombat State Forest areas, Crowley was very familiar with timber tramways and indeed his tramline up the Myers Creek valley had already reached the other (eastern) end of Toolangi in 1904[lviii]. Crowley arranged for a tramline over 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) long to be constructed south of his Campbell’s Creek mill, across the Yea River, along Spraggs Road and up to the main road (now the Healesville-Kinglake Road) where road vehicles[lix] (which must have been very primitive and may well have consisted of just animal-drawn wagons) then somehow took the timber to Yarra Glen Railway Station.
This tramline subsequently became one of the major ones in Toolangi, and as with the others, was built in timber on a 3-foot gauge. A range of saw milling businesses subsequently used Crowley’s tramline over the ensuing decades, and in the end, it was also the last one in use anywhere in the area[lx]. As with the Dindi and Granton tramway, by constructing this tramway in Toolangi itself, Crowley had made another big step forward in opening up the forests of the area.
In 1910, the company built a second mill one mile (1.6 kilometres) north-west of the first mill. The mill manager F. Bartlett arranged for a connecting tramway back to the Campbell’s Creek mill, and also very importantly, extended the other end of the tramway from the intersection of Spraggs Road and the main road in a westerly direction along the main road, to what is now the Old Toolangi-Dixons Creek Road, but was then known as the Dixons Creek Road. Local information suggests the tramway initially finished here at a ‘paling dump’ between the years 1909 and 1914[lxi], at which time it was then extended south down the Dixons Creek road for 1.25 miles (2 kilometres) to a location still known as ‘Christensen’s’[lxii] where timber was transferred to road-based transport for the final leg to the Yarra Glen Railway Station.
Bushfires in 1912 apparently caused significant damage to the tramline. These repair costs, combined with a wage rise granted to employees in mid-1913, subsequently resulted in the company going into liquidation, but buyers for both mills were found, with the manager of the Campbell’s Creek mill, R.F. Walker, also staying to work the mill for the new owner, the Australasian Jam Company[lxiii].
Australasian Jam Company (AJC)
Back at the turn of the last century, jam and many other products often came packed in wooden cases and so the AJC from South Yarra became interested in its own supply of timber to make the packing crates. In 1913 AJC purchased the former Australian Hardwood Co mill at Campbell’s Creek and brought it back to working condition. The case-timber was only cut from selected trees and all timber was sent back down the tramline to a point about half a mile (0.8 kilometre) from the main road and towards Christensen’s, where it was transferred to road transport[lxiv].
After the AJC mill was shifted by half a mile (0.8 kilometre) around 1918, a new tram line was laid to link with the previous one south of Campbell’s Creek. Another tram line was also constructed north-east of the mill, until by 1920 it was four miles in length[lxv]. At this time the mill shifted yet again to the end of the then existing tramway, at what was known as ‘Downie’s Block’. According to Houghton the line continued to be extended into other new timber harvesting areas as needed[lxvi]. Unfortunately for the company, the timber at Downies was not very suitable and soon afterwards it leased the mill to the Pioneer Woodware Co, but it wasn’t a success. The tramway then fell into disrepair and the mill only worked ‘spasmodically’[lxvii]. The Healesville Shire Council also discovered there was no formal agreement regarding the tramway and that resulted in prolonged negotiations for more than two years, following which the 1926 bushfires destroyed a section of the line and the mill was ‘put into mothballs’ and did not work again[lxviii].
Burnie Sawmills Pty Ltd/D & J Evans/Camberwell Saw and Moulding Mills
James Bentley was a former manager of the Australian Hardwood Co mill at Campbell’s Creek, and in 1916 erected his own mill on a small tributary of Campbell’s Creek near the junction of the Yea River. This mill became known as the ‘Little Burnie’, which Houghton suggests was possibly due to Bentley having been a Tasmanian[lxix].
Timber to the mill arrived via yet another tramway, laid east of the mill and then north to the top of the range, before dividing and running in at least two different directions. All of the mill output was taken by road transport to Yarra Glen[lxx].
The company was reconstituted as Burnie Sawmills Pty Ltd in 1928, following what Houghton reports as ‘financial and log supply difficulties’[lxxi] and then operated on and off until it was eventually taken over by D & J Evans, trading as Camberwell Saw and Moulding Mills, who in 1934 moved the mill to Wee Creek. A new log tramway was constructed along Wee Creek for over 2 miles (3.2 kilometres), leading towards Kitty Creek. Produce from the mill itself however was still sent by road trucks to Yarra Glen[lxxii]. This mill was managed by Walter Cherry[lxxiii].
