Local heritage up in smoke

Local heritage up in smoke

Adding a new chapter to the region’s history books, the widespread bushfires of January 2020 have seen a number of historic landmarks damaged or destroyed.

Among the destruction was a section of the historic Wairewa Railway Bridge, the fires leaving about two-thirds of the bridge still standing, including the section that straddles the Wairewa Road.

The huge wooden trestle bridge, also known as O’Grady’s Bridge, is an important heritage feature of this region, and also an important asset for the East Gippsland Rail Trail.

Secretary of the Orbost and District Historical Society, May Leatch, asks, “What future does it have?”

Ms Leatch is concerned the section that remains might be demolished without a proper structural and heritage assessment.

“The Wairewa district has been hard-hit by fires and it would be a shame to also entirely lose this bridge, which is a landmark of all trips into this beautiful valley,” she said.

“The Wairewa Bridge was assessed in the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) timber bridges study in 1997 as being of state significance. It is also highly valued by the residents of Wairewa and East Gippsland generally, as well as by bridge enthusiasts elsewhere.”

Unfortunately the Wairewa Bridge was not the only heritage listed icon damaged during the recent fires.

Local historian, Carrol Preston, has also been out and about to investigate the damage, finding the Bete Bolong Creek Bridge and the Stringers Knob Fire Spotting Tower both razed entirely.

Constructed in 1930, the Bete Bolong Creek Bridge would have been 90 years old this year. Now, having burned from end to end, its remains lay in the Bete Bolong Creek.

The Bete Bolong Creek Bridge was of historic significance as a traditional Victorian transversedecked timber-beam bridge. Its combination of curving timber deck with transverse-timber decking topped by longitudinal ‘running planks’ was believed to have been unique in Victoria.

Heritage Council Victoria classified it as significant in November 1998.While it was bypassed with a new bridge beside it in 2003, the bridge remained as a historically significant structure until recently.

Stringers Knob Fire Spotting Tower was an experimental single-pole fire detecting tower erected in 1941 following the devastating Black Friday fires of 1939.

Now little more than a pile of ash and twisted metal, Stringers Knob Fire Spotting Tower was constructed of two poles of yellow stringybark and red ironbark bolted together. The wooden observation cabin, measuring 2.5 metres square, was enclosed on all sides, but the top third comprised windows, enabling a 360-degree view of the state forest.

The height and location of the tower enabled unrestricted views of the surrounding forest as far as Marlo, more than 40 kilometres away. The fire spotters were required to spend the week at the tower alone, sleeping in a tin shed at the foot of the tower, and spending the rest of the time in the small wooden cabin atop the pole. Spotters radioed through sightings of suspect smoke. It was a process that continued until the 1960s.

Ms Preston said the Stringers Knob Fire Spotting Tower loss is particularly heartbreaking for many.

“It was such a unique structure,” she said.

“We used to go up there a lot as teenagers, I’m not exactly sure why, but we’d climb the tower. Well, us girls would stay at the bottom and the men would climb it and wave their undies at us from the top.”

As tragic as the damage and losses are, Ms Preston said she hoped lessons had been learned from the destruction.

“Que sera sera,” she said.

“You can’t wind back the clock and do things differently. Once it’s done it’s done. It is a tragedy that these pieces of history have been damaged or lost completely. The Nowa Nowa Fire Tower was also lost. The Mount Raymond one was lost in 1980. They’re just casualties of fire.

“These historic structures should be protected at the start of a fire threat, if not at the start of the fire season. I understand that applying fire retardant saved the Stony Creek Trestle Bridge. Same with McKillops Bridge.

“We’re lucky we didn’t lose all of the Wairewa Bridge. It would be nice now to have it shored up and not have the rest demolished. Perhaps have a monument to the casualty of fire installed.”

Ms Leatch agrees it would be disappointing if what is left of the bridge is destroyed.

“The next step should be to have the structural integrity of what remains properly assessed, along with options for its stabilisation,” she said.

“I am asking for an assurance from Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, who has prime responsibility for the bridge, that this procedure will be followed, along with input from local groups and community members.”

“We can’t rebuild history,” Ms Preston said. “Hopefully we can learn from it.”

IMAGE: A third of the Wairewa Bridge (O’Grady’s Bridge) was destroyed. (PS)