Blackheath

2008
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Blackheath

Blackheath is in the Upper Blue Mountains, 75 miles (121 kilometres) west of Sydney. It started in 1831 as a resting place for travellers crossing the Blue Mountains, but after the opening of a railway line in 1868 the village developed rapidly over the next decade. At an altitude of 3,495 feet (1,065 metres), it is the highest station on the western railway line and the climate is much cooler than Sydney. While tourism is the major trade of the area, snow, sleet, and the full force of a bitter winter wind have led to it sometimes being irreverently called 'Bleakheath.'

Blackheath is located on a plateau surrounded by cliffs so the area abounds with views. Visitors are especially attracted to the vista from Govetts Leap Lookout, where the full rugged splendour of Govett Gorge leads the eye to tantalising glimpses of the Grose River, Mount Banks and the ranges to the north. On the western side of the railway line, the Kanimbla and the Megalong valleys present different aspects of considerable beauty.

The township continues to develop along four ridges accessed by Evans Lookout Road, Govetts Leap Road and Hat Hill Road heading to the east and Shipley Road heading to the south-west. The commercial centre serves an area beyond the township of Blackheath itself, and there are many restaurants and numerous places of accommodation for tourists. Sightseeing, bushwalking, climbing and canyoning are the main recreation attractions to visitors, but locals enjoy a rich variety of less strenuous activities and both groups participate in fine dining.

Aboriginal presence

Aboriginal Australians undoubtedly travelled through, and sometimes occupied, parts of the Blackheath area but they left very little evidence. Stockton stated that 'the Gundungurra people were thought to have come out of the Megalong and Jamison Valleys', but because of the cold climatic conditions the Upper Blue Mountains are widely considered to have been only intermittently occupied. [1] The only known occupied site in Blackheath is Walls Cave in which a buried fireplace was dated to some thousand years ago, and a more deeply buried hearth at approximately ten thousand years earlier. [2]

It is probable that Indigenous people pioneered routes down the western escarpment at Porters Pass, and down the eastern cliff via the Horse Track from Evans Lookout to the Grose Valley.

Naming Blackheath

On his outward inspection journey to Bathurst, Governor Macquarie camped near the 41 Mile Tree on Friday 28 April 1815. The next day he wrote in his diary, 'it having rather a wild Heath-like appearance, I have named it Hounslow' presumably after the town in West London, although this was not stated. [3] On his return journey in mid-May, Macquarie again came to that resting place. Yet he seems to have forgotten he had been there previously and had already named the area. [4] He noted, 'This place having a black wild appearance I have this day named it Black-heath.' [5] 'Black-Heath' would seem to be a purely descriptive name, for there is no indication that Macquarie assigned it after the town in south east London. Recently it has been suggested that it arose 'from the sight of the extensive dark green strands of the Stunted or Dwarf She-oak (Allocasuarina nana) which cover the heaths in the area'. [6] Subsequently the name Blackheath has been used in at least four contexts; for a parish, a municipality, a township and a village.

Parts of Blackheath township are located in three parishes; land east of the Great Western Highway lies within the parish of Blackheath, but the area west of the railway line and north of a line approximately midway between Murri Street and Thirroul Avenue is in the parish of Hartley, while that to the south is in the parish of Kanimbla.

After a tortuous gestation, Blackheath was gazetted as a municipality on 12 December 1919 and it operated as such for 27 years. [7] Amalgamation with the City of Katoomba and the Shire of the Blue Mountains on 30 September 1947 enabled the formation of the City of the Blue Mountains.

Today, Blackheath, County of Cook, Land District of Lithgow, is more than just the developed area, for it includes the immediate surrounding plateau on which there are many dwellings occupied by rural landholders.

Exploration by Europeans

There is an unsubstantiated claim that a convict named Wilson was the first white man to reach Blackheath. [8] Fully substantiated is that on 27 May 1813 Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth camped on land that is now in the village of Blackheath. It has been claimed that an oval-shaped silver plate, about three inches (7.6 centimetres) long by one and a half inches (3.8 centimetres) wide, engraved with the word 'BLAXLAND' was dug up in a Blackheath garden, but this is probably apocryphal. [9] The present location of this supposed historic relic is unknown.

A road across the mountains

The first road across the Blue Mountains was completed by Captain William Cox and his road gang a mere two years after the discovery of the route. The line of Cox's road was surveyed in 1823 by McBrien, but there is little physical proof of the location of Cox's route in the Blackheath area. Nevertheless, recent recomputation of McBrien's figures has led to the interpretation that Cox's Road was varying from side to side of the line of the Great Western Highway but following the top of the ridge from Sutton Park to the steep northern slope of Soldiers Pinch which was a major obstacle on this route. The exact path first taken by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth down this slope is not known with certainty, but considering the urgent nature of their journey it is likely to have been very direct and probably close to the present power line. McBrien's survey indicated that Cox constructed a sinuous descent.

