A place of Abundance
Boolarra forms part of the Latrobe City area, which lies at the heart of Gippsland, nestled between the Strzelecki Ranges and the Baw Baw Plateau. Although Angus McMillan was the first European to visit the region in 1840, it was Polish explorer Paul Edmund de Strzelecki who led the first expedition to enter the area now known as Boolarra. What he found was a diverse landscape of valleys, mountains, forests and wetlands. Their journey through the scrub and hills became so tough that they abandoned their horses and equipment at a spot near Boolarra and proceeded on foot until they struggled out at Western Port Bay three weeks later. Although the Boolarra area was one of the first places reached in the southern districts, it was not settled until almost forty years later in 1878.
The area that is now Latrobe City was part of the traditional lands of the Gunai Kurnai people. The Brataualung, a clan of the Gunai Kurnai, claimed the land south of the Latrobe River, while the Briakalong occupied land to the north.
Reliable food sources were to be found on the plains and in the river valleys and the people had a valuable supply of silcrete from quarries found in the Haunted Hills. This was used to make tools for hunting kangaroos and wallabies on the open plains. The rivers and swamps supplied abundant food such as fish, eels, reptiles, freshwater mussels, waterbirds and eggs. The women gathered plants and small animals. Recent archaeological surveys along the Morwell River valley provide an insight to how people lived and where they camped. Besides camping close to water, higher sites such as Macmillan’s hill were also important places. From these vantage points, Aboriginal people had good views of the surrounding plains where they could keep an eye on their campfires and other clans’ movements.
By 1843 the region was known as Gipps Land and had been proclaimed a squatters district where settlers were able to buy runs (land) for an annual fee and as more squatters occupied their runs, European names began to replace the traditional indigenous names.
In 1874, Henry Godridge, who was looking for gold, found brown coal instead. This led to the formation of the Great Morwell Coal Mining Company in 1889. The mining of brown coal commenced and the provision of a reliable, abundant fuel source for Victoria was established. The discovery and excavation of brown coal led to the development of new towns, increased population and prosperity in the district. As the population of the district continued to increase and with the commencement of the construction of a railway network in 1883 the focus began to change from agriculture to industry. This new direction of growth led to the establishment of several new population centres and the inevitably demise of others.
The name ‘Boolarra’ is aboriginal, meaning ‘plenty’ or ‘abundance’ and is thought to be taken from the language of the Wumman Tribe, a sub-branch of the greater Briakalong Tribe of Gippsland. The name Boolarra was first applied to the general area where the first settler, W.H. Penaluna, arrived around 1878 to take up land along the Morwell River and in 1884 erected the Settlers’ Arms Hotel.
In the early 1880s, selectors began penetrating more southern regions of the area, selecting land in Boolarra, Budgeree and Callignee among other districts. The rainfall was higher in the densely forested Strzelecki Ranges and it was assumed the land was fertile because of the giant trees that grew there. Many of the selections in the steeper areas of the Strzeleckis proved to be unviable and were later abandoned as the task of clearing the giant trees and trying to get their produce to market proved to be almost impossible.
The less rugged hill country south and east of the Morwell River however, soon began to be cleared of forest to develop farms and a series of small communities such as Gunyah, Ruyton Junction, English’s Corner and Darlimurla began to flourish as goods and services flowed to and from the area. Initially, the early settlers depended on timber and mixed farming for their livelihood. Several sawmills operated and paling splitting was also widespread, with palings and blackwood logs later being sent out by rail to areas as far away as Melbourne. Saw mills operating at Darlimurla from the 1880s also produced significant numbers of sawn logs. While some black and brown coal was mined in the area, the conditions proved too demanding and the attempts were short-lived.
A township was surveyed and named “Boolarra” at the place where a railway station was established at the “12 mile peg” from Morwell during the construction of the Morwell to Mirboo North rail line in 1884. The first plan bore the signatures of John Lardner, Assistant Surveyor and M. M. Callander, District Surveyor. In addition to residential blocks, land was reserved for Police, Bank of Australia, public buildings, churches and a block for the Mechanics Institute.
The township of Boolarra became the commercial and agricultural centre of the district and in its heyday was home to three general stores, four churches, three hotels, bakers, butter factory, blacksmiths, several saw mills, butchers, three confectionery shops, boot makers, a tinsmith and coach builder.
