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Learn about the History of Uriarra
Meaning of Urayarra (Uriarra)
Uriarra is derived from the Aboriginal word Urayarra. Ura means ‘feast’ and Yarra means ‘running’ when put together it means ‘Running to the Feast.’ Rather than the region being called Urayarra, it is a name for a large flat rock that would be heated and have Bogong Moth Larve cooked on it, Aboriginal people from far and wide came together for a feast at Urayarra. This large flat rock still exists at Uriarra Station today.
The region where Uriarra Village is now situated has been inhabited by Indigenous Australians for over 20,000 years. There have been various artifacts found in the region as well as cave paintings reported to be near the river.
By the mid-1820s Europeans and their stock were
established on the land now occupied by the ACT. Some were squatters but the
1828 census provides evidence of a number of authorised settlers. The most significant early settlers in relation to the Uriarra story were the Webb and McDonald, families. They were joined by others – particularly after the Robertson land act of 1861 allowed ‘squatters’ to settle on parcels of unoccupied land before it was surveyed. But the land was closely held. The small number of families who raised sheep and cattle and engaged in agriculture in the area now the ACT, intermarried and occupied vast areas of land. At various times during the 19th century, the McDonalds and Webbs held most of the territory west of the Murrumbidgee River including land at Tharwa, Tidbinbilly Run, Urayarra Run and Fairlight Station. The Webbs still own Fairlight Station on Mountain Creek Road but the McDonalds sold Uriarra Station on Brindabella Road.
Life in Early Uriarra
Church services had been held at Uriarra since the 1860s, originally in the drawing-room of the McDonald’s homestead but sometimes at Fairlight Station. In 1895 John McDonald built a 'building for Divine Service’ near the Uriarra woolshed. A post office was opened in 1878 and a mailman was appointed to carry the mail once a week between Queanbeyan and Uriarra. A school was opened in 1896. Education was available from time to time at Uriarra but was not constant. Eventually, the school was relocated to the Uriarra Forestry Camp in 1937. Uriarra had its own polling station and returning officer. A telephone line was opened in 1908. A lively social life was developed encompassing dances, hare hunts, fox drives and other gun sports and tennis (Fairlight Station still has a tennis court). Church services were followed by hearty suppers and could be attended by 40 families.
In addition to large scale pastoral and agricultural activities, enjoyed some success as a mining district. Gold was found in 1860 in the Brindabella mountains but not mined until the 1880s. In 1887 the Brindabella Gold Mining Company was formed. Mining continued until 1910.
There was also the beginning of the forestry industry. In 1860 a punt service (with a rope to pull the punt across the river) was established at the junction of the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee rivers - not far from the site of the current Uriarra Crossing. The crossing was dangerous and there were drownings and near-drownings. That punt was replaced in August 1890 by a new punt called The Teetotaller. Just one week after its launch the new punt capsized while carrying 50 sheep across the river. Nineteen of the sheep drowned. Just over a year later, the flooded Murrumbidgee claimed the punt itself and it had to be replaced. Punt travel was less than satisfactory. Makeshift bridges had been built across the river but they were dangerous and temporary. A community meeting held at Uriarra in 1898 decided that a
proper bridge at Uriarra crossing was the answer. After the completion of a bridge in August 1901, the bridge was destroyed during a great flood on 27 July 1922. The bridge at Cottermouth near the Cotter pumping station was also damaged in the flood and not properly restored until October 1924 when it was lengthened. The Federal Capital Commission introduced a ferry service but this was soon terminated as the cost of £250 per year was too expensive for the number of people travelling. The question of restoring the Uriarra bridge was delayed and the option of building a road from Uriarra Station via Mt McDonald and the Cotter pumping station was approved. The Cotter bridge option was inconvenient for traffic moving to Ginninderra and Yass. This option made the trip to Canberra 14 miles longer than the Uriarra bridge route and many people travelled to Yass instead of Canberra.
Establishing the Foresty Settlement
Pine plantations were established in the ACT in the early twentieth century, the earliest
being those at Stromlo, dating from 1914 and initiated by Charles Weston. The early plantations were established for aesthetic purposes for the Territory, although this quickly became a commercial venture. Better transport links allowed the development of the forestry industry. There had been some forestry activity in the late 19th century and early 20th century but the decision to build the national capital in the district resulted in an urgent need for timber for building. Forests were established in the Uriarra and Pierces Creek area before the villages were built to accommodate the workers. There was a forestry camp a few km from the present site of Uriarra Village from as early as 1913. Like most things in the establishment of Canberra, activity was severely interrupted by the First World War. The first plantings in what became Uriarra Forest were in 1926. Uriarra Village was established in 1928 to provide housing,
established at Pierces Creek, closer to the Cotter River. The poor state of transport to Canberra made it a community and other facilities for the forestry industry and its employees. Another village was necessary to have workers on site and to provide a fairly self-contained village for their accommodation. Progress was slow. Uriarra Forestry Village began with only two houses. By the 1930s there were six houses (supplemented by a teacher’s house when the Uriarra school was relocated to the village in 1937). Housing was supplemented after World War II when some of the huts from the Blue Range settlement were relocated.
