DRAY TRAIL TO PROSPERITY

Introduction

Nelligen's varied and colourful history is well recorded. Stories of its gold rush days and its famous corn trail provide fascinating reading. The late Dennis Moore, local explorer and tour operator, used his journalist's and wanderer's background to document the history of Nelligen's modern day transport connection to the west.



Dray Trail to Prosperity

In 1853 an overseer and workmen began construction of a steep and tortuous wagon trail to cross the mountain now known as the Clyde.
107 years later, an engineer, overseer, specialised tradesmen and labourers commenced construction of a prestressed concrete bridge across the Clyde River in 1960.
Beside the river, and sheltered by the mountain, nestles a unique and enchanting historical hamlet. This is Nelligen and the two engineering projects nurtured her first and last periods of industrial boom. In between were wild years of coal dust, trail dust, saw dust and gold dust, with fortune seeking prospectors, hard working, hard swearing and hard drinking teamsters, timber cutters and sailors from the visiting steamers.
Nelligen's main burst of glorious, though rapid and short lived development was thrust upon her by landowners and citizens of Braidwood, a town to the west of the intervening mountain barrier.
It began with a petition, despatched from Braidwood in March 1852 and carrying twenty six signatures, to the Surveyor General, Sir Thomas Mitchell. It read:

We, the undersigned landholders, and inhabitants of the District of Braidwood, have the honour to request that instruction may be given to the District Surveyor, S. Larmer, Esq., to examine and report upon the practicability of constructing a road from this place to the navigable part of the Clyde River. From such local information as we are already in possession of, we have every reason to believe that the formation of a road from Braidwood to the point above mentioned might be accomplished without encountering any great or insurmountable difficulty.
The pecular capabilities of this district as a grain growing country, and the greatly increased importance which it is now acquiring from the almost daily discovery of new auriferous deposits, render the construction of a road to the coast an object not only of local but of general importance, and we, therefore, beg to invite your attention to the request herein contained.


In 1827 Surveyor Robert Hoddle had dismissed the feasability of a wagon trail between Braidwood and the Clyde River, but new gold strikes must have given weight to the petition. By the end of June 1852, the Governor General had approved the acceptance by the Surveyor General of a tender from Mr John T. Mann for surveying the proposed road.
Surveyor Mann encountered delays which he blamed on the difficulty in hiring men, despite the highest rate of wages and rations. No doubt the attraction of numerous gold strikes was the cause and Mann almost lost his contract.
On 12 February 1853, the Colonial Secretary, W. Elyard, wrote to the Acting Deputy Surveyor General, informing him that he was:

... directed by his Excellency the Governor General to observe, that if another licensed surveyor were appointed, he might not find the same difficulty in carrying out this object.


However, on 15 June 1853, the Surveyor General forwarded his completed plan with a book of reference and a report to the Colonial Secretary.
In his report John Mann recorded no problems for the first thirteen or fourteen miles from Braidwood to Monga Flat. The road still passes through this flat which is the last cleared land before ascending from the western side to the highest point of the crossing. From Monga Flat, Mann reported horse tracks branching off to Buckenbar and Currowan.
Baker's Australian Atlas records a trail which followed Buckenboura Creek from Boliero to Monca. This is the 'Corn Trail' restored in the late 1980s as a Bicentennial Project. Peter Mass, a key figure involved in the restoration, describes the trail as having no gradients which could not easily be handled by a pack horse.
Surveyor John Mann's description of the other horse trail to Currowan is most vivid, and is included in his continuing report.

From the eastern side of this range projects a narrow spur, at a lower elevation than the range and about one half mile in length, having a round Stony Hill about half way and terminating in a remarkable hill generally known as the "Sugar Loaf". The principal difficulty anticipated was to get from the top of this range to the foot of Sugar Loaf, from whence a narrow ridge, bounded on both sides by deep gullies, leads down to Currowan Creek, a tributary of the Clyde.
The northern side of this spur and Sugar Loaf is extremely steep, rocky and precipitous, and the southern side little less so. The horse track at present, after keeping along the range for a short distance in a northerly direction, descends, in an almost perpendicular manner, to the head of a deep gully, and follows an almost impassable course to the foot of the Sugar Loaf at the top of the leading ridge afore-said.


Mann described his own route, using side cuts, to the top of the leading ridge below Sugar Loaf.

It is here that the principal difficulty and labour will be required, but if the cuttings and sidelings be properly performed, I can see no serious obstacle to a dray road being made.


Currowan settlement, at the junction of Currowan Creek with the Clyde, had also been suggested as the likely shipping terminal. John Mann did not agree.