Restrictions on inland travel were at their height in the time of Governor Darling but there are some early travellers who described Blackheath, often in far from flattering terms. In 1822 Judge Barron Field wrote

Blackheath is a wretched misnomer. Not to mention its awful contrast to that beautiful place of that name in England, heath it is none. Black it may be when the shrubs are burnt, as they often are. [10]

While the observant Reverend John Dunmore Lang travelled over the mountains in 1826, he made no mention of any building in the Blackheath area. Assistant Surveyor Dixon wrote in his report of February 1830, 'Travelled from Weatherboard Hut to Black Heath got Horse shod at the Road gang', so there were convicts based in the village, albeit temporarily, although no record of their dwellings has been found. [11] Surveyors and most travellers camped near the water source in what is now Memorial Park, a location ideal for resting horses, bullocks and cattle before the descent from Mount York or after journeying up that arduous part of the road.

Early development

In 1829 Andrew Gardiner, a prosperous Scottish farmer and former convict residing at Sodwalls, 17 miles (27 kilometres) west of Blackheath, selected 20 acres (eight hectares) for which Governor Darling granted permission on 1 December 1829 for 'a special reserve for the purpose of erecting an Inn thereon'. [12] Gardiner took possession of the land on 20 May 1830 and after some delay in getting suitable men for the erection of the building, he opened the Scotch Thistle Inn on 11 July 1831. It was described as 'a substantial single storeyed Inn …of hewn stone, with a shingle roof.' The Scotch Thistle Inn must have been thriving within a short time, as it was listed in a Directory in the following year. [13] Despite this, in September 1832 the naturalist George Bennett described Blackheath as 'truly a dismal, bleak-looking place.' [14]

The inn was the only building in the area until a convict stockade was constructed in 1844. In 1846, Lieutenant Colonel Godfrey Charles Mundy wrote,

The settlement of Blackheath consists of a convict stockade under charge of that officer, and a pretty good inn Gardner's…The barracks and convict 'boxes' form a little hamlet of some two dozen buildings of white-washed slabs with tall stone chimneys. [15]

In April 1849 the land was subdivided and when the railway line was completed in 1868 there were still a few stockade buildings. Today nothing remains of the stockade but the foundations of the Commandant's house have been found beneath part of Blackheath primary school.

The late nineteenth century

Despite the start of rail services to Mount Victoria on 1 May 1868, Blackheath's early years were a dismal history. The rail opening led to many travellers bypassing the village, so the closure of the Scotch Thistle Inn in 1869 was inevitable. By 1870 there were only about nine houses on the Western Road and in 1871 the settlement was said to be in a state of ruin, decay and neglect. As for the Inn,

A portion of the house, constructed of stone, stands firm, but the window shutters have been torn down, the panes of glass broken, the doors beaten in, the fences carried away or destroyed. The part which was built of wood is fast crumbling away. [16]

Around 1875 it was reported that 'three persons lived at Blackheath, and the Old Hydora House was a refuge for goats and tramps'. [17] In 1878 WH Hargraves only found one other small shanty there, apart from this dilapidated inn. [18] Yet there were voters registered in Blackheath. In 1875 there were nine, in 1875–76 there were four, in 1876–77 numbers had risen to six, back down to five in 1877–78 and up again to six in1878–79. But as women and children were not electors the population figures are probably about four times those numbers; where they all resided in those years is however an unsolved puzzle.

By 1879, to the west of the railway line only five portions of land were owned, and two mineral leases had been granted. To the east of the railway line only the special lease granted to Andrew Gardiner remained. Surveys for a village entirely east of the railway line were carried out from November 1877 to March 1878, and Blackheath village was proclaimed and gazetted on 20 March 1885.[19] The first sale of town lots took place at Hartley on 1 April 1879 and most of the purchasers were speculators. [20] Subsequent land sales, followed by building, led to the population increasing in the 1880s. Maps published in 1882 and 1885, and another one recording the village in 1889, indicate that few changes occurred between 1882 and 1885, but by 1889 there had been a surge in development.

The development of walking tracks led to tourist interest in the area, and the opening of these peaked in the 1890s. Initially there was the Popes Glen Track (1890–98) and then the Walls Cave Track (1895). But fame came to Blackheath through the opening of the Williams Track, a route to the base of Govetts Leap. It was constructed in 1898–99 by the Williams father and son team. The opening ceremony on 25 February 1899 included a grand luncheon served at the base of the cliff adjacent to the foot of the ladders in a location now known as Dalys Castle. The occasion was attended by dignitaries including the colony's Secretary for Public Works, James Young.

