13 June, 2016

Four bridges and a ford: the first bridge

In August, 1851, the Victorian gold rush began in earnest. Thousands flocked from the ports of Melbourne and Geelong to the goldfields of Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Creswick and beyond. By 1852, the newly-independent Colony of Victoria boasted 6.5 million sheep and the drays loaded with their wool trundled their way to markets in the major port towns of Geelong and Melbourne.
Many of those drays crossed the vast, open plains of the Western District to bring their wool to Geelong. In the opposite direction, thousands of hopeful diggers lined the tracks to Ballarat, which until 1851 was only a squatting run, not the teeming town of 20,000 it had become by 1854. In the few years since the discovery of gold, Geelong had also experienced a rapid population increase from a town of just over 8,000 in 1851 its population had more than doubled to over 20,000 by 1854.
And along with the floods of people coming and going, there were those who provided the supplies they needed to live on. Carters like the young Henry Mundy (Henry Mundy: a young Australian pioneer, Les Hughes, 2003) could do quite well for themselves carrying supplies. For those who were willing to risk a stint in the lockup - see Mundy's description - there was also money to be made by slipping an extra barrel or two on the wagon to supply the sly-grog shanties which proliferated on the goldfields.
All of this meant of course, that the traffic flow across the ford at Fyansford increased substantially. Not only was it a key crossing point on the Great Western Road leading from Geelong to the Western District and Portland Bay, but the ford also provided an alternative route for those heading to the goldfields. They could join the Geelong-Buninyong Track at the Eureka Hotel (at the modern day intersection near Gheringhap) or travel via Inverleigh and Shelford, following the track to the west of the Leigh River to Buninyong.
By November, 1853, according to the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer it was rumoured that the ford at Fyansford was to be replaced by a bridge. The rumours, as it turned out, were true and in January, 1854 tenders were called for the construction of a timber bridge on stone abutments over the Moorabool River.
Original timber bridge across the Moorabool River at Fyansford, c1866-1880.
Image held by the State Library of Victoria
Surprisingly however, the advent of a bridge at Fyansford, was not as far as I can tell, accompanied by the usual degree of community outrage over the degraded state of the existing facility - in this case, the ford and the roads leading to it. Nor, unlike the building of the Batesford Bridge, can I find any call for tenders for the Fyansford Bridge in the Victorian Government Gazette of the day.
Regardless, the bridge was built during 1854 and officially opened on the 1st September that year by the Mayor William Baylie with Captain Foster Fyans in attendance as guest of honour. The ceremony began with mounted troopers leading a procession of local notables to the bridge which was decorated with a floral arch at each end. Once at the bridge, the company halted and Mayor Baylie christened the "Fyans Ford Bridge" in deference to Captain Fyans with a bottle of champagne. Those present then crossed the bridge before returning to attended an outdoor banquet which was accompanied by the usual toasts and speeches.
As can be seen from a number of contemporary photos, as per the specifications outlined, the bridge was a timber structure supported at each end by bluestone abutments and in between by timber piers. In a significant change from the past, the new bridge was located around 350m downstream from the site of the original ford, however looking at various websites as well as the information board located near the bridge site, there appears to be some confusion as to the location of the timber bridge. The board along with the websites claim that this first bridge was located on the site of the current bridge.
Having looked at the existing bridges, this claim stuck an odd not as I had previously noted that the the north east corner of the Monier bridge (more of which later) contained several rows of bluestone blocks which did not seem to fit with the rest of its construction.
Bluestone blocks next to the Monier bridge
Furthermore, a quick search of the undergrowth on the west bank immediately upstream of the Monier bridge, revealed two piles of cut stone situated close by the Monier bridge - surely the remains of the bluestone abutment belonging to the original bridge. This was effectively confirmed when after a little more research I located an entry on the Victorian Heritage Database titled "Fyansford timber bridge ruin". There was no further information other than a place marker located - as I expected - slightly upstream of the existing bridges.
Pile of cut stone on the western bank of the Moorabool
So, based on the above details and having looked at the few available photographs and sketches, I believe that the original timber bridge was located slightly upstream of the two present bridges, in such close proximity to the Monier bridge that perhaps (I have not seen plans for the Monier bridge) the abutment of the timber bridge on the east bank was later used in the construction of the second bridge. The alignment of the first bridge however, was at a more acute angle which left the abutment on the west bank further upstream than that on the east.