By referring to the map, the advantage will at once be seen of making the road terminate at Nelligen, it being the nearest point to Batemans Bay for a dray to get to; and from conversations I have had with parties trading to this river, I have been informed that it often takes as many as four tides to take a vessel to Currowan, and then only in the event of the wind being mild.


John Mann's estimate of the cost of construction of the road amounted to 5,000 pounds and on 10 September 1853 the Colonial Secretary advised the Acting Deputy Surveyor General that the Governor General had approved expenses of the road's formation being borne by Territorial Revenue. Further advice, on 28 October was that Mr W.H.L. Green had been appointed as construction superintendent. The main base camp was established at Nelligen, and when equipment arrived by steamship Superintendent Green set out clearing the route surveyed by John Mann towards the crossing of Sugarloaf Mountain.



Nelligen, surrounded by eucalypt forests, was built of timber. Just a few of the old cottages, like this one, survived the 1939 bush fires.


By March 1854, four miles towards the mountain had been made passable, and Green travelled to Sydney in search of labour.
Before the end of February 1854, there was consternation in Braidwood over the commencement of the roadworks at Nelligen rather than on the difficult section at Sugarloaf Mountain. A letter to the Colonial Secretary from Charles Nicholson, Robert Maddrell and Hugh Gordon expressed the fear that the allocated funds would be exhausted before the range had been crossed.
Still working with only about twenty men, Green had completed six and a half miles of road by July 1854, and advanced his camp by a further two miles.
Thomas Mitchell supported the commmencement of construction from the Clyde River end in a report to the Colonial Secretary dated 12 July 1854. Progress slowly continued in 1855 and a report from Thomas Mitchell on 6 April indicated that the Sugarloaf remained as formidable and unbeaten as ever:

... The chief difficulty in this line is the Sugar Loaf Mountain, to cross which with a road, as the line has been marked exactly, should not be attempted; and it can only be very judicious side cutting that the Sugar loaf line can be made passable as a road.


The report was critical of Superintendent Green for not applying the principle of side cutting.

The Superintendent, Mr Weber, whom I have now placed in charge of the party left by Mr Green, understands the work to be done to render this line passable across from Braidwood to the Clyde.


Under direction of Mr Weber, and with a greatly increased work force, the side cut across the south east face of the Sugar Loaf began to take shape.
'Greasyback' rock was encountered, and the steeply dipping strata, separated through some joint lines by soft material remained a problem for the next 100 years. During major reconstruction in 1958, a massive slip occurred, closing the road completely for some months including the December and January holiday period.
Drays began to use the road in 1856. In 1858 there were regular express coach and van lines. Nelligen was established as the port for Braidwood, Araluen, Majors Creek, Bungendore and Queanbeyan, and the town's prosperity as a port and teamsters' town was bolstered by a small, developing pastoral industry, gold discoveries and the rich resource of fine hardwoood trees. Thus when extensions took the railway line from Sydney through Goulburn, Tarago, Bungendore, Queanbeyan and Cooma, the loss of inland freight from the coastal steamships did not rob the town of all income.




Nelligen's Roman Catholic Church was opened in 1896. Renovations were commenced but never completed.

But decline was inexorable as the new century rolled by, and was reflected by school enrolments in 1945 of only twelve students at Nelligen school. Construction of the bridge to replace the cable ferries was commenced by E.S. Clemenson and Co. in 1960, and school attendance in 1961 was exceeding forty students. The Steampacket Hotel once again reverberated as voices were raised in friendship, contention or song after healthy pay packets had been opened.
In 1964, Nelligenites celebrated the opening of their bridge as an epic occasion, but with no more E.S. Clemenson pay packets, gatherings in the Steampacket were all too often farewell send-offs. The school was closed in 1969, and the town's population had shrunk to below 200.
Now Nelligen is again growing, slowly and without fuss as retired people and workers who commute to Batemans Bay are attracted by a charm the town has never shed. The passing motorist, flashing across the concrete bridge may miss Nelligen, simply by blinking at the wrong time. But arrival by water at the town is a memorable experience and a main feature of regular passenger ferry excursions operating on the Clyde from Batemans Bay.








The Nelligen Court House was leased for a time, then purchased by the Anglican church after their own church was destroyed in the 1939 bush fires.











Nelligen's original Post Office was replaced by the present building (right), now a guest house, in 1900. The Mechanics Institute Hall was opened in 1903.







(Author's note) All archival material quoted has been collected and is retained on file by the Clyde River & Batemans Bay Historical Society (C/- PO, Batemans Bay 2536, Australia)



Read further interesting historical accounts of our past.
Nelligen gold rush days
The Corn Trail on the Clyde
The Inlet that Eluded Bass






Clyde Coast Links
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