The 1939 bushfires also caused significant damage to this enterprise and the entire mill was destroyed. The business subsequently constructed a new mill on the north-east side[lxxiv] of the junction of Spraggs Road and the Main Road in Toolangi, and then engaged in the fire-killed timber recovery operation, using motor trucks to bring the timber to the mill.
Unfortunately, the trucks caused damage to the roads, so the Healesville Shire Council compelled the owners to rebuild the original AJC tramway down Spraggs Road and bring the timber down to the mill that way instead. The tramway remained in use until the late 1940s, by which time the supply area was cut out, but the mill itself continued operating using logs brought in by road from other sources[lxxv].
Beach & Sons/R. Dickson & Walter Cherry
As noted earlier, Frank Beach was another sawmiller who had previously worked in the Wombat State Forest and in 1897 began to live permanently in Dixons Creek. After having mills on various sites in Dixons Creek, Steels Creek and Kinglake, Beech built a new mill on the upper reaches of Kitty Creek below Mount Klondyke and announced plans to build a 3-mile (4.8 kilometres) long tramway to Glenmore Road in Glenburn. Despite obtaining a licence for the tramway, it was never built[lxxvi].
In 1916 Beach moved the mill 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) west to Gutter Creek, but abandoned the site after two years, before moving in 1918 to the former AJC site at Campbell’s Creek where transport was easier. Beach intended to rebuild the tramway from the AJC mill, which had fallen into disrepair and/or been damaged by bushfires. Not long afterwards though, Beach decided to cease the business and after filling one last order of timber for the Toolangi Observatory, wound up operations in July 1919[lxxvii].
Beach sold the mill to R. Dickson, who was going to process timber for the War Service Homes Commission, but his business was not a success and by 1921 Beach was back and operating on the site once more. Unfortunately, his wagons (weighing a reported 5 tons each) caused significant damage to the roads, so shortly afterwards Beach obtained permission from the Forests Commission to rebuild a section of the AJC tramway. Beach extended the mill tramline 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) north to the head of Kitty Creek[lxxviii] and also constructed another tramline three quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometres) from his mill to connect into the AJC tramway. At this time the AJC was still using the tramway in association with its work on Downies Block[lxxix]. Beach also constructed another tramline to the north-west of his mill, running about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres)[lxxx].
According to Houghton, Beach regularly ignored the tramline in summer and used his wagons on the road instead, only reverting to the tramline in winter months after being directed to do so by the Shire of Healesville, because of the ongoing problem of damage being caused to the roads[lxxxi]. Beach however complained that the transhipment of the timber from the tramway to the road wagons was double handling and thus he preferred to cart the entire distance from the mill to Yarra Glen using road transport. He also complained that parts of the AJC line were in poor condition[lxxxii].
After Beach retired in 1927, his mill was bought by Walter Cherry, resulting in Cherry taking over the existing tramways near Campbell’s Creek. In 1928 Cherry extended Beach’s old tramway by more than a mile (1.6 kilometres) west into the head of Kitty Creek, where he also moved the mill itself, trading as Kitty Creek Sawmills Pty Ltd[lxxxiii]. According to Houghton, Cherry also extended additional tramlines from the Kitty Creek mill ‘as required’[lxxxiv]. It is noted that Cherry was later the manager of Evans’ Mill.
Thanks to the tramways, Cherry was able to then convey his timber from the Kitty Creek mill, a distance of some 6 miles (9.6 kilometres) over the tramway to the Campbell’s Creek site, and from there along the tramway down Spraggs Road and into Toolangi, where the timber was transferred to road trucks and taken to Yarra Glen[lxxxv]. The supply was eventually cut out by 1930 and the mill shifted away from the district.
This business originally started with a timber lease on the side of Mount Dom Dom, east of Healesville and away from Toolangi. In 1910 the original owner John Christie sold the business to Jim Marchbank, a VFL player, and his business partner Isabella Jefferson, trading as Black Spur Sawmill[lxxxvi].
In March 1914 a Melbourne timber broker, G.W. Knott, bought into the business, and it then became Black Spur Sawmills Pty Ltd, but the site was cut out by 1918 and Knott dismantled the mill, shifting the equipment into Healesville. Knott subsequently got into financial difficulty due to bushfire damage to several of his other mills in 1919, at which point he sold out of the business. Within two years though he was back and operating a sawmill in Toolangi at Luke Creek[lxxxvii].