Early Uriarra Village
The first head forester was Jim Bradley (1885–1963). Jim’s daughter Joan (now Rodde) now lives in Queanbeyan. The following account of the earliest days at the forestry village is largely based on Joan’s memories. By the 1930s there were six houses for the forestry workers and a small hut for the school teacher. There was only one road leading into the settlement – roughly along the route of the central part of Jim Bradley Crescent where there are now no houses. The overseer’s house was at the end of the road. Joan remembers the Bradley house as being very comfortable. It was built of corrugated iron but lined with timber. A wide verandah enveloped the house. The task of building the Uriarra forest was a huge one but Jim also had 620 acres of land up near Two Sticks Road, on which he raised cattle. He still found the time to go into town (Queanbeyan), often taking the children for an outing in the truck, on Saturdays. Within a few years of the establishment of the forest, the country was in the grip of the great depression. In an early work for the dole scheme, up to 20 men would arrive on the back of a truck to do a week’s work in the forest. They camped out on the area now occupied by the tennis courts. While no doubt the extra labour was welcomed, it was probably more work than it was worth for Jim Bradley, who had each group of men for only one week. Tragedy struck in 1939 when a bushfire raged through the pine forest which had been painstakingly nurtured by the foresters. By then there were six houses in the village. All these plus the schoolhouse were saved but most of the now mature forest was lost. Despite the two roads connecting Uriarra with Canberra, and the two bridges, the transport was still a barrier and the village was, by necessity, fairly self-contained. After the Second World War, the housing stock at Uriarra was supplemented by the transfer of several huts from Blue Range Park, when its use as a forestry settlement employing Italian ‘enemy aliens’ was no longer necessary. With increased housing, the population also grew and the Uriarra workers and their families developed a lively social life, apparently independent of that of the landowners in the area. There was a community centre on land in front of the current school bus shelter which was the site of community dances and film nights. The community centre had fallen into disrepair before the fires but there are still some old Canberra bricks lying around on the site. In a story published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 May 2008, Louis Milkovits, the CEO of the building company AV Jennings, described Uriarra Village during his childhood. He had been born in Germany, the eldest son of Hungarian World War II refugees who came to Uriarra to work in the forestry industry. His neighbours were Spanish, Italian, Finnish and British immigrants and he described his life in the village as ‘cheerful, multicultural and cold’. He continued – ‘everyone spoke different languages, we ate Italian food and sang Spanish love songs... The only thing with growing up in Uriarra that I figured out later in life that it didn’t snow everywhere in Australia every winter’. Another early resident of the village was Bill Bates. His reminiscences of life at Uriarra were published in the Canberra Times on 22 January 2012: In September 1947, as an eager 14-year-old teenager beginning his life-long career in forestry, Bill Bates remembers Uriarra as a pretty dull place with no electricity or water. ‘You had to grin and bear the cold, we only had open fires’ the now-retired Mr Bates said. He began at the bottom of the industry, cutting down trees with a cross-cut saw, cutting them into lengths and loading them into trucks. He worked his way through the ranks until being put in charge of a workforce of 70. Uriarra’s remoteness grew on him. In 1954 he brought his new wife, Val, to the village, where they raisedtwo sons and a daughter. Electricity and running water arrived, although it was still a rugged existence, with bushfires in summer and snow so heavy in the 1960s and 1970s the men stayed at the depot for days doing maintenance and occasionally enduring unexpected deaths on the roads and in logging accidents. Yet village life was special. In winter they would plant between 600 to 800 pines a day. Baking hot summers brought black and brown snakes lurking around homes. A worker counting survival pines near Blundells Farm was rushed to hospital after being bitten.