The monthly cattle sales brought people into town from the surrounding districts and soon a flourishing social scene based on sports meetings, woodchops, horse races and dances was established. During this period Boolarra became the second largest town in Morwell Shire with a population of over 200 in the1890s – rivalling that of Morwell! The 1891 Census recorded Boolarra as having a population of 220 people with 44 dwellings.
A Budding Community
To satisfy the needs of a growing community, buildings quickly appeared to house new residents and accommodate the increasing range of services available to the public.
Railway Station – With the opening of the rail line in 1885, Boolarra became very prosperous and began to grow quickly. One of the earliest stationmasters was Mr. Gliddon, with the railway getes being kept by Mrs. O’Rourke. Under the care of Mr. Austin the station won the prize for ‘Best Kept Station’ for 1910 and 1911.
Postal Service – Until 1908 the railway station also operated as the post office, with the Station Master taking on the role of Post Master as well. Under pressure from the Progress Association the Post Master General (PMG) decided to erect a building on the corner of Duke and Christian Streets and appointed Mr T Scanlon as the first Post Master. The following year this building was burnt down and the present building was erected to take its place. In November 1915, Ted Wilkins joined the horse-back mail delivery service, delivering mail and other goods through all weathers until the 1930s when he gladly climbed off his horse and began delivering the mail by utility.
Churches – The Presbyterian Church was the first church built in Boolarra in 1885. The Church was used to accommodate the State School as soon as it was completed as the School’s original home was a slab hut in very poor condition, making the children’s school life a misery. The School remained there until early 1890 when a new school and a four-roomed residence were erected. The Methodist Church in was completed in 1905 and moved to its present site in 1929 when the Country Roads Board needed the land to construct the Morwell-Boolarra Road. The Roman Catholic Church was built in 1907 on its present site, with the Church of England being erected in 1911.
Hotels – Boolarra’s first hotel ‘The Selectors Arms’ was built in 1884 and was licensed until approximately 1916, after which it is thought to have operated as a boarding house. The Old Boolarra Pub has been restored and is
currently a very attractive private residence. Clarke’s Club Hotel and Maher’s Railway Hotel also opened during the 1880’s. Maher’s Railway Hotel (located where
today’s Memorial Hall stands) was destroyed in the 1937 fire.
Law & Order – A permanent police presence did not come to Boolarra until 1907 when the Police Station was erected on the corner of Mechanics & Church Streets in 1907 and Constable Alex Millar became the first policeman to be stationed in the town.
State School 2617 – Boolarra State School opened with approximately 26 pupils on 17th October 1884 in a small slab hut and lean-to owned by a Mr. Hutton. Knee-deep mud, stagnant water and bitter cold in the winter, followed by snakes in the summer made conditions very challenging so Head Teacher, Mr. John Irving immediately sought a new site for the school. As he reported in a letter to the Minister of Education “Some of the parents object to se
nding their children to school on account of the wretched accommodation.”
The school found temporary accommodation in the Presbyterian Church until a permanent home was completed in February 1890, by which time pupil numbers had risen to 47. Pupil numbers continued to rise with the growth of the town and by 1909 there were 92 pupils enrolled.
New Prosperity with the arrival of the Railway
The railway line between Morwell and Mirboo North was approved for construction by the Victorian parliament in November 1880, as the result of a great deal of agitation by the local settlers. Roads in the area at the time were virtually non-existent and it was difficult for settlers to bring in their families and supplies and almost impossible to send produce out in an economic manner.
Construction commenced in January 1883 and work progressed very slowly due to the difficult terrain and the very wet weather. The surveyed route did not follow the contours, but necessitated immense cuttings and massive embankments to be made to reduce the gradient to workable levels and the building of 29 bridges in 20 miles to cope with the watercourses along the way.
The rail line to Boolarra opened on 10th April 1885, to Darlimurla on 8th September 1885 and the completed line to Mirboo North was formally declared open on 7th January 1886. The total length of the line was 20 miles 15 chains, at a total cost of construction of approximately £75,000 – a massive job for the day. There are four stations on the line -: Yinnar at 8 miles, Boolarra at 12 miles, Darlimurla at 16 miles and Mirboo at the end of the line at 20 miles.
With the opening of the first section of the line to Boolarra on 10th April 1885, the timetable provided for a “Mixed Train” leaving Morwell each morning after connecting with the Melbourne train, arriving at Boolarra at 12.25 p.m. The train departed Boolarra next day at 7.15 am, the engine being stationed at Boolarra overnight. When the Darlimurla section was completed, the trains went on to the terminus, arriving at 12.45 pm and departing the next morning at 6.55 am.
