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Connections into landscape and a new industry

When the railway line reached Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls) in 1867, then Mount Victoria in 1868 and Bowenfels (near Lithgow) in 1870, it ushered in a new era for colonial use of the Blue Mountains.

Up until that time the Blue Mountains were generally regarded as an awkward barrier between Sydney and the western districts, involving a harsh and uncomfortable passage over inhospitable terrain, short on grass and water for horses and bullocks and civilised comforts for the humans.

It was not a place to linger, even though some early writers were appreciative of the plant life and the landscape’s natural beauty (others emphasised the harshness and discomforts).

Stayovers were usually kept to a minimum, with groups on horses typically overnighting only once on the mountains between Emu Ford and Hartley, at either Weatherboard or Blackheath. Carriages took longer, and also treated passengers to a brutal experience.

The first tracks for enjoyment

Probably the first tracks made for the purpose of exploring the Blue Mountains landscape were from the Weatherboard Inn to Wentworth Falls and from Gardner’s Inn at Blackheath to Govetts Leap.

The history of these tracks is poorly known, but they were the only Blue Mountains excursions mentioned in the Post Office Directory of 1832. Charles Darwin carried the 1835 edition of the Directory when in 1836 he walked both tracks while on a journey across the mountains. Darwin’s walks gave rise to some well-known statements about the Blue Mountains landscape.

The next known walking track to be constructed was to Prince’s Rock above the Weatherboard Falls (now Wentworth Falls). It was organised by Colonial Secretary Henry Parkes for the visit of Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred in 1868.

After the Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1861, and in the face of land being opened up for purchase along the new railway, in 1870 Parkes organised a 650 hectare ‘reserve’ in the area – this was the first of many such reserves and can be regarded as one of the beginnings of the subsequent movement to protect large areas in national parks.

Gentlemen’s mountain retreats

In 1868 the railway brought comfortable and regular transport to the Blue Mountains. Wealthy gentleman of Sydney became encouraged to build luxurious residences and holiday retreats.

This was at a time when ‘mountain air’ was considered healthy and cities like Sydney were badly polluted. The mountains offered a cooler alternative to hot summers of the lowlands. It also became fashionable for these wealthy residents to build tracks into the bushland, especially to waterfalls.

Alfred Fairfax purchased ‘Buss’s Inn’ in the same year the railway was completed to Weatherboard. Although the inn initially followed its former use, Fairfax later used it as a residence. Only a year after the railway opened, Fairfax secured his own platform opposite Woodford House (as it was known by then) in 1869.

Private track-building

It was probably during the 1870s that Fairfax constructed a loop walking track extending northwards into the bushland from Woodford House. It was definitely in existence by 1882 when it appeared in Russell’s Guide.

track map

The track began on the elongated portion of private land containing Woodford House, but extended a long way into the vacant Crown land beyond.

It went via Mabel and Edith Falls (named after Fairfax’s daughters) and followed down Woodford Creek via Gemini and other falls to the junction with Bulls Creek then back along Bulls Creek, making a circuit of some 8 kilometres and later referred to as the Waterfall Loop.

A ‘swimming pool’ was constructed at Mabel Falls. Fairfax’s residence, railway platform and track-building were amongst the first of this trend (the exact construction dates of these tracks are presently unrecorded).

Other wealthy people followed the same pattern. In 1879 Henry Parkes built a house he named Faulconbridge, and James Martin (Premier of NSW) did the same with Numantia nearby. Over the next five years they both built track networks from these properties.

Others who undertook similar developments in the late 1800s included James Neale at Katoomba, William Piddington at Mt Victoria, Frederick Darley at Echo Point, Norman Lindsay at Faulconbridge and William Eager at Valley Heights. Some of these also acquired their own railway platforms. Most of the houses were new constructions, but Fairfax and Eager purchased existing inns. Fairfax’s Waterfall Loop was the longest track of them all. Fairfax was a friend of Parkes and many of these men knew each other through social and political connections.

The beginnings of tourism

This phase of private track development can be seen as the beginnings of the nascent Blue Mountains tourism industry, and it corresponded with a period when many small ‘reserves’ were created to protect mountain beauty spots from alienation.

Over the same period many of the grand guesthouses (and residences that became guesthouses) of the mountains were being built (eg. Imperial 1878, Carrington 1883, Lilianfels 1889, Hydro Majestic 1903). Alfred Fairfax and Woodford played an important role in this historic development.

The fate of the Fairfax tracks

Many of the private track systems from the late 1800s have disappeared under development following the alienation and subdivision of land, or have been destroyed by roads and fire trails. Some still exist in disconnected fragments.

Much of the Woodford Waterfall Loop along Woodford and Bulls creeks was flooded under Woodford Dam (in 1928) and subsequent dam height extensions. It is unknown whether any traces of the track remain in the upper, unflooded, reaches of the creeks.

A section of the track to Mabel, Hazel and Edith Falls survives on what is now Waterhouse Park (BMCC) and Blue Mountains National Park, but the connection to Woodford Academy has been lost under suburban development.

The area containing the three falls was gazetted as Waterhouse Park in 1917, and the park was enlarged in 1930 when the Waterhouse family donated 40 acres to Blue Mountains Shire. At some point the loop to Hazel (Fairy) Falls was added, as it first appeared on a map in 1938.

In the 1950s fire trails were constructed that cut across and damaged various sections of track. In 1980 the Water Board took control of the Woodford Dam catchment, including the tracks, from Blue Mountains City Council and it was proclaimed a Special Area in 1991. In the 1990s the Water Board dismantled the historic ‘swimming pool’ at Mabel Falls (often incorrectly referred to as being of ‘convict’ origin).

An interesting recent event was the establishment of the ‘Transit of Venus’ track. This section of the original falls loop track was restored in 1991 by the Water Board, with some financial assistance from the Blue Mountains Conservation Society. The Society also suggested naming the track Transit of Venus and this was adopted.

The Woodford Special Area, including Edith and Hazel Falls and the northern part of the tracks leading to them, was transferred to Blue Mountains National Park some time after 2001.

text: Ian Brown