LOCATION: 150 km E Melbourne
DISTANCE: West Tanjil River – 5 km
Strahan’s Mill – 4 km
SURFACE: Mostly compacted earth
TERRAIN: mostly climbing, some steep
ACCESS: Mount Baw Baw Road, VicRoads Map 80 D7
BY THE 1930’s, timber leases in the Erica and Tyers River area (See P. ---) were almost cut out, and timber millers began looking at adjoining districts for better prospects.
Paul and Ben Christensen, and Jack and Eric Saxton, set up a sawmill at Telbit in 1925. This operation became a partnership in 1930.
Telbit closed for logging in 1938, and a lease was taken out on the Tanjil River of 3000 acres. The mill was transported to the new site and commenced operations in late 1938.
But tragedy overtook the new township officially known as Tanjil Bren, built on the crest of Rowley’s Spur, within months. The 1939 Black Friday bushfires destroyed the mill, 350,000 super feet of stacked timber, and the settlement; Alfred Bentley (Ben) Saxton, his wife Dorothy, a mill worker and an entire local family, the Rowleys, were killed.
In all, ten people died in the area, and eleven sawmills were destroyed. The Argus recorded the funeral at Moe on 17 January: `This afternoon the remains of Mr Alfred Bentley Saxton and his wife, who were suffocated in a dug-out at Saxton’s sawmill, Tanjil Bren, were interred at the Moe cemetery. Between 700 and 800 mourners were present at the graveside. Business places were closed during the afternoon…Among the principal mourners were the father, mother, brothers and sisters of Mr Alfred Bentley Saxton.’
Following the fire disaster, salvage of fire-killed timber became a priority and thus gave the township a new lease of life.
Unfortunately, Black Friday wasn’t the end of Tanjil Bren’s ordeals by fire. In February 1940: Bush Fire Havoc…A fire, which was caused in an extraordinary way – the friction generated by one log being drawn across another – destroyed 31 huts, 12 motor-cars, two motor-cycles, £2000 worth of machinery, and four tractors valued at £1800 each, at Saxton’s logging camp at Tanjil Bren this afternoon.’
This was perhaps why Tanjil Bren was singled out for the `Forests Commission’s specimen dug-out’ in September the same year. Capable of holding 100 people, it was intended to be a model for other sawmills around the state. The dug-out survives today.
Advertisements by various Tanjil Bren sawmills, for experienced forest workers and other staff, were frequent in the latter 1940’s.
By the early 1950’s, eighteen sawmills operated within a 16 km radius of Tanjil Bren. The township had seven shops, a post office and a primary school. A large timber-loading gantry was constructed on the Mount Baw Baw Road.
Inclement weather could disrupt work, however, as in January 1953: `Mr F.G. Gerraty, Forests Commission chairman, said last night that Gippsland forest roads, particularly in the Tanjil Bren area, had been heavily damaged by the recent rains.’
`The important road outlet from Strahan and Davies’ sawmill had been destroyed, he said.’
In the latter 1950’s, Tanjil Bren entered a decline as the area was logged out and sawmills closed, but in 1964 the Forests Commission released township allotments for freehold. This made possible the continuation of a small but vibrant local community.
ALONG THE TRAMWAYS
West Tanjil Tramway
The West Tanjil River tramway was one the first constructed for fire salvage in 1939, of three foot (0.91m) gauge, steel rails, and a gradient of 1 in 20. Motive power was a Day’s 0-6-0 rail tractor, weighing eight tonnes.
The Tanjil Haulage Co. first operated the tramway, a consortium of the mill owners that used the line, but the tramway was badly maintained, and taken over by the Forests Commission in August 1941.
The tramway served a number of sawmills en route, including that of `Cockie’ Collins, J.W. Porta & Sons, Herman Kirchhulbel, and William Downey. A number of these sawmillers moved into the area from timber leases nearer Warburton. The tramway operated until 1957; the loading gantry at Tanjil Bren survived into the late 1960’s.
The tramline starts directly opposite the toilet block, parking and picnic area, signposted, appropriately enough, Tramline Road.
The first section serves as access road for the township’s houses, after 500 metres the trail downgrades to more suited to 4WDs. The track is cut into a steep hill slope. Vegetation is mixed, eucalypts the most common, but there are many sheoaks.
Collins’ Mill, operated by former farmer `Cockie’ Collins, was on the west side of the trail about 800 metres from the township. Logs were winched down from the tramway to the mill; sawn timber was then lowered down an incline to a landing gantry on the Mount Baw Baw Road, 200 metres south of the Tanjil River.
Just over a kilometre north of Tanjil Bren, the trail follows the contours around a gully. A grassy trail on the right leads to a small weir, pure forest water bubbling over the retaining wall.
The tramline winds around several spurs, then bears due north. A trackside tree has a piece of rusted winch cable wrapped around it.
A short distance further the trail bears around to the east, still climbing steadily. After about half an hour’s walking, now in eucalypt forest, the thunder of falling water becomes audible on the left.
A short side trail leads to West Tanjil Falls, but can only be viewed from the top without some serious scrub-bashing.
On the far side of the log bridge above the falls is a 1.5 km side trail leading to the site of Kirchhubel’s Mill. The mill was shifted to West Tanjil from Neerim South in 1940.