No doubt the site of the new crossing was not appreciated by William Bohn, owner of the Swan Inn on the west bank of the Moorabool who now found his business at a distance from the main road and on the opposite side of the river to the growing township. On the east bank however and in prime position on the new line of road, Charles B. Dawson took advantage of the realignment to establish a new public house - the Fyansford Hotel. By July, 1854 he was calling for tenders for the erection of a two-storey brick building which remains in operation to the present day.
The Fyansford Hotel
On the opposite side of the new road and at about the same time, a second hotel - designed by Walter Ferrier for James Roger Miller - was also under construction. In addition to its role as a public house, the Balmoral also did duty as the post office, a polling station and was even used to accomodate the proceedings of an inquest in 1882, into the death of George Webb, a local farmer who was found drowned in the river. Unlike the Fyansford, the Balmoral Hotel operated only until 1895 when it was sold to Mr Henry Wilks who operated the premises as a boarding house.
During the 20th century, the old Balmoral Hotel underwent significant renovation and was for a time converted into two flats before being purchased in 1972 by John Heard who in turn converted the former hotel into an art gallery. Since 1988, the building has been home to reception centre, Truffleduck at Balmoral.
The former Balmoral Hotel, now Truffleduck at Balmoral
In addition to the new hotels and the bridge, the surrounding roadway was also upgraded. In the weeks prior to the opening of the bridge, the "hills...on each side of the river" were "cut and improved and the road metalled" (Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 18th August, 1854) whilst an additional, 71 chains of road was constructed near the new bridge.
A look at the few early maps to which I currently have access and the length of road indicated (almost 1.5km), shows that this wasn't just a minor diversion to redirect the track from the ford. The distance indicated corresponds to the distance via Hyland Street from the top of The Deviation - or Fyansford Hill as it was then called - to the cutting on the opposite side of the river.
Looking at an 1850 map of Geelong and surrounds published by James Harrison however, I was surprised to see that it marked the original road to the ford as following a curved path from the western end of Autumn Street, south past the future site of the cement works, before descending directly down the hill to the ford, which at its steepest included a drop of some 55m over a distance of only some 330m amounting to an average gradient of around 17%. This seems rather unlikely, so perhaps the the line was a general one rather than the line of the surveyed road.
Fyansford, 1859 showing the new line of road with the bridge in the distance.
Image held by the State Library of Victoria
The new road, which I gather from maps and photos followed the current alignment, included a descent of 51m, but extended over a distance of around 610m, yielding a gradient of only around 8%, but still more than steep enough for a bullock dray to negotiate.
Work on the new road appears to have continued well after the bridge was opened to traffic. In April, 1855, the lack of fencing along the steep road led to a serious accident as reported by The Argus on 27th April, 1855:
A serious accident occurred on last Saturday night to a dray, at the Fyans Ford Hill. The new road, which is not fenced in on either side, and is very narrow, runs close past a precipice of some twenty feet deep. Being rather dark, and there being no fence to save or direct the cart, the driver had allowed the wheel to go too close to the edge of the cliff, when suddenly the cart overturned and fell to the bottom, being smashed to pieces among the broken stones. Strange to say, the horse was not much injured, otherwise than with wounds only skin deep; the driver escaped also with very slight injury.
Which section of the new road this was I cannot tell, however the following month, a contract was announced in the Victorian Government Gazette (18th May, 1855) for the "erection of about 400 lineal yards of stone wall, along the side cutting west of Fyansford" whilst in March the following year tenders were called for "450 yards of fencing along an embankment at Fyansford".
A pencil drawing by Samuel Thomas Gill overlooking the timber bridge at
Fyansford, soon after its construction and showing the realigned road. The
Swan Inn can be seen upstream to the right whilst the Fyansford Hotel is
 yet to be built. Image held by the State Library of Victoria

Nor was the new road the only safety concern as by 1859, the new bridge - still a mere five years old - was deemed unsafe. On 19th October, 1859 The Argus reported that:
...some of the pier piles having given  way, it was deemed advisable to send for chains to bind the four centre piers together. The longitudinal beams of the roadway present anything but a straight line to the eye, and the hand-rails correspond in their curves to the lines of the aforesaid beams, showing unmistakably that something has given way. The bridge is only a wooden one, built upon a rather insecure construction...
By early December £133 8s 6d had been allocated by the government for repairs to the bridge, but barely twelve months later it was reported in the Geelong Advertiser that flooding had washed away a temporary bridge installed for use whilst timber bridge was (once again) repaired.
And so it continued. The timber bridge across the Moorabool at Fyansford served the town and those travelling between Geelong and the Western District for 45 years until 1899 when the decision was finally made to replace it.

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