The period from the early 1980s until after the decision to re-develop the village following the 2003 bush fires, can be categorised as a struggle for the very survival of the village. Forestry no longer acknowledged a need to provide accommodation for its diminishing work force and no longer wanted the financial and other costs of running the village. Because the village was located in an area of mountains and bushland and subject to the Plantation Forestry Policy under the Territory Plan, it was not possible for residents to purchase the cottages from Forestry even if they had the means to do so. In 1984 an agreement was reached which saw what is now Housing ACT take over responsibility for the twenty-two habitable houses in the village. Links with the forestry industry were not immediately cut. Many residents continued to work for Forestry and indeed, most of the current residents who lived in the village before the 2003 fires had either been forestry workers or were related to those who had been. The 1984 arrangement did not bring lasting security for residents. The residents were not alone in their concerns. The future of the settlements at Pierces Creek and Uriarra became of increasing concern for the ACT Government. In 1997 there was an inquiry into the future of the settlement. The residents prepared a proposal urging the Government to create a village out of the former forestry settlement. In May1999 the ACT Government announced that residents would be relocated to
other government houses in Canberra. There was an outcry from residents and former residents and the decision was overturned the following month. This prompted further detailed consideration of the future of the rural villages. In November 2000 residents proposed an amendment to the National Capital Plan (later, amendment no. 34). This proposal was set aside temporarily at the request of the ACT Government and consequently it was not implemented before the fires. The amendment altered the land use policy from mountains and bushland to rural thereby allowing the ACT Government to consider options for residential settlement. In just over two years time, all but six of the 22 habitable houses had been destroyed by the 2003 bushfires. The fight to retain the settlement had to re-commence.
2003 Bushfires & Beyond
The bush fires which swept down through the Brindabellas towards Canberra up to and on 18 January 2003 destroyed most of Uriarra Village (only six of the 22 habitable houses survived and one condemned house survived) and Pierces Creek settlement (one of its 13 houses survived). Thanks to heroic efforts by Uriarra residents the 1937 school and its replacement, the 1969 school buildings were saved. 11,000 hectares of plantation forestry were destroyed as well as 110,000 hectares of nature reserves and national parks. On 12 January 2008, five years after the fires, the Canberra Times published a story about one of the Uriarra residents who chose not to return to Uriarra. Paul Tobin described the horrors of the 2003 firestorm: ‘I found that day really changed me. It gave me a different outlook on life. We were up there by ourselves and we didn’t have any fire fighting equipment as such, and we were fighting for our lives and that changed me forever'. Mr Tobin chose to move to the redeveloped Stromlo Village rather than return to Uriarra where he would be reminded of the trauma. While most of the housing was lost, a range of infrastructure and facilities survived. These included the sewage treatment ponds, the Bendora Dam water supply, the roads, sports oval, playground, tennis courts and both school buildings.
After the Fires
Despite the devastation, the residents of Uriarra were not about to give up the fight for survival which had marked the village’s history for almost two decades. The then Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, announced a ‘Major new study into non-urban bushfire affected areas’. The date of the media release was 19 February 2003, just one month and one day after the fire that destroyed most of Uriarra village. A working party chaired by Sandy Hollway was established to advise the ACT Government on the future use of non-urban land in the Territory. Uriarra and other rural parts of the ACT became subject to scrutiny and analysis like never before. Reports proliferated. In November 2003, the ACT Government completed the report “Shaping Our Territory” which recommended that Uriarra village be re-established with an increased number of dwellings allowing the former residents to return.
It was difficult to satisfy all interested parties. The ACT Government wanted a sustainable redevelopment which would not impact on the finances of the Territory. The Government considered that it could not be cost-effective to develop a village of only 23 houses. The NCA did not support the creation of a new rural village without a detailed planning study. It supported some arrangement for Uriarra but not for Pierces Creek, but it favoured a much smaller Uriarra village than the one the ACT Government thought was sustainable. The existing and former residents wanted the restoration of what they had lost. The local landowners were against at the idea of an expanded village. It took until 2007 to settle the details of redevelopment. Pierces Creek would not be rebuilt. Stromlo Village would be rebuilt with a total of 40 homes – the 19 owned by ACT Housing before the fires and 21 new private homes. Uriarra would be greatly expanded with 23 government homes and 77 private ones. The Village Building Company won the contract to rebuild Stromlo and Uriarra villages. Details of the contract between the Village Building Company and the ACT Government do not appear to be on the public record. Residents have been told the details are ‘commercial in confidence’.
Putting Uriarra on the Map
Most people who purchased land and built homes at Uriarra had no idea that the village had not been gazetted. This only became apparent when, on 20 September 2011 all residents received a letter from Australia Post telling them their correct address was their street address, Coree. The Post Office did not recognise any such place as Uriarra. Until then residents had considered the fact that the village was not on maps or GPS systems as evidence of how slow such services were at incorporating the ‘new’ village on records and systems. The lack of an official existence was an inconvenience which was expected to right itself in time. It was clear that this would not happen without action by residents. At the next executive committee meeting (18 October 2011) members of the committee and numerous other residents present expressed the unanimous view that Uriarra Village should be gazetted as a Division within the District of Coree. Many other residents who were unable to attend the meeting sent e-mails strongly supporting the request. Accordingly, the body corporate manager wrote to the Minister, Simon Corbell MLA. He responded on 16 November 2011 explaining the consultations which would be required before the gazettal could be finalised. The consultations were completed by February 2012 and the process to change the status of Uriarra from a locality to a division was underway. The disallowable instrument was tabled in early May and the disallowance period ends on 5 June.