In 1892, Robert Longton took up the first 45-acre (18-hectare) block at Shipley, to the west. Here he erected a slab humpy, opposite the present site of Shipley Gallery, which became the centre of the district's activities. Other settlers quickly followed but the area was rural and somewhat remote from Blackheath village because of the appallingly rough track that connected them.

Tourism in the twentieth century

In the 1900s the focus of track projects switched to west of the railway line with the Walls Ledge Track (1912–26) and Colliers Causeway (1916) being constructed. Shipley too was developing as a tourist destination with Hargraves Lookout being opened on 17 March 1915.

In the 1920s tourist attractions were increased at Shipley with the signposting of Amphitheatre Lookout in 1928, and the opening of Mount Blackheath Lookout in 1929. Panorama Point Lookout was opened later in 1935. But most tourism development in the 1930s returned to the east side of the railway line. The most famous vantage point, Govetts Leap Lookout, was named in 1934. The track from the road to the Pulpit Rock Lookouts was opened in 1935 followed by the Pulpit Rock Track from Horseshoe Falls Lookout in1937.

In the early twentieth century, families commonly came on the train from Sydney and elsewhere to spend their weekends and holidays exploring the Blackheath area. Sometimes they came in droves such as in November 1924 when on a single day, three trains brought 2,750 people from Lithgow. From the late 1930s the motor bus became a popular means of bringing large numbers to see the sights.

Tourist development was essentially suspended during World War II. In January 1946, the Bradshaw Lookout (now called Valley View Lookout), the Luchetti Lookout and the George Phillips Lookout opened. But this activity was to be short-lived. By the 1950s families started to acquire cars and as they gained greater mobility many tended to travel to more distant places for their recreation. In recent decades however, the bus tours have again increased in number, mainly bringing overseas visitors from their Sydney hotels on tightly scheduled day trips. Often these tourists are restricted to short walks along tracks from car parks to lookouts.

Aviation

Construction of an airfield off Hat Hill Road started on 14 March 1939, using over 70 unemployed inner-Sydney residents. They were required to meet their own messing charges, but camping facilities were provided for free. They cleared 130 acres (53 hectares) of land to construct the runways with an approved gravel surface. The work was finished in about nine months, at which stage the labour force was withdrawn for other urgent defence works. During the early 1940s, military aircraft, such as the DC2, were flown to the site to land troops whose commando training involved tracking through the canyons of the Grose River. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester twice landed at Blackheath when the Duke was the Governor General of Australia. Otherwise, apart from isolated landings by small privately owned aircraft, there was very little use of the aerodrome; nevertheless politicians liked to cite the safety factor of having an emergency landing place in the Blue Mountains. In 1946 the Blackheath Municipal Council Engineer challenged the justification of the cost to improve and maintain the surface to the required standard, and in 1955 the Department of Civil Aviation cancelled the airport's licence. Nevertheless, Blue Mountains City Council sought funding from the Department of Civil Aviation for improvement of the airfield as late as 1968, despite the fact that construction of the Katoomba airfield was about to start, with landings expected in October 1968. Blackheath Aerodrome was eventually abandoned, and until 2007, the area was an off-the-leash dog exercise ground. Mountain bike and trail bike riders also rode there.

Follies

Blackheath's spectacular scenery and climatic extremes have inspired a number of development proposals that were little more than wild ideas; none came to fruition. [21]

The first, mentioned rather facetiously in 1890, was the idea of 'an Otis lift' for Govetts Leap: this surfaced again in 1895, in 1933 and in 1960.

There have been several proposals to dam Pope's Glen, possibly the earliest being in 1921, from Mr Dawes, Superintendent of Centennial Park in Sydney: he envisaged a wall at Boreas Street. In 1946 there were tentative plans for a weir and bridge to carry at least two lanes of traffic, linking Govetts Leap Road and Hat Hill Road. And as late as 1971 a bird park concept had associated with it 'compacted earth walls' of approximately eight feet (2.4 metres) high and 350 yards (320 metres) long, mostly to the north of Fourth Street.

In June 1959, the Sydney publisher Oswald Ziegler gained council approval for a 600-bed luxury hotel complex with a 200-foot (61-metre) tower, indoor ice skating rink, a music shell with seating for 2,000, a skyway across the Leap, a lake for boating, a toboggan slide, a nine-hole golf course, and a helicopter landing port. The development was to be located on land near or within the road loop at the eastern end of Govetts Leap Road. On the cliffs, to the east of Horseshoe Falls and below and east of Cripps Lookout, it was proposed to make carvings of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth 60 feet (18.3 metres) high.

