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.
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 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.
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]