Historic town above the floodplain of the Murrumbidgee River famed for the Dog on the Tuckerbox
Gundagai is a charming, historic medium-sized country town set at the foot of Mount Parnassus above the Murrumbidgee floodplains. It is hard to explain why it has become such an iconic Australian country town but, over the years, its association with the famous folklore image of the Dog on the Tuckerbox and its location in the heart of south-western New South Wales has resulted in a string of vernacular poems - 'On the Road to Gundagai', 'Flash Jack from Gundagai' and, most famously the sentimental song 'Along the Road to Gundagai' which, in 1922, became an international success and the signature tune for the popular radio show 'Dad and Dave'. One explanation is that Five Mile Creek, to the north of town, was a popular meeting place for teamsters, drovers, shearers and bush travellers. It was a natural place for storytelling. Today it is a timeless town. The main street seems to have changed little. There is a certain kind of country sleepiness and its main industries, unchanged since the nineteenth century, are sheep and cattle with a healthy dose of passing trade from people moving between Sydney and Melbourne.
Gundagai is located 377 km south-west of Sydney via the Hume Highway. It is 225 m above sea level.^ TOP
Origin of Name
It has been claimed that 'Gundagai' is a Wiradjuri word taken from the longer word 'gundabandoobingee' which might have meant "to cut with a hand-axe behind the knee" although it is not in A New Wiradjuri Dictionary.^ TOP
Things to See and Do
Frank Rusconi's Marble Masterpiece
Frank Rusconi's Marble Masterpiece is one of those strangely compelling pieces of vernacular art which defies categorisation. It is a unique construction in miniature of an essentially baroque building which mixes elements of a European palace, a town hall, a baroque garden and a city clock tower. What is truly remarkable about this unusual artwork is that it was constructed over a period of 28 years (Rusconi did it all in his spare time) and it uses 20,948 pieces of marble from quarries around New South Wales.
Rusconi used 20 different kinds of marble – five from the Borenore quarries near Orange, 3 each from Coolah, Mudgee and Bathurst, 2 from Galong and single varieties from Gilmore (near Tumut), Kempsey, Gundagai and Rylstone.
This was not the work of an eccentric and obsessive amateur. Rusconi, who was born on the Araluen goldfields in 1874, went to Switzerland when he was 13 and shortly afterwards became an apprentice marble stonemason at Verquinto in Italy. He completed his studies in the famous Swiss watchmaking town of Neuchatel and subsequently worked as a stonemason in France, Italy and England before returning to Australia in 1901 and setting up a marble quarry at Orange which proved a great success, supplying marble to major projects such as Central Railway Station in Sydney.
Rusconi settled in Gundagai in 1905 where he became the local monument maker until his death on 21 May 1964. Between 1910 and 1938 he worked on his 'masterpiece'. Not surprisingly the statistics associated with the 'masterpiece' are astounding. Without working to any pre-determined plan Rusconi cut and shaped 29,959 pieces of marble the smallest of which was only 3 mm square and the largest (one of the columns) was 125 mm high. It has been estimated that during the work he wore out 4,368 fretsaw blades and 180 files. He was so much of a perfectionist that he discarded 9,011 pieces of marble either because they were not the exact shape or they were not the correct colour.
The completed work stands 1120 mm high and is positioned on a base which is 1220 mm by 1450 mm. The 'masterpiece' has a total of 15 doors and the main front door, a work of meticulous skill, comprises 41 inlaid pieces of marble in five different colours. Of particular local interest is the black marble which was mined at Mount Parnassus, the name of the hill which rises behind Gundagai.
Rusconi may have spent most of his working life in Gundagai but, throughout his lifetime, he developed an international reputation as a monument maker of distinction. Monuments he carved include a marble stairway at Westminster Abbey, a monument to the heroes of the 1870 war in France, the altar in the Roman Catholic Church in Tumut and, most famously, the Dog on the Tuckerbox.
Rusconi worked into old age despite the loss of sight in one eye in 1922. When crippling arthritis put an end to his marble work, he made small plaster souvenirs of the Dog on the Tuckerbox for tourists. Rusconi died in 1964 and is buried in the Catholic section of Gundagai cemetery.
It is possible to inspect Rusconi's Marble Masterpiece at the Gundagai Visitor Information Centre, Sheridan Street, Gundagai. It is open from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm daily. Contact (02) 6944 0250 for more information.
Dad and Dave, Mum and Mabel Sculptures
Located in the park opposite the Visitor Centre is a uniquely Australian collection of statues. As the plaque beside the statues explains: "Dad and Dave, Mum and Mabel. The four characters were created by Steele Rudd and became household words throughout Australia with the broadcast of the popular radio serial Dad and Dave. The links to Gundagai were solidly forged when Jack O'Hagan's 'Road to Gundagai was used as the theme for the famous radio serial. The statues were commissioned by the Tout family in 1978 who operated a service station at 5 mile Gundagai opposite the famous Dog on the Tuckerbox monument. The service station was sold to Caltex in 1989. In 2005 Caltex closed and the statues were donated to the Gundagai community."