Occasional passenger trains were run during holiday seasons and the line soon warranted a twice daily service of mixed trains which was introduced with a new timetable on 3rd November 1886. Timber and timber products formed the main traffic of the line of the early days, but as the land was cleared, tonnages of agricultural products increased including potatoes, butter, chaff and hay. The popularity of rail travel and transport declined and between 1903 and 1912, trains were reduced to three times weekly and services were based at Morwell rather than at Mirboo North.
With the merging of the Boolarra and Mirboo North Butter factories outward revenue again increased until a 3-week rail strike in November 1950 jeopardised this and other industries, that were forced to look at road transport to move their products. When the strike finally finished, most of the industries never returned to the rail, having found that road transport was more economical.
One commodity that was railed from Boolarra and Mirboo North in large quantities was the mineral rock Bauxite, a sedimentary rock used in cement, chemicals, face makeup, drink cans, dishwashers, siding for houses and numerous other aluminium products. Up to 12 rail trucks a day were railed from Boolarra during the 1940’s and 22 wagons per day were railed from Mirboo North in the years between 1967 to 1974.
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Superphosphate formed the bulk of the inward traffic on the line. Superphosphate is a fertilizer mainly used as a maintenance fertiliser that was also ideal for pastoral development and arable/horticultural situations.
The Final Rail Years
The passenger service on the line finished altogether when the rail motor was withdrawn on 7th September 1968 and the freight service was reduced to twice weekly. The exception to this was during the period 1967 to 1970 when the loadings from the Bauxite Mine at Mirboo North were being railed out on a daily train.
The last timetabled train ran on Tuesday 18th June 1974, however the very last train to Mirboo North ran on Thursday 27th June 1974 when Steam Locomotive J550, together with a passenger carriage and guards van were towed to Mirboo North to be used as a static display. Steam Locomotive Y130 then collected the remaining freight wagons from the yard and after completing station work, departed for Morwell, thus ending 88 years of railway service to the towns of Yinnar, Boolarra, Darlimurla and Mirboo North. The railway was defeated by the economies of road transport.
On entering Boolarra today, Railway Park is located on the right hand side of the road. Nothing remains of the former station and sadly, in 1937, a fire raged through Tarwin Street, destroying many of the original shop fronts. There is however, a well-defined track in the park that marks the start of the Grand Ridge Rail Trail to Mirboo North. Several closed rail lines throughout the Valley are now being developed as rail trails so walkers and cyclists can have first-hand experience of the surviving railway infrastructure: the cuttings and embankments, the remains of platforms, the fruit trees that have grown along the lines and the resilient bulbs that flower every year in long abandoned railway workers’ gardens. As well as the Boolarra to Mirboo North trail, visits to the Moe to Yallourn and Traralgon to Stratford are becoming increasingly popular.
On entering Boolarra today, Railway Park is located on the right hand side of the road. Nothing remains of the former station and sadly, in 1937, a fire raged through Tarwin Street, destroying many of the original shop fronts.
There is however, a well-defined track in the park that marks the start of the Grand Ridge Rail Trail to Mirboo North. Several closed rail lines throughout the Valley are now being developed as rail trails so walkers, cyclists and horse riders can have first-hand experience of the surviving railway infrastructure: the cuttings and embankments, the remains of platforms and bridges, the fruit trees that have grown along the lines and the resilient bulbs that flower every year in long abandoned railway workers’ gardens.
As well as the Boolarra to Mirboo North trail, visits to the Moe to Yallourn and Traralgon to Stratford are becoming increasingly popular.
Livelihoods for Locals
Timber – One of the earliest endeavours of settlers was clearing land for roads
and farms and from this grew the timber industry, with blackwood, mountain ash, fiddleback and other timbers being felled then milled for palings, logs, furniture and housing. Much of the timber going to Melbourne. A record 9,600 palings were split from one tree. Several large saw mills operated throughout the area, with the last mill closing in the early 1980’s.
In 1926, legendary paling splitter Jim Pattinson went to a height of 163’ (almost 50m) using 54 boards placed vertically, not spirally. When almost at the top of the tree, he removed his shirt and hung it on a branch, stating that if anyone could retrieve it he would place four more boards in the tree. The shirt was retrieved and Pattinson had to set the extra four boards to the top of the tree.
