Mitchell’s Ridge Monument, Mount Victoria

Perched atop the escarpment just before the steep descent of Victoria Pass sits a monument. The monument is an obelisk with classical motifs including an acanthus leaf to support the lamp. It is barely visible through the trees but of a night an orange beacon draws the eye, visible through rolling mountain mists.

The engineering accomplishment of Surveyor General Major Thomas Mitchell and his role in the improved crossing of the Blue Mountains is recorded on the monument. The initial dangers of ascending the mountains near Lapstone and the steep descent from Mount Victoria to the Hartley Valley were lessened by Mitchell’s surveying work. Early records recall the dangers of crossing the mountains, with logs tied to wagons and carriages to act as rudimentary brakes.

Mitchell's Ridge Monument

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument

Victoria Pass was opened in 1832, and a century later this monument was unveiled to commemorate at a local level the work of Mitchell, recognised as a great though flawed public engineer. The road was a significant improvement to transport options and early settlement of the western districts.

Mitchell's Ridge Monument

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument

Mitchell arrived in New South Wales as an Assistant Surveyor-General in 1827. Upon the death of John Oxley in 1828, Mitchell become the Surveyor-General. A period of general survey was required to correct and record landholdings and titles. This included the use of tent poles to measure a baseline and hilltops, with all trees bar one removed, used as trigonometric points. I wonder if this was why Mount Victoria was once known as One Tree Hill?

Mitchell remained in the role of Surveyor-General until his death in 1855. Over his decades of service, Mitchell was well-known for his insubordination and regularly clashed with Governors including Darling and Bourke. He led several expeditions in search of inland rivers and seas. South-west explorations revealed ‘Australia Felix’, now known as Victoria. He was known as a glory hunter, seeking fame in a time when explorations leading to new discoveries resulted in recognition. Mitchell is acknowledged as a competent and painstaking surveyor, and he wrote up his travels during periods of extended leave. He invented the boomerang  propellor which was tested by the Royal Navy during one of his periods of leave. Mitchell is also credited with taking part in one of the last public duels in Australia, challenging Sir Stuart Donaldson after Donaldson publicly criticised excessive spending by the Surveyor-General’s Department.

Sunset from Mitchell's Ridge Monument lookout

Sunset from Mitchell’s Ridge Monument lookout

A browse through the entry on Major Mitchell in The Australian National Dictionary shows another side. To Major Mitchell was to pursue a zig-zag course, originally as a method of exploration, to meander, to become lost. It became a verb: to have Major-Mitchelled was a reference to becoming lost on a regular basis. Doing a bit of Major-Mitchelling was a term that become current in the 1870s amongst stockmen to express being lost in the bush, and to indulging in aimless wandering. It was something that the gallant Major Mitchell himself was supposed to have done a good deal.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mitchell remained popular with public until his death: ‘This was no doubt due in part to his well-known and repeated conflicts with governors; in part to his appreciation and fostering of those things peculiarly Australian, from an enlightened preference for convicts in his exploring parties to the retention of Aboriginal place names.’

I’ll do my best to remember Mitchell when I make one of my frequent trips along Victoria Pass.

[Photo: view from Mitchell’s Ridge over Victoria Pass with Hartley Valley in the background]

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A Chance Encounter, A Lasting Legacy: Lennox Bridge, Lapstone

I have passed the sign for Lennox Bridge countless times. I knew it was off the Great Western Highway, past the Blaxland McDonald’s, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. I took a detour recently, winding my way down the Old Bathurst Road. The road continues to narrow and bend until the bridge comes into view.

David Lennox, an experienced bridge builder and stonemason, had migrated to Australia from Scotland in 1832 following the death of his wife. He was spotted by Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell as Lennox was working on a stone wall in Sydney. Following the chance encounter, Mitchell noted that”Mr David Lennox, who left his stone wall at my request, and with his sleeves still tucked up” had agreed to plan and construct stone bridges as required using government – convict – labour.