In 1971 the old aerodrome was proposed as a site for a luxury motel complex, six storeys high with a full-sized golf course. The proposal suggested that this would 'not encroach on the airstrip' which 'could be used by international guests'.

Outdoor ice rinks were suggested for use during the winter months, by freezing the railway dam in Whitley Park (1930) and the swimming pools in Memorial Park (1938). Snow is seldom seen at Blackheath and it never settles for long, but in 1986 there was a proposal to build a ski resort in the grounds of Parklands with a 240-metre indoor ski slope and a surface of artificial snow.

References

J Yeaman (ed), Historic Blackheath. A community service project of the Rotary Club of Blackheath, Blackheath Rotary Club, Blackheath NSW, 1976

PC Rickwood and DJ West (eds), Blackheath; today from yesterday : the history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Blackheath Rotary Club, Blackheath NSW, 2005

Notes

[1] ED Stockton, Archaeology of the Blue Mountains, 1993, p 31; D Stockton, Blue Mountains Dreaming: The Aboriginal Heritage, Three Sisters Publications Pty Ltd, Winmalee, pp 23–54

[2] ED Stockton and W Holland, 'Cultural Sites and their Environment in the Blue Mountains; Archaeology and Physical Anthropology', Oceania, vol 9, 1974, p 63

[3] L Macquarie, Journal of a tour of newly discovered country west of the Blue Mountains, 25 April 1815–19 May 1815, p 18, Mitchell Library CYA 779

[4] MC Antill, Journal of an excursion over the Blue or Western Mountains of New South Wales to visit a tract of new discovered country, in company with His Excellency Governor and Mrs Macquarie and a party of gentlemen, 1815; G Mackaness, (ed), Fourteen Journeys over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, 1813–1841, Horowitz Publications Inc Pty Ltd and The Grahame Book Company Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1965, pp 74–90

[5] L Macquarie, Journal of a tour of newly discovered country west of the Blue Mountains, 25 April 1815–19 May 1815, p 68, Mitchell Library CYA 779

[6] K Bell, Nursery News, Hut News, no 237, June 2007, p 3

[7] J Yeaman (ed), Historic Blackheath. A community service project of the Rotary Club of Blackheath, Blackheath Rotary Club, Blackheath NSW, 1976, p 114

[8] 'Beautiful Blackheath and District', 'The Blue Mountains Special Christmas Issue', Katoomba Daily, 28 December 1934, p 5 of supplement

[9] F Walker, Official history of the first crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, Blue Mountains Centenary Celebrations Committee, Sydney, 1914, p 27

[10] B Field, Journal of an Excursion Across the Blue Mountains of New South Wales October1822, 1825, p 124; G Mackaness (ed), Fourteen Journeys over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, 1813-1841, Horowitz Publications Inc Pty Ltd and The Grahame Book Company Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1965 pp 118–42

[11] R Dixon, Monthly Report of Progress of Surveying Party under Assistant Surveyor Dixon between 1st and 28 Day of February, 1830, p 70, State Records NSW, 2/1531, Reel 3063

[12] J Yeaman (ed), Historic Blackheath. A community service project of the Rotary Club of Blackheath, Blackheath Rotary Club, Blackheath NSW, 1976, p 39

[13] J Raymond, The New South Wales Calendar and General Post Office Directory 1832, reprinted by the Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney 1966, p 109

[14] G Bennett, Wanderings in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore, and China; being the journal of a naturalist in those countries, during 1832, 1833 and 1834, Richard Bentley, London, 2 vols, vol 1, p 106

[15] G C Mundy, Our Antipodes: or, Residence and Rambles in the Australasian Colonies. With a glimpse of the gold fields, second edition, revised, Richard Bentley, London, 3 vols, vol 1, pp 158–59

[16] 'Random notes by a Wandering Reporter', The Sydney Mail, 4 March 1871, p 15

[17] 'Presentation to Mr CW Prott at Mt. Victoria', Lithgow Mercury, 7 June 1895, p 3

[18] 'A Mountain Pioneer', The Mountaineer, 23 November 1894, p 3

[19] J Yeaman (ed), Historic Blackheath. A community service project of the Rotary Club of Blackheath, Blackheath Rotary Club, Blackheath NSW, 1976, pp 26–37

[20] FB Boyce, The Blue Mountains Guide, Batty and Chalcraft, Redfern, 1887, p 29

[21] PC Rickwood and L Hodgkinson, 'Grand Visions and Unfulfilled Projects', in PC Rickwood and DJ West (eds), Blackheath; today from yesterday : the history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Blackheath Rotary Club, Blackheath NSW, 2005, pp 221–28

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