They are a place to play today, but the lonely pier posts at the Wye River beach are witness to twenty turbulent years of timber milling at Wye River and Separation Creek a hundred years ago. It is a story of grand plans, grand implementation and dashed hopes that culminated in an explosive end.
Wye River was cut off from the world until the enterprising Harrington brothers, who arrived just five years earlier, built a jetty in Wye at around 1900. They didn’t question the government drawings, so it was a bad start. Their first jetty was too short and shallow to be usable!
The second jetty built across the rocks soon after was more substantial, enough for sawmilling to start up, although just remnants are visible today.
Soon the first mill was opened in 1904 at Separation Creek by Charles Scully, fed with logs via a tramway up the creek. Another tramway took timber from Sep to the pier at Wye, on what is now Paddy’s Path.
However in a foreboding of the future, shipping access was problematic, with boats having to wait for weeks for smooth conditions to land, and the first mill closed in 1912. New optimistic owners restarted the mill soon after, until they too went broke in 1918!
It was time for men of vision to change things. Henry Jones of IXL jam fame opened a new major mill complex at Wye with his partner John Hay in 1919.
They made a huge 30,000 pound investment in the milling at Wye. It included the latest two storey mill, 20 houses, a shop and even their own ship ‘Gundiah’. It was the largest mill in the Otways and included the reopened Separation Creek mill at Scullys. A local school even opened for the town’s many children, including the young local identity Pat Harrington. Read his story here.
New timber tramlines were built deep into Wye Valley to haul the huge Blue Gum logs to the mill.
An immense new bridge for the tramlines crossed Wye River and dominated the town.
The Wye River Milling Heyday
In 1920 the huge new mill was supplying Blue Gum to South Wharf in Melbourne. This was its heyday and milling at its peak, although no one knew it at the time.
In 1921, again shipping troubles and escalating costs caused the mills to close. It was to be temporary until conditions improved – but nature intervened as we know it does along this wild coast.
In 1923 a raging flood destroyed the tramway bridge across Wye River and a storm washed away most of the jetty. The mills were stranded, never to open again.
The huge stockpile of milled wood at the destroyed pier at Wye never went to market. A lot of the wood was given away to local settlers, including Pat Harrington who used it to build local houses.
The original mill manager’s house still survives and is in use, not far from the existing pub. I was delighted to see inside it on an open day around a decade ago. The lino is still laid on bare earth as it was a hundred years ago.
The old abandoned mill was intact and unused until the arrival of the road in 1932, and scrap merchants soon dismantled much of it.
It came to a spectacular end years later when its reluctant owner, the Country Roads Board, decided the cheapest way to demolish it was with dynamite in one huge explosion.
This was not to be the entire end of local sawmilling. Another mill started nearby at Kennett River in 1939, seven years after the Great Ocean Road opened. It continued operating near the edge of the sea till 1967. You can still see a pile of decaying black sawdust on the beach at Kennett, not far from Cassidy Drive.
Apart from the remnants of the Wye River pier posts, if you look carefully on the rocks you will see twisted old rusting rails, and in the scrub the remnants of an old winch.
Now the weathered pier posts, almost forgotten in the pretty coastal landscape, are a lonely reminder of Wye River’s sawmilling past.
1 This story is based on information from Norm Houghton’s excellent book about the Otways mills and railways- “Sawdust and Steam”. You can buy a copy online here, or read it directly from the shelves of Sea Zen!
2 Images of the piers are courtesy of Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism/ Otway Coast Tourism.
Rex Brown, Sea Zen