Newspapers – ‘The Auctioneer’ was the first newspaper in Boolarra, hitting the streets on 6th September 1932. Issued every Tuesday it supplied market reports, news, sport and topics of the day until the depression and the outbreak of World War II saw the demise of the newspaper.
There were a few editions of the ‘Boolarra Citizens’ and Ratepayers’ newsletter issued, however it was not until March 1982 that a public meeting was held to form Boolarra’s current community newspaper, ‘The Boolarra Link’.
Cattle Saleyards – Boolarra has supported a busy cattle sale calendar since its earliest days, however, like all industries, there has been boom and bust times. In the 1930’s 500 – 600 head of cattle would pass through the yards but by the 1950’s this had Heyman’s Butter Factory c1905 dropped to the point where the yards were closed. When the yards were reconstructed in the early 1960’s there was one sale a month until the last sale conducted on 4th May 1982, with Jack Richards as Auctioneer.
Dairy Farming – Because of the dense forests in the region, there was very little farming carried out until cleared land became readily available. In 1894, Mr. Harry brought the first separator to Boolarra and dairying increased rapidly.
Butter was traditionally salted and packed on individual farms and then sent to surrounding areas for sale. In 1905, the Danish firm Heyman set up a butter factory in Boolarra and dairy farming further developed as the leading industry in the district, with the factory providing much needed employment for the youth of the area.
A Piggery was established to use the whey from the factory, however the butter factory was sold to the Mirboo Co-op in 1949 and the piggery was closed.
Coal – In 1888, the Mirboo, Boolarra and Moe Coal Syndicate Company secured 3,840 acres of coal-bearing land just west of Boolarra and at one time 300 men were employed at mines in the region. However, the opening of Wonthaggi, Korumburra and Yallorn mines caused work to cease in the Boolarra area.
Head Teacher of Boolarra State School, Mr. John Irvine wrote in 1889 “Boolarra has one of the best coal seams yet discovered in the Colony. The Boolarra Black Coal Mine will shortly employ 18 men and another brown coal mine will have 30 men”.
Boolarra Moving Forward
The rapid development of the then State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SEC) and other major institutions throughout the valley during the 1960s and 1970s affected the development of smaller towns such as Boolarra and Yinnar. The decline in Boolarra’s population reversed during this period when workers coming to Latrobe Valley began to appreciate its rural lifestyle.
This has been reflected in new layers of housing in the town and acreages in the hills. Sections of farming properties have been subdivided to provide large blocks for people who work in Latrobe Valley but are attracted to a rural lifestyle, where they can have a substantial garden and a few livestock.
This embracing of a rural lifestyle has meant a revitalisation for small rural towns like Boolarra where new residents also chose to relocate and refurbish Yallourn houses to house blocks in Boolarra and the community also relocated a Yallourn building to house its infant welfare centre and playgroup.
Modernisation of farming and improved transport links have brought changes to many small rural towns, with car travel to the larger commercial centres in the Latrobe Valley increasing.
Boolarra has settled down to become an attractive residential town with a friendly rural atmosphere, having a population of around 600.
Farming is still important, as is Timber, which is harvested from plantation forests in the hills. Today, a large fish farm exports goldfish to the international market. There has been an influx of new residents, retirees and young families from the city.
There is a Post Office and one general store in Boolarra, a modern school and kindergarten provide excellent educational facilities and the Boolarra Historical Society has converted the Old Boolarra School into a museum to preserve the local heritage.
Following World War II residents banded together to erect a Memorial Park with the names of the town’s fallen soldiers inscribed on the entrance gates. Now, numerous sporting clubs use the recreation facilities located in the park.
In the landscape, visible responses to the devastating effects of bushfire are memorialisation and
community involvement in fighting fires. Granite pillars at the Hazelwood Cemetery record
the names of the people who died in the 1944 fires. From Toongabbie to Boolarra, there are
well-kept CFA sheds that house fire trucks and fire fighting equipment
Latrobe City Heritage Study Volume 1: Thematic Environmental History, Final Report, December 2008 – prepared for LaTrobe City Council
‘The Twelve Mile Peg – Boolarra 1884-1984’ Roslyn M. Carstairs
‘The History of Boolarra’ extract from “The Morwell Historical Society News” Vol t, No: 1, 10/02/1967 by I T Maddern