Mitchell placed importance on the design of well-constructed bridges as a sign of civilised society and had been despairing over the lack of skilled tradespeople to carry out the bridgework required in the colony. Mitchell’s mountain road, formed between Cox’s original road and a zig-zag road that had been constructed in 1824 to offer an alternate road in an attempt to ease the mountain crossing, required a significant bridge at Lapstone. The road became known as Mitchell’s Pass.

Lennox Bridge was built between November 1832 and July 1833 as part of Mitchell’s Pass. Lennox had to teach the stonemason’s art to the work crew of 20 convicts. The stone for the bridge was quarried from nearby and the horseshoe shape was chosen for optimum strength. There is an early painting of the bridge by Conrad Martens here. It was the first scientifically constructed stone arch bridge of any magnitude in New South Wales, and is the oldest stone bridge on the mainland. Richmond Bridge in Tasmania, completed in 1825, is the oldest bridge in Australia in continuous use.

Shortly after the bridge was opened, a crack was spotted. Lennox inspected the damage and advised that it wasn’t serious and the bridge continued to carry all traffic westwards until 1926 when a new deviation was built along an abandoned railway line. The bridge was finally closed to traffic in 1964 when a serious crack appeared. Following repairs and restrengthening it was reopened to local traffic in 1982. It had been dismantled and rebuilt, stripped back to its original arch.

Lennox was appointed as Sub Inspector of Bridges in New South Wales a mere seven weeks after his arrival in the colony. His annual salary was £120 ‘but without any forage for a horse’. He went on to build various bridges in New South Wales and Port Phillip, near Melbourne. The legacy that he left still endures today.

There is a short video here showing the bridge from various angles, including from the roadway and the base of the bridge.

[Photo: Lennox Bridge, Lapstone]

A Different Track

The journey from Sydney to the Blue Mountains by rail is a well-travelled one, particularly for the people who commute each work day to the city. Depending on where you start and finish, it can be quite a lengthy journey through the mountains and the ever-extending suburbs of Sydney.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I embarked from Central Station on the Indian Pacific. The Indian Pacific leaves every Wednesday, heading to Perth via Broken Hill and Adelaide. My journey took me to Adelaide in 24 hours.

I could quite easily rave about the train and the trip as it was extraordinary in many ways. Once I got over the excitement of getting onboard, patiently waiting whilst the two sections of the train were coupled together (it is too long for a single platform with 2 locomotives and 27 carriages on my trip), I settled back to watch the Sydney suburbs slip by before we began the slow climb up the mountains.

The gradual ascent was felt physically through the train – you could feel the engines at work, and I sat by the window entranced as it curved around the bends. There were sandstone segments as we approached Lapstone, moments of darkness through tunnels before bursting out amongst an ocean of trees. At Warrimoo there were houses tucked into gullies. Then a glimpse of a sandstone cottage built in 1867 near Springwood. Passing by the Corridor of Oaks at Faulconbridge, then scorched tree trunks came into view. There were vistas towards Sydney or acres of wilderness, depending on the turn of the track.

It was interesting to see what was familiar from a different angle, a higher viewpoint. I spotted some lovely character cottages near Hazelbrook, then we were running alongside the Great Western Highway and the shops and pub at Lawson sped into view. Little ferns poking out of stone walls, a kid practising discus near Wentworth Falls. As we approached Leura I saw the last lingering remnants of autumn colour and the beautiful sandstone cliffs in the distance. Then Katoomba, the soft glowing lights of guest houses, welcoming weary travellers. Tree branches slapping the side of the train, then the Hydro Majestic, lit up amongst the darkening shadows. Towards Blackheath, the depths and folds of the valleys in the last light, through Mount Victoria, last light over the Hartley valley.

Have you taken a different track on a well-travelled road?

[Photo taken near Emu Plains before the climb up the mountains]