Access to this mill was via a horse-hauled 3-foot gauge wooden tramway, laid one mile south to connect with the Granton Company tramline, who also agreed to provide tramway running rights to Knott.
According to Houghton, tragically and over a period of some years, this mill gained the reputation of being unlucky[lxxxviii]. Two of Knott’s employees were killed on the tramline in separate accidents; one in 1925 involving a loaded bogie which jumped the tracks near the Cascades (in Myers Creek) whilst descending to Healesville on the Granton Company tramline. Another employee was killed during the 1926 bushfires, when a burning branch fell from a tree as he got off the tram to remove debris from the track whilst returning to the mill[lxxxix].
Carroll & Mills
From 1932 J. Carroll and G. Mills operated a partnership on a mill located on the Mount Slide Road in Castella. The original site was cut out not long afterwards, but the business then obtained access to another supply area along Luke Creek, seven miles (11.2 kilometres) away. As this site was inaccessible to road transport, they constructed a horse-hauled, wooden rail tramway, which was extended further again in 1934 and a new mill also constructed at Luke Creek. The business partnership dissolved in 1935[xc].
Dennis & Smedley (Mount St Leonards Sawmill Co)
The poet C.J. Dennis who lived in Toolangi for many years, had a business partnership with Alf Smedley, the owner of ‘Heathlands’ guesthouse in Toolangi. They formed a business called the Mount St Leonards Sawmill Co and secured logging rights to an area near the source of the Yea River, but Dennis took no active role in the business[xci]. After purchasing a surplus plant from Frank Beach in 1919, it was installed on a site 1.5 miles (2.41 kilometres) east of Mount Tanglefoot. All of the timber was subsequently sent to Healesville via the Granton tramway after Smedley built a 1.5-mile (2.41 kilometres) tramway from the mill to connect with the Granton tramline. The mill closed in 1924 after the timber was cut out[xcii].
Gordon Bros; Brown & Co/Cecil
Gordon Bros set up a mill on Mountain Creek in Castella in 1907, feeding it with supplies extracted from north of the mill towards Island Creek. Once again, the products of the mill were sent away by road, but by 1910 the business had built a short tramway to the Glenburn Road. This tramway was later extended (and the mill moved further up the creek) until 1915 when the business closed down[xciii].
The mill was then sold in 1918 to Messrs Brown, Cecil and others[xciv], who got it going again, but according to Houghton, the tramway must have been in disrepair, as there were reports that timber was stockpiled around the mill and only sent away in fine weather, when the roads were passable. By 1920 the tramway had been brought back to operational condition and an extension also laid west of the mill. In 1921 the business went into liquidation and was then taken over by Joseph Timms from Narbethong, who built further extensions of the tram line west ‘into the properties of Andrews, Mills, Glassborrow, Atkins and Jenkins’[xcv]. The area was cut out by 1926 and the business closed down.
There is no other current information, however Houghton indicates a mill with this name, and an associated tramway which ran north-east and then north up onto Victoria Range, operated on a site near the junction of Campbell’s Creek and the Yea River from 1920-1925[xcvi].
West Healesville Sawmill Co/Chum Creek Sawmill Co, Robert Shand, A. Fyson & Thomas Crowley
This business was originally started in 1910, once again by Thomas Crowley, who initially built a mill near the intersection of Chum Creek and Micks Creek. Around 1915 Crowley sold the business to Robert Shand[xcvii]. At that stage no tramway serviced the mill. A. Fyson, who apparently had previously been working as a manager for the Granton Company, was appointed as manager by Shand. Fyson arranged for a timber tramway to be constructed, running north towards Toolangi along the Chum Creek for 1.5 miles (2.41 kilometres). Later another tramline was put in along Micks Creek for 2 miles (3.2 kilometres)[xcviii], which Houghton’s map[xcix] shows ran right up the Micks Creek valley into Toolangi, to a point which is now directly behind Binz Nurseries and Toolangi Wholesale Nurseries. Eventually in mid-1920 this mill was connected to Healesville Railway Station by another timber tramline at the business’s expense, and not long afterwards was sold to Fyson, Mitchell and Chaffer, trading as West Healesville Sawmill Co[c].
The forests surrounding Toolangi-Castella were witness to an amazingly extensive timber tramway network, designed to facilitate the exploitation of the district’s vast timber resources.
Such tramways had been used throughout the timber areas of Victoria, including in the Wombat State Forest, around Warburton, Matlock, Marysville, Alexandra, Rubicon, Powelltown, Noojee, Erica, the Otway Ranges and Gippsland, and also in other areas of Australia, such as Queensland and in the south-west of Western Australia[ci].
