The Tramways of the Otways

The Lorne pier, a true centrepiece to any Lorne vista, is a seminal feature of the township of Lorne that still echoes the past – despite its recent renewal.

Most know the pier as a place to stroll in the sun, to spot a frolicking seal, to watch giant stingrays swirl and circle effortlessly between the pylons closest to the shore, or from which to throw a line in hope of ‘the catch of the day’.  Fewer, however, know of its pivotal past: the bygone days of Lorne when the Port of Lorne – still the official, never-rescinded designation for our maritime link – was the industrial centre of our jewel of a town.

For most of the 1900’s, and until the couta suddenly disappeared from Bass Strait in the 1970’s, the pier was all about fishing: couta boats, the unique but necessary crane (though once there were two), boxed fish in ‘the Co-op’, and the smells of fish, kelp, salt, and sea.

But, reaching further back into memory, different sounds, sights and scents would have assailed the senses. The pungent smell of oil, the lazy drift of smoke from the stacks of a steamer drawn alongside, the slap of rigging against the mast of a ketch, the neighs and stamping of weary horses, and the groan of chains. Above all would be the crash of massive tree trunks – the pride of the Otway forests – as they tumbled, humbled, into the hold of a waiting ship. 

Steamer after steamer was laden with prized mountain ash, the hardwood timber from the ancient hills. Steamer after steamer would disgorge visitors to the guesthouses that had proliferated in the town centre, then load a precious cargo of wood and depart, destined for the larger ports of Geelong and Melbourne. 

These were the goldrush years in the second half of the 1800s. Victoria was riding the back of unparalleled prosperity. The gold field poppet-heads of Bendigo, Ballarat, Clunes and Maryborough, and the sidewalk promenades of the rapidly expanding city of Marvellous Melbourne had created an endless demand for strong, durable timber. Lorne and our southern coastal neighbour, Apollo Bay, were close by, and the sea-trip quick. Crucially, the Otway ranges sourced some of the finest, strongest timber the world had ever seen.  

As the Otway old-growth forests were plundered, rail penetrated from inland to the north-western slopes via Deans Marsh and the Pennyroyal valley, from Moriac to Wensleydale, into Weeaproinah and Beech Forest from Colac, and into Timboon and the Ayre and Gellibrand River valleys from Camperdown and Cobden. Meanwhile, the Lorne pier provided sea access to the deep, short gullies of the eastern slopes, where the giant hardwoods were abundant. 

My great, great uncle, Howard Hitchcock, who as Mayor of Geelong conceived, funded, then resourced the building of the Great Ocean Road, was still in knee-breeches when the Port of Lorne was in its heyday, the ‘road’ not yet even a twinkle in his eye. A chancy Cobb and Co. coach provided the only road access from Deans Marsh, but the coach was regularly bogged and immobilised by deep mud. The sea was the only reliable way in… and out.

Trains and railway lines were impossible in the steep coastal terrain, but horse-drawn trolleys and tiny, pocket handkerchief-sized steam engines that ran on tram-tracks – the fore-runners of light rail – were ideal. Tramways penetrated the St George River, the Cumberland, and the lower reaches of the Erskine at Lorne, and the Barham River and Skenes Creek at Apollo Bay. 

Walk ‘the George’ upstream from the river mouth and you will be walking the wide track of an old tramway. Crossing first at the Cherry Tree Creek bridge, and then again over the George a further half kilometre up-river, you will tread the last decaying remnants of the tramline sleepers – though most have now rotted away. But, tread carefully as it would be nice to think that they may remain a little longer yet. Watch, too, for the cuttings carved through ridges and perched high above tight river bends. 

Vestiges of old tram tracks and a buggy track also hug the coastline, high on the southern St George headland from Sheoak, and low around the northern St George headland to the Queens Park caravan park.  Their destination?… the Lorne pier.

While sawmills dotted the hinterland, some were close at hand: the Armistead sawmill site at Allenvale – now a tent-only campground; the sawmill at Hitchcock Gully near Kennett River; and Babington’s mill on the Wymboleel track from Benwerrin, the last to close in 1989. 

Once – and not so long ago – our nearby ranges echoed to the scrape of saws, the shouts of hard, tough timber men, the thunderous crash of felled giants, the snorts of labouring horses, the chuff of mini-steam engines, and the creak of laden wagons.

Once – and still visible – are the butts of some massive trees … trees far larger than the largely re-growth giants we now see.  Perhaps some of the most easily seen of these behemoth trees – the foothold wounds of the axe and saw men still visible in their sides – line the Kaanglang Track as it rises up the western slopes from Forrest to the Benwerrin-Mt Sabine road. Stop, marvel, but please preserve. Do no harm to these extraordinary memories of a past practice many now much regret, for they tell stories of the days when ‘taking’ was all the white man gave a mind to.

Once – and not so long ago – the pier at Lorne played a pivotal role in the ‘growth and prosperity’ of Victoria, built as it was on the once mighty giants of the Otway forests. 

John Agar

Reference:  Railways of the Otway Ranges, by Nick Anchen. ISBN 978-0-9807640-00-0… available at the Lorne Historical Society.

Footnote: Later this year the Lorne Historical Society will stage an exhibition commemorating the timber industry of the Otways , an incredible chapter in our history.