Mid-January 1889: The Death of the Blacksmith Alexander Ross on the Yandyguinula

 I met a neighbor and friend on a shared path a day or so ago. It had been raining heavily and all our stream and river crossings are cut by flood water. Nearby, the great land locked Lake George, dry for a decade, is now full.

My neighbor  confessed that he had, unwisely, chanced a crossing on a motorbike, thinking that the height and relative lack of resistance might work in his favor. He smiled and said that he had not taken into account that a bike is much lighter than a car, and admitted that on the first crossing he was almost swept away, and on the return journey the bike stalled part way across, and he had a desperate struggle to save both himself and the bike. 

He mentioned that one of the older residents of the valley, Mary Hook, would sometimes speak of hearing the ghost of a man washed off the path a hundred years earlier. I asked if he had heard the full story, and he shook his head. Out here in the bush, stories gradually sink back into the years - sometimes only the most intangible, the calls of a drowning blacksmith, are the only things that remain.

So I told him what I knew of  the death of Alexander Ross on the Yandyguinula Creek, back in 1889. 

The death was found to be accidental - a tag we use when it is inconvenient to attach blame to the causality that led to the death. And here the causes have deep roots.

The First People created permanent walk-ways, the Yuin Trace, from the Eastern coastal areas to the forests bordering on the Tallaganda (the First People's name for the valleys of the upper Shoalhaven River), the high plains of the Molonglo, to the Brindabellas and Tidbinbillas in the West.  For tens of thousands of years, the paths making up the Trace were protected by Law, remembered in Dreamings, described in maps drawn on rock and sand, and kept clear through regular burning and use. There is still magic in these names but the accumulated wisdom of risk is no longer attached to the names. Instead of thousands of years of stories about danger or place and time and season, we have a pitifully small sample of those years within modern memory to guide us.

The paths were later recorded on the silks used by early European surveyors to draw their fine maps, along with the original names of waterways (such as the Yandyguinula) and other features, including vegetation and mountains (the great frozen kadaitcha, Palarang, and her victims - although there is a similar named mountain known from Imperial campaigns).  In the 1850's, the Trace was used to forge paths from Batemans Bay to Braidwood (the Corn Trail) and from Jervis Bay to Braidwood (the old Wool Road). Much of the Trace was early designated as a road reserve, and with some exceptions, remain out of private ownership. Large swaths of mountainous land was also early designated as Floral Reserves and public Shooting Reserves.

Early European settlers used the Trace for travel.  Through the mountains, it was often the only viable path.  The Trace bisects rivers and streams at fords, reasonably safe for crossing save when the waterways were fed by flooding rains. Some of the old folk, now gone to the stars, tell of gully-rakers that burst over single valleys and carried away cattle and sheep before they could move to safety. Cyclonic downpours decimated a nearby settlement a couple of years ago. But years of drought lull us all into putting those memories to one side.

Eventually, gravel and tarred roadways were constructed on the ancient path.  Today, we travel these paths, seeing many of the same vistas as all those who came before us, for tens of thousands of years.

Some of the more wealthy graziers attempted to dissuade public use of these new public roads across their holdings, some corruptly exerting political pressure to install numerous public gates along the road (requiring users to dismount to open and close the gates) and then providing alternative roadways with no gates over land with little farming value (land frequently flooded or across hill tops). Others persuaded authorities to build new roads that benefitted private interests rather than those championed by more practical men, like Mick O’Connell - an inn-keeper relative of the bushrangers - the Clarke brothers. Mick was cruelly persecuted for the sins of the brothers.

In the late 1880’s, public indignation was spurred on by the wealthy owners of Foxlow Station installing five gates across the public road through the property.  When the gates were declared public gates, a petition with 200 names on it protested the change. A local correspondent to the Queanbeyan Age complained: “A daily mail will run shortly, and the mailman has to get down every time, which should not be; besides, it is extremely awkward for those who have spirited horses, as there is now, and likely to be, great traffic from Bungendore to the Flat.”  Public indignation did not secure a better outcome – the public road was so inconvenient to use, it was eventually shut, and an alternative track provided up into the hills to the East.

Large landholders, who provided most taxation revenue for public works, also resisted funding improvements to roads, and especially bridges, which were very expensive and were prone to being washed away.

In mid-January, 1889, heavy summer rain fell in the hills around the old volcano Palerang, swelling the Yandiguinula Creek into a raging river.  The Yuin Trace crossed the Yandiguinula Creek at a number of places, and locals knew to avoid attempting crossing. When in flood, the watercourse can quadruple in size, flowing with great pace, creating swirling eddies and carrying within its water tree branches and other debris.

On the 26th of January, on a Sunday, the young blacksmith Alexander Ross was travelling the road in the company of one of the brothers Sharpe.  Ross was 20 years old and hailed from over the other side of the mountains, past Harold Cross at the top of the range, from the Jerrabatgully.  With no family, Ross had been befriended by Mick O’Connell who we met above - innkeeper, postmaster and one of the last surviving male relatives of the Irish Bushrangers that had roamed through the Braidwood area some 20 years before.   

Without being aware of the danger, he entered the water on his horse, and his horse was immediately swept downstream.  For a while, Ross was able to cling to debris in the centre of the swollen creek, but help in the form of the two White brothers came too late.  They later told the inquest that they thought they might have been able to save him, had they arrived a little earlier.  His body was found a mile and a half down the creek.

The Coronial Inquest was convened at the old stone Victoria Hotel at Hoskingstown. Mr T Parr, esq, rode from Queanbeyan to hear the inquest. The proprietor of the Victoria Hotel, Mrs Walsh, made arrangements for the body and was later thanked for her care by Mick O’Connell. 

At the Inquest, the local jury was in no doubt who was responsible, and wanted to censure government officials for the lack of bridge building.  Mr Parr talked them out of that approach, suggesting instead that the Department of Public Works would look at the question of a bridge more sympathetically.

Reluctantly, the jury found that the drowning was accidental.  After the inquest, Sharpe took the young blacksmith’s body back over the mountains to Majors Creek and burial.  Mick Connell published a brief memorial in the local paper, thanking all those who attended the funeral.  When the dust had settled and the floods subsided, the Department of Works bent to the will of rich local landowners and declared there was no money for a bridge.

I have searched for his final resting place, to pay my respects, and quiet his restless wanderings, to no avail. 


A beautiful sunset to be remembered...

Popular Posts