A 30 hp (22.4 Kw) engine powered the mill; nominal capacity was 10,000 super feet of sawn timber per day, but first hand reports from the early 1950s give 25,000 to 30,000 super feet being cut. Kirchhulbel’s Mill was also equipped with a steam winch.
This mill operated until 1957; it connected to the West Tanjil route via a tramline featuring no less than fifteen trestle bridges in a length of 2 km. The present path only partly follows the tramway, and is reportedly overgrown with blackberries. It’s unfortunate that one of the more interesting, heritage significant tramways is also one of the least accessible.
Continuing east, parts of the tramway appear to be speckled with gold, but is of course micah. About 800 metres east of the falls, a sawdust heap south of the trail marks the former site of Porta’s Mill.
J.W. Porta & Sons established the mill at this site in January 1940, but after less than four years the mill was shifted to a site further up the valley.
After a further 800 metres, a point is reached where a number of trails intersect, some partially overgrown. A small plank bridge over the West Tanjil River marks the end of the tramline walk, 5 km from Tanjil Bren.
Return is possible via the tramline. For a slightly more direct route, Downey Track to the right, which joins onto Saxton Road, returns to the start point in 4 km, passing en route the former site of the Saxton settlement.
After destruction of their first sawmill, the three Saxton brothers, Wilbur, Jack and Eric, (who were born in Powelltown) moved their operations to this site, where the mill remained until 1950. The Saxtons then moved their sawmill and settlement to Licola, which survives today as a Lions Clubs camp for children.
IN THE wake of the 1939 bushfires, Les Strahan and Jack Davies established a sawmill in the West Tanjil valley that at its peak employed 100 men.
Like the tramway above the river to the east, Strahan’s tramway was mostly steel-railed, and operated by Day’s rail tractors and internal combustion winches.
The tramline featured an incline and a series of climbing curves, which must have been heavy going for the rail tractors, climbing or descending.
Operations at the sawmill ceased after floods in December 1952 destroyed the river bridges. The present day bridges are in poor repair and may become impassable in the future.
A log landing for the tramway originally fronted the Mount Baw Baw Road, but this has long gone. About 100 metres of 2WD track leads to a small turning area (and possible camp spot) at the first bridge.
Some deck boards have been removed for firewood, and some cross beams are rotting, but by staying above the main bearers it’s possible to cross.
Strahan’s tramway is unquestionably beautiful, closely following the river, occasionally with side rivulets flowing across the path.
About 1 km north of the first river crossing, the second bridge is just as decrepit. Myrrhee Creek, named for a sawmill settlement on the ridge to the north, bubbles in from the left.
This is where the serious climbing starts. The first incline, with a rocky eroded surface, runs at a grade of about 1 in 10 for 800 metres, doubling back almost due south for 500 metres along a narrow promontory.
The run-down rough timber shack on the left is the last surviving building of Strahan’s Mill. It’s advised not to enter the structure. Just beyond this, the tramline doubles back again to continue the climb.
Trail-bikes use this track and should be watched for; natural hazards could include leeches in winter and snakes in the warmer months. The tramway formation is very evident as the trail bears almost due north and the 800 metre contour is crossed.
At about this point on the left can be seen a large earthen embankment, a siding on the tramway, along with several large decaying logs. A further 500 metres or so north is a large open area, somewhat boggy, where the tramway made a wide curve to the right to climb the next section.
Another almost hairpin curve follows after about 300 metres. The tramline bearing is almost due north, the altitude now close to 900 metres. After passing a rather overgrown track on the right, the tramline bears off north-west, almost levelling out briefly before climbing north and sometimes slightly east again. Scarfed tree stumps characteristic of old time sawmilling are visible beside the trail.
Trail’s end is at Block Ten Road, at a height of about 1000 metres. The best return procedure is to walk back down, as a car lift would be 4WD only, and also a very long way around.
Further information: Ferguson, Murray: Saxton’s Road, SLV Melbourne, 1995, The Argus, (newspaper) various issues, 1939 - 1953
WEST TANJIL TRAMWAY
1717 – West Tanjil tramway. Stump on the left has typical springboard marks, note sheoaks
1719 – the weir near the tramway
1722 – the tramway in tall regrowth forest
1725 – looking down West Tanjil Falls
1730 – the plank bridge across the West Tanjil River near Downey’s. In the water at right are the remains of an earlier footbridge
1762 – Strahan’s tramway beside the West Tanjil River, looking south
1758 – West Tanjil River at the second (upper) bridge, visible at right. Myrrhee Creek enters river under the ferns at left
1755m – looking south across the second bridge. Note lack of decking
1752 – the surviving hut at Strahan’s Mill site
1746m – climbing curve on Strahan’s tramway. Southward climb at left, tramway descending to Strahan’s Mill at far right. Trail bikes have cut a rut up the embankment
17691 – newly constructed mill at Tanjil Bren, late 1938. Note cabins for mill workers. Image courtesy Murray Ferguson, Tanjil Bren
17693 – newly built shops and houses along the main street of Tanjil Bren after 1939 fires, taken from Saxtons Road. Image: Murray Ferguson
17692 – Day’s rail tractor in Tanjil Bren, 1950s. Image: Murray Ferguson
17694 – panoramic view of Tanjil Bren from former lookout tower, 1944. Sawmill is at right. Image: Murray Ferguson
17695 – use for large standing timber – Tanjil Bren lookout tower. Ascent was via steel rods driven into trunk. Image: Murray Ferguson
This article and pics were compliments of: Ray Peace