Some tramlines were very short lived, while others remained for decades, their construction, use and eventual fate determined by the ever-changing winds of demand and the financial fortunes of the local mill operators, along with regular bushfires. As a direct consequence of the devastating 1939 fires, the construction of new mills in the forests was also strictly prohibited, meaning there was no further requirement for tramways to service new mills.
Tramways, both working or otherwise, of course did have direct value, and not only for the transport of timber or tourists or bushwalkers. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that following the tragic deaths of Charlie Demby and John Barling, who on 7 January 1939 were trapped by the fires in the upper Spraggs Road area, one such tramway (believed to be the F. Beach & Sons/R. Dickson & Walter Cherry tramway into the Kitty Creek area[cii]) enabled the escape of the remainder of the group north to the Penrose farm in Two Hills Road Glenburn[ciii]. Those who escaped were Charlie Demby’s son Alex, aged 16, Forest Overseer Alex Blackmore, Geoff Mitchell, Jack Monk, Cyril Shipp, Syd Biggs, George Biggs and Forests Officer Reg Torbett[civ].
Even before the 1939 fires, the days of the timber tramways were numbered, particularly following the rapid improvement in roads and road transport vehicles from the beginning of the 1930s, at which point the remaining tramways ultimately became unviable relics of a bygone era. Residual parts of them such as wheel flanges could still be found in the district for many years afterwards and in some cases tramway alignments are not only still able to be identified[cv], but also traversed[cvi].
The highest quality wood harvested from the forests of Toolangi was used in a range of significant building projects. Of special note is one particular load of timber cut and processed by the Granton Company, reportedly from a single tree which yielded 26,000 super feet of timber. This timber was carried from the Dindi Mill down the company horse-drawn tramline to the milling and seasoning plant in Don Road, Healesville, where it was turned into ‘Dindi Brand’ seasoned floorboards. Those floorboards were then used extensively in the flooring of the original Australian Parliament House in Canberra[cvii], where they remain today as part of our national heritage.
In writing this piece I am very greatly indebted to the extensive works of others, in particular Norman Houghton and his amazing book Timber Mountain, published in 1986 by the Light Railway Research Society of Australia (https://www.lrrsa.org.au/), along with the collective work of the Healesville & District Historical Society and many others, including the hard working team associated with the Toolangi-Castella Local History Project 2021.
Further research into this subject is encouraged.
There is also an excellent interactive map using Norman Houghton’s material available at this link, showing all of the sawmills and tramlines of the Toolangi/Castella forest:
[ii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[iii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[iv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[v] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[vi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[vii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[viii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[ix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[x] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xiii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xiv] Murrindindi Heritage Study
[xvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xvii] D. Pockett, personal observations, 2009
[xviii] D. Pockett, personal knowledge, 2021
[xix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xx] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxiii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxiv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxv] D. Pockett, 2021
[xxvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxix] Toolangi Primary School, the First Hundred Years: A History of Toolangi Primary School no. 3237, 1895-1995, R. Pockett, J. Priestley, J. Cox & K. Cameron, 1995
[xxx] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxiii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxiv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xxxix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xl] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xli] D. Pockett, 2021
[xliii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xliv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xlv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xlvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xlvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xlviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xlix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[l] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[li] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[liii] In this article: Burnie Sawmills Pty Ltd/D & J Evans/Camberwell Saw and Moulding Mills
[liv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lviii] See discussion on the ‘Crowley/Dindi and Granton Tramway’ in this paper
[lix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lx] In this article: Burnie Sawmills Pty Ltd/D & J Evans/Camberwell Saw and Moulding Mills
[lxi] J. Priestley, correspondence re Toolangi-Castella History Project, 2021
[lxii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxiii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxiv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxx] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxiii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxiv] D. Pockett, personal knowledge
[lxxv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxx] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxiii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxiv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxvi] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[lxxxix] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xc] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xci] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xcii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xciii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xciv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xcv] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xcvii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[xcviii] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[c] Timber Mountain, N. Houghton
[ci] The Argus Weekend Magazine, 27 October 1945
[cii] From research carried out by David Pockett, 2021
[ciii] Information from Jon Penrose, 2021
[civ] ‘Memories of Bushfires’, Alex Demby, 1995
[cv] D. Pockett, personal observations
[cvi] Such as ‘Downeys Track’
[cvii] Constructed between 1923 and 1927: https://www.moadoph.gov.au/collection/the-building/#