Timber has played a major part in Bermagui’s history. Since Bermagui’s first settlers in the 1830s, timber was sourced from local forests, and used for dwelling construction and fences etc. What follows is a brief outline of the development of the timber industry in and around Bermagui.
As the country expanded the demand for timber grew and the local forests were exploited. The local forests contained very durable hardwoods such as Stringybark, Iron bark, Coastal Grey Box and Spotted Gum (Corymbia Maculata). The Spotted Gum was a prized timber as it was suitable for ship and boat construction as well as building material.
By the 1860s several pit sawmills were in operation on the banks of the Bermagui River with the timber predominantly being used for housing construction. The first timber mill commenced in about 1870 on the banks of the river west of the Bermagui Bridge, on the northern bank, at the end of Ginns Street. The logs used in the mill were cut in Bermagui Forest, snigged by horses and bullocks down to the river then rolled onto large barges also known as droughers. They were then floated down to the mill with the tide.
A second mill was set up in Bermagui around 1900 near Beares Beach, and other mills at Cuttagee and Coolagolite soon followed.
The majority of employment in the area was in the timber industry. Most of the labour was performed by hand using axes, crosscut saws, hammers and wedges.
A government wharf was built on the river near the Bermagui mill to allow the sailing ships to load timber and other produce. Several sailing ships were built alongside the mill and wharf to be used in this trade.
By 1890 a larger deep-sea wharf was built on the east side of Horseshoe Bay, known as the Steamer Wharf, allowing steamships that were bigger and faster than the sailing ships to transport timber, produce and stores.
Sawmills continued to operate in the area with the last major mill, Clyde Sawmilling Co. on Carnago/Murrah Street, closing in 1975.
As Sydney expanded in the 1800s railways also expanded across the state. By the 1890s timber sleepers for the railway lines were in huge demand and locally cut sleepers were sent by steamships to Sydney. This created another wave of employment in the area with up to 50 cutters working in the local forests.
A large sleeper “dump” was created on Dickinson Point near the current caravan park and close to the Steamer Wharf. Teamsters of horses and bullocks were used with drays and carts to bring sleepers from the bush to “dump” point until the mid to late 1930s when the first trucks arrived in the area. Up to 5000 sleepers could be stacked on the headland waiting for the next ship to Sydney. In the 1950s swing-saws replaced broadaxes for sleeper cutting.
The wattlebark industry was also operating in the area around the same time. Bark from Acacia Mearnsii (Black Wattle) was being used in the Sydney tanning industry to produce leather. Standing trees had their bark stripped from ground level and pulled up to a high limb with larger trees being felled for the bark.
Bark was then stacked in bundles after drying for a few days, cut into 3 ft lengths and tied into bundles of approximately 35 lb, transported to the Steamer Wharf then shipped to Sydney. In later years, a mill was established in Bermagui to chop up the bark into smaller pieces. It was then placed in bags ready for transport. Another smaller mill also operated at Cuttagee.
The majority of bark came from the edges of local forests, places like Cobargo, Coolagolite, Yowrie, Tilba and the Murrah. Although not quite as flourishing as timber and sleepers in later years the wattlebark industry still provided a steady stream of employment until the 1960s.
The 1930s saw the production of eucalyptus oil in the area. Eucalyptus radiata and elata, or black peppermint trees, were felled and the leaves removed. The leaves were then tightly packed into steel tanks to which water was added. The tanks would then be heated with a wood fire. When the water boiled, the steam passed through the leaves, separating the oil from the plant cells, and carried it over in a vaporous state into a long pipe which acted as a condenser. The oil and water condensed in the pipe and flowed into a suitable receptacle where the oil floated on the surface of the water and was collected.
MINING AND TIMBER
From the late 1950s till around 1990 hardwood props were used in the coal mines around Wollongong and Port Kembla. They were used to shore up the tunnels as the coal was excavated. They varied in size from 1.8 metres in length to 5 metres and from 12 cm to 20 cm thick. Some of the larger and longer pieces were ripped in half lengthwise and were called bars.
They were sourced from all our local forests with most local species accepted. For safety reasons they were only used once in the ground and were pulled out and burnt when each tunnel was finished.
Charcoal was in demand before and during the war years when petrol was in short supply. It was used in “charcoal burners” which were fitted to motor vehicles and other engines and motors which enabled them to run on charcoal instead of petrol but at a reduction in power.
Pits were dug into the ground where logs were rolled in and then set alight. When they were well alight, the pits were covered over with sheets of tin then covered with dirt. The fire was choked out leaving behind the charcoal which, when cooled down, was placed in bags and sent to Sydney.
FORESTRY COMMISSION OF N.S.W.
As the timber industry started to grow across the state, the N.S.W. Government grew concerned about the overall wastage and destruction taking place in our forests. In the 1870s forest reserves were declared and a Forestry Branch was established.
In 1916 “The Forestry Act” was passed and “The Forestry Commission of N.S.W.” Department was established. Soon afterwards the forested areas of the state not occupied were dedicated into different state forests [some had previously been dedicated] under the Forestry Branch. Bermagui and Murrah State Forests were dedicated in 1914 and Mumbulla and Tanja in 1917.
From that time on people were employed by the Forestry Commission in our local forests and depots were established in Tanja and Bermagui state forests.
A small one man office operated in Bermagui from the 1930s until a new larger office was built in the late 1940s to accommodate more staff. Prior to its closure in the early 1970s, upwards of 30 people were employed annually from it.
Up until the late 1990s a few people still worked in our local forests cutting poles, girders, fence posts and firewood. Since then machinery has largely replaced manual labour. The forests are thinned every 10 to 20 years for a wide range of products.
From the early days of settlement in Bermagui and the surrounding district, timber has played a major part in the existence and survival of the town.
It has been a long time since the sound of sawmills has been heard in Bermagui, something once common decades ago. If you walk in the local forests surrounding Bermagui today, instead of the sound of axes, saws, hammer and wedges, bullock and horse teams you might hear from a distance the sound of a passing car, the call of birds and the murmur of the ocean.