Walking the length of Sheridan Street
The best way to explore Gundagai is to park your car at the Visitor Information Centre, give yourself an hour, and take a leisurely walk up the main street, Sheridan Street. It contains such gems as the Art Deco theatre (1929), the Family Hotel (1858) which was originally known as Fry's Hotel and used jointly by the local Cobb & Co booking agency and the Commercial Bank. There is also the National Bank which was originally the CBC Bank and dates from 1877. The Sheridan Street highlights include:
Statue of Jacky Jacky and Yarri
Titled "The Great Rescue of 1852" and sculpted by Darien Pullen, this dramatic sculpture was installed in the main street in 2017 to "honour the Wiradjuri flood heroes". It has detailed signage to explain the lives of the Wiradjuri people around Gundagai before the arrival of Europeans, the early history of Gundagai, the story of the Great Flood of 1852, and what happened after the flood. Here is a detailed account of the events:
Yarri and the Great Flood of 1852
Few people realise that in 1852 Gundagai was hit by Australia's most deadly natural disaster. The local Aborigines had warned the early settlers that the Murrumbidgee floodplain was prone to serious flooding. The settlers took no notice and the first settlement was built beside the river. By 1843 the town was prospering. It was an important river crossing point. Streets were named after famous poets, there were four hotels and a post office. A year later the river, fed by waters from the Snowy Mountains, broke its banks. There was much discussion about the dangers but no one was prepared to move the town. Then on the night of 24 June, 1852 a flood rushed across the low lying plain. Eighty three of the town's 250 residents (one third of the population) were drowned and 71 buildings were destroyed. One can only imagine what a local Aborigine named Yarri thought as he paddled his bark canoe across the swollen river to save some of the marooned locals. The devastation was so severe that the entire town was moved to higher ground where it still stands today.
In 2011 an excellent article appeared in the Tracker Magazine by Chris Munro. The magazine, a celebration of Aboriginal culture, is sadly no more so I reproduce the article here. It is worth walking beside the Murrumbidgee River and across the flood plain to realise the foolishness of the early settlers and the bravery of Yarri. This is the account as recorded by Chris Munro: "The Wiradjuri had repeatedly warned those white settlers building on the flats – of great waters that careered through the area. But as expected, their warnings were ignored. Indeed the very name Murrumbidgee should’ve stood as a warning in itself, as it literally translates to ‘one big water.’
"Sure enough, in June of 1852, a savage drought finally broke and it rained for three weeks straight. Soon ‘Old Gundagai’ resembled an island, marooned in between the rapidly rising waters of nearby Morley’s Creek and the great Murrumbidgee River.
"Before nightfall on Thursday, June 24, the greedy local punt owner named Spencer saw a chance to make a quick buck from the emerging crisis, and hired out his boat to bring those who could afford it to higher ground.
"Perhaps it was karma, but Spencer’s first run across the swollen waters ended in tragedy after his punt was wrenched off-course and collided with a tree. Six lives were lost, including three children. They were the first of many deaths to come in the rapidly rising torrent.
"By the time the weak sun went down on Friday night the Murrumbidgee was rising at an astonishing rate of one metre per hour. The population of Gundagai were now either on the roofs of their houses, or had chanced a perilous swim to higher ground to escape the rising water level.
"With the punt now out of action, young Yarri sprung into action. What took place next was arguably the single most heroic and selfless act in Australian recorded history.
"Yarri launched into the now kilometre wide flood zone in a traditional bark canoe he’d carved himself from local timber. Many dwellings had already been washed away, torn off their foundations and sent downstream with their human cargo.
"In the black of night, Yarri was guided by the screams of survivors clinging to trees and roof tops in the freezing waters. Dodging huge logs and other debris, he went back and forth rescuing anyone he could find. He spent the entire night in his canoe, paddling up and downstream to conduct rescue after rescue. His canoe would usually only hold one person, but such were the water skills of Yarri, he ferried up to six people at a time to a safe spot on the river bank.
"John Spencer, a relative of the town’s punt owner and also the Inn Keeper spent 36 hours in a tree until Yarri came for him. Spencer was near frozen and completely naked at the time, save for a cash box strapped around his neck.
"Whole families were torn from the roofs of their houses, the carcases of sheep, horses and cattle were found wedged in the branches of trees the following day.
"With estimates of around 100 people drowned, the great flood of Gundagai in 1852 was the single worst natural disaster in Australia’s recorded history. It could have been far worse though. Yarri saved 49 people from the great flood over a 40-hour period.
"In a disaster of any kind, such a truly amazing act of bravery is simply mind-blowing, but given the date was 1852 and Yarri was atop a bark canoe in the black of night, makes this yarn all the more astounding. But what’s perhaps more mind boggling is the lack of recognition in Australian history books of such a superhuman feat. There’s no poetry, folk song or bronze statue to honour Yarri in Gundagai.
