20 April, 2016

Making tracks: decisions! Decisions!

Over the past six months and 21 blog posts, I've followed in the tracks of the gold diggers making their way from Geelong to Ballarat, looking at how they travelled, where they travelled, who they might have met along the way and what conditions they faced. The aim was to decide which - if any - of the various tracks was the "main" route to the goldfields - a claim made of each of these tracks at one time or another.
Google Earth image showing the likely routes via Shelford (red),
the Geelong-Buninyong Track (green) and Steiglitz (blue)
Teesdale it is claimed at a local park lay on the "main gold route". The Eclipse Inn north of Steiglitz was situated on the "best line of road" to the goldfields, boasted a real estate agent in 1853. A report by the Victorian Heritage Database states that "later the Warrenheip Road to Ballarat became the main gold fields route from Geelong", whilst in 1943 a local resident of the town of Meredith recounted that "when gold was first discovered at nearby Buninyong, Ballarat, Steiglitz and Bendigo, most of the traffic to those places started from Geelong and came through Meredith by bullock teams along bush tracks."
Even Skene St in the Geelong suburb of Newtown was claimed as part of "the main route to the Ballarat goldfields" - presumably a reflection of the flow of traffic west towards Fyansford and across the Moorabool River to the Geelong-Buninyong Track near the future site of Gheringhap.
The one thing which does seem clear is that each claim had its own angle: the best road, the main route, the most traffic, a particular point in time. What is clear however, is that over the years, huge amounts of traffic flowed along all routes to the goldfields of Ballarat. But were all the routes equivalent?
Store drays camped on road to Ballarat, TS Gill, 1855, Image held by the
National Library of Australia
Well, the distance of each was not the same. The journey from Geelong to Ballarat via the Geelong-Buninyong Track and the Plank Rd was around 50 miles (80km). From Geelong via Steiglitz and Warrenheip to Ballarat was about 59 miles (95km) whilst the track via the Leigh Rd to Shelford and then to Buninyong and along the Plank Rd was also around 59 miles. If travelling via Magpie Gully instead of the Plank Rd, then an extra mile or more could be added to the journey.
A difference of 9 miles or 15km is not so much on modern roads with fast cars, but to a digger walking the distance, this could amount to almost half a day's extra walking. If however, a dray were to become mired in Scott's Swamp, not only hours, but days could be lost, not to mention the potential for broken wheels and axles, the loss of an expensive horse or bullock or even the significant physical exertion required to unload and reload an entire dray full of supplies in order to lighten the load and escape the bog. As a result, whilst the shortest route may appeal to those on foot, road conditions may have been more important than distance to those travelling by vehicle.
To complicate the issue further, there were any number of alternate routes and tracks connecting each of the three roads running north-south. From the Steiglitz road it was possible to cross the Moorabool River and reach the Geelong-Buninyong Track via the Melbourne-Buninyong Rd intersecting at Green Tent, Sharp's Crossing which intersected at the same point, the Steiglitz-Meredith Rd and at least one other unnamed crossing to name a few.
From the west, it was possible to cross the Leigh River at 'Narmbool' and possibly also at an informal crossing near Bamganie. Today, a number of small fords cross the Leigh on private property, presumably it was no different in the 1850s. In a time when a bad track or tricky creek-crossing saw travellers take to the bush, forging their own path, it is not surprising that informal tracks and crossings proliferated.
Google Earth image showing the interconnecting tracks between Geelong and Ballarat. Red
lines show tracks marked on survey maps, blue lines show approximate routes described, yellow
lines show likely connections along and between routes using modern roads, green lines
show estimated routes based on surveyor's field books. Early inns along the routes are also shown.
Click to enlarge
Another important factor was date. When the gold rush first broke out in August, 1851 everyone wanted to be at Hiscock's Gully. Two weeks later, after the discovery of Golden Point, they were also flooding to Ballarat along the Geelong to Buninyong Track. The surface alluvial deposits however, were quickly worked out and within a short time, deep lead mining became common. As the miners followed these leads, mining activities spread out across the Sebastopol Plateau following the course of an ancient river underlying the Leigh. It makes sense that anyone travelling to these mines during the 1860s would consider travelling via Shelford.
At Steiglitz, the discovery of quartz reefs in 1855,  drew traffic from Geelong and also from Ballarat, presumably making the route from Geelong to Ballarat via Steiglitz and Warrenheip more appealing at that time. This road also provided access to other nearby goldfields such as Mt Egerton, Dolly's Creek and Gordon to name a handful.
Despite all of this however, it is worth remembering that coaches - including Cobb & Co.'s famous Leviathan Coach capable of carrying 89 passengers - continued to run directly between Geelong and Ballarat along what soon became the Geelong-Buninyong Rd. After the discoveries at Steiglitz, extra services ran via Hope's Bridge over Sutherland's Creek to the town, however coaches from Steiglitz for Ballarat still travelled via Meredith, Buninyong and Magpie Gully, rather than the Eclipse Inn and Warrenheip. A comparison of distance shows the coach route to be only a mile or so shorter than travelling via Warrenheip. I cannot see any mention of a coach service via Mt Mercer throughout the gold rush period, however the Portland Bay service from Geelong did pass through Shelford, Cressy and Fiery Creek further to the west.
Cobb & Co.'s Leviathan Coach, c1862. Image held by the Victorian State Library
Regardless of which route the diggers chose, one thing was certain: at some point they would have to cross, walk alongside or take water from the the tributaries of the Barwon River. Whichever route they chose would require not just one, but numerous creek and river crossings. Whether at Batesford, Fyansford or east of Buninyong, the Moorabool River had to be crossed. Travelling via Shelford also meant crossing the Leigh/Yarrowee River at least twice, if not three times, not to mention the many creeks and gullies along the way. Below is a list of the main creeks along the three routes, grouped according to the river into which they flow.
In the early days before bridges were built, fording creeks and rivers was inevitable and bad weather could have a significant impact, not only on the road surface, but also on the ease with which a creek or river could be crossed - if it could be crossed at all. Newspaper reports of flooding often also came with reports of drownings, both of animals and humans as attempts were made to cross dangerously swollen creeks and rivers. Another reason for diggers to consider carefully which route to take.
There is one other factor which could also influence the decision and which could significantly alter the flow of traffic along a particular road: maps.
And some of those maps will be the topic of my next post.

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