On the southern side of the Great Western Highway just west of Katoomba is a colonial relic known as the Explorers' Tree. But you would be forgiven for not recognising it as a tree. Today all that remains is a concrete stump on a rubble stone podium.
The stump is the remains of a tree supposedly marked with the initials of Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth when they crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813. However, while it was common for explorers to blaze or mark trees as they ventured off their maps into uncharted territory, there is no evidence these three men marked this tree. The explorers' journals never mention carving or marking trees and the following year as William Cox constructed the road through the Mountains from 1814-15, there was no mention of it in his journal either.
The first mention of the tree in the published record did not occur until over 50 years after the crossing. The Reverend William Woolls from Parramatta wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald about eucalyptus trees and in doing so, commented on a blackbutt tree ‘which the late Mr W Lawson cut his initials with a tomahawk in 1813... This interesting tree, so intimately connected with the first expedition over the Blue Mountains, is standing on the side of the Bathurst Road at the summit of Pulpit Hill.’
Mythology around the tree was further fuelled during the 1870s and the 1880s with illustrations, sketches and photographs appearing in newspapers. A stone wall was erected around the tree to protect it but smothered and killed it by 1903. Meanwhile the plaque installed on the podium was found to have an inaccurate inscription suggesting Pulpit Hill was the ‘farthest distance reached’ by the explorers in their first attempt to cross the Blue Mountains.
Nonetheless its role as a symbol of colonial enterprise was celebrated in the Centenary of the Crossing in 1913 when the stump was decorated with streamers and banners.
Further calamity ensued for the blackbutt when the top half of the tree that had been sawn off and erected in the foyer of Mark Foy’sHydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath as an historic relic in about 1904, was then destroyed by a bush fire in 1923.
Anxiety around the tree’s condition saw more correspondence to the newspapers. The editorial of the Blue Mountain Echo on 6 July 1928 bemoaned the ‘rotting stump, standing mute sentinel beside the smooth face of the Great Western Road' as 'one of the most precious heirlooms of our race ... [and]... no reasonable effort should be spared to perpetuate it.’
A suggestion to make a cast of the remains of the tree and install it in the Katoomba Town Hall led nowhere, but a decision was made to pour concrete into the hollowed stump and brace the remaining bark with metal bands.
In subsequent decades the stump has borne arson attacks and car collisions into the base of the podium, severely testing the endurance of this relic.
It has also weathered protests.
One week before the Australia Day 1988 bicentenary celebrations, an Aboriginal Flag was painted on part of the stump reminding visitors that there was a deep time dimension to Australian history not recognised by the colonial story of exploration, and it is this perhaps that is the most enduring legacy of the tree, not as a marker of exploration itself, but as a canvas for how Australians wanted to depict their history, and how as our national narratives shift ‘previously venerated sites are marooned'.
Lavelle, Siobhan. A tree and a legend: the making of past and place in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales [online]. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 89, No. 1, June 2003: 1-25. Availability: <https://search-informit-com-au.ezproxy.sl.nsw.gov.au/documentSummary;dn=200306258;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 0035-8762. [cited 20 Nov 19].
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!Listen to the podcast with Minna & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.