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Gold, A Mountain Hospice And Snowfield Heritage In The Victorian Alps

This fourth installment of ski heritage photos takes you back more than 100 years to a time when gold and gold mining brought prospectors and miners into the Victorian Alps. They needed shelter and basic services such as banks, hotels and the mail. Winter journeys were, of necessity, undertaken on skis or snow shoes as shown in Photo 1, which is portion of the 1889 Tom Roberts painting, The Mailman to Omeo (Snow Shoes). The mailman in Photo 1 has just departed from the Hospice at Mount St. Bernard and is heading towards Omeo via Mount Hotham, but more about that shortly. This fourth installment also looks at ski exploration in the Victorian Alps in the 1920's and summarises two ski trips "Across the Bogongs" in Victoria, first described in Ski Year Books by Mr. W.F. Waters of the Ski Club of Victoria. 

AAC 4-2 Mining Machinery Scan0078Alluvial gold was discovered in the Livingstone Creek, near Omeo, in 1852 and the population of Omeo had exceeded 300 persons by 1857. Gold was also discovered on the Dargo High Plains at Grant and Crooked River. By 1861 there were 466 persons on the Dargo High Plains diggings and 387 at Omeo and Swifts Creek. As the Ovens River Valley and Beechworth were important goldfields with good links to Melbourne, bridle tracks were quickly cut to link Harrietville in the Ovens Valley with Omeo and the Dargo High Plains. The track junction was at Mount St. Bernard (1540m altitude) and its location is shown in the locality plan presented as Photo 9. A hospice was built there in 1863/64 with log walls and shingle roof. It was run by 'Mother' Morrell and 'Sailor Bill' Boustead and provided food and overnight shelter to travellers. A flock of European mountain goats provided meat and milk, whilst vegetables were grown at Mount St. Bernard to augment the wheat and wine brought in by pack-horse from Harrietville.

Access beyond the Hospice was difficult to impossible between the months of May to November, depending on weather and snow conditions. The tendency for ice to develop on CRB Hill, Mount Blowhard and other exposed slopes, lead to the local development of snow shoes suited to the harsh conditions. They were oblong, being about 37cm long and about 17cm wide. "They were made of pine, two pieces on edge, and three cross pieces mortised in, the whole being covered with light sheet-tin or zinc, to stop the snow from sticking." (R.J.Tobias, long-term Harrietville resident, in the SCV 1926/27 Yearbook).

Quartz reef mining had supplanted alluvial mining in the Omeo District by 1882 and heavy machinery was needed to crush the quartz and release the gold. Such machinery could not be moved along bridle tracks – roads were needed (Photo 2). The bridle track to Omeo was reconstructed and the first buggy crossed from Harrietville to Omeo, using the new road, in April 1883.

AAC 4-3 Hospice StBern Fair Scan0077A second building was constructed at the Hospice to accommodate the increased numbers of road users (Photo 3). The building on the left is the original 1860's building and the larger building was first occupied in 1884. The fences around the various vegetable plots and goat paddocks can be seen and the flock of goats is visible in Photo 4.AAC 4-4 Goats 2 Hospice pre 1934 Scan0015