Wiradjuri man and Councillor for the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), Craig Cromelin … observes: “What breaks my heart most of all is a Gundagai Times newspaper report from June 29, 1879. “A gentleman, who passed through South Gundagai on Monday complains that he saw some individuals whom, he supposes, would expect to be considered men, maltreating and teasing an unfortunate black fellow, who he subsequently ascertained was ‘Old Yarry’.’
“He reminds us that this black fellow was instrumental in saving the lives of many white people in the disastrous flood of 1852, and that the only thanks he received was to be kicked around by a lot of white rascals, whom he says, supply in their own persons a strong argument in favour of the theory of descent of man from monkeys, as all they require is the caudal appendage in order to present a most striking likeness to their ancestors according to Dr Darwin’s hypothesis.”
Fortunately the "white rascals" weren't typical. Enough locals were genuinely appreciative and there are memorials around the town in Yarri's honour. At the time Yarri was described, in the Sydney Morning Herald, as "belonging to Mr Andrews". He was buried in the Catholic cemetery at Gundagai in 1880. Near the cemetery gates is a black marble headstone which was erected in his memory by the Aboriginal Lands Council.
The Gabriel Gallery is located on the first floor of the Mitre 10 store on Sheridan Street. It might seem strange to walk past the hammers, saws and tins of paint to go to a photographic gallery and museum but this is a unique record of an Australian country town between 1887-1927. Dr Charles Louis Gabriel, who lived in Gundagai from 1887 until his death in 1927, was an enthusiastic photographer and he faithfully recorded everyday life in the small town. A local accountant, Cliff Butcher, established the gallery after he found about 1000 ten-centimetre glass negatives of photographs taken by Dr Gabriel. Around 150 prints taken from those glass negatives now line the walls. Also on display is a portion of Gabriel's library, along with his medical instruments, personal possessions and letters. Most of the photographs are now digitalised and available at the National Library. Check out http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an8526479.
Beyond the photographs the museum's collection includes such rarities as Henry Lawson's walking stick, dictionary and chair, and his letters to Grace McManus who cared for him in 1920 at Coolac. There are also items relating to 'Banjo' Paterson, Jack Moses, Jim Grahame and Jack O'Hagan who wrote 'Along the Road to Gundagai'. The gallery has the first X-ray machine brought into country New South Wales by the brother of Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson. It is open weekdays and Saturday mornings and admission is free.
Located in Sheridan Street the Niagara Café, as the signs and newspaper clippings on the café walls indicate, is a unique footnote in Australian history.
Around midnight on a Saturday night in 1942 the owner of the café, Jack Castrission, was locking up and preparing to go to bed when he heard someone banging on the front door. He shouted to the anonymous knocker that, as it was midnight, he was closed for the night. The knocking persisted and when Castrission went to answer he noticed that, standing on the footpath, was the wartime prime minister, John Curtin.
As Castrission was later to recall he politely said "Good night, Mr Curtin" and the prime minister pleaded "I'm hungry and I'm freezing. Can you do anything to help?" Castrission said he could cook up something at which point the PM said "I've got some mates with me in the car". The "mates" were Arthur Fadden (former Prime Minister and member of the United Country Party), Curtin's wartime treasurer Ben Chifley (later to become the famous "Light on the hill" Prime Minister), and a senior government minister, Senator O'Sullivan.
Given Curtin's complaint that he was freezing, Castrission invited the politicians into the café kitchen which was still warm and it was there that he cooked up steak and eggs for four men, three of whom were to become Australian prime ministers. Apparently the men had been on a wartime fund raising mission in the Riverina and were heading back to Canberra.
An amusing footnote to the story is that as the men talked about the war, Castrission explained that with wartime rationing he was only allocated
28 lbs (12.7 kg) of tea a month and that was not enough to keep the café properly supplied. Curtin turned to O'Sullivan (who was involved in wartime supplies) who duly made a note and for the rest of the war Castrission's ration was raised to 100 lbs (45 kg) of tea a month. It is said that Curtin, whenever he was going through Gundagai after that night, always called into the café. Castrission also used to claim that R.G. Menzies had eaten at the café and in 2001 the then owner-chef Nick Loukissas was able to show both Gough and Margaret Whitlam the bench were Chifley and his colleagues had eaten their steak and chips in 1942. At the time the Whitlams were passing through Gundagai on their way back from the Federation celebrations in Melbourne.
Not surprisingly the walls of the café are full of information about Curtin's historic meal and, with the visit of the Whitlams in 2001, the cafe has become a shrine for Labor prime ministers. The back wall of the café is particularly memorable. It recalls, in a large poster, the fact that the café celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Curtin's steak and chips in 1992.
Further along Sheridan Street, on the high side of the street, is the impressive courthouse (1859) which was one of the first stone buildings to be erected after the 1852 flood. It was the setting for the trial of Captain Moonlite which led to him being condemned to death. The building's impressive red cedar interior was destroyed by fire in 1943 and was subsequently rebuilt with mountain ash. There is a monument to the soldiers who fought in the Boer War monument in front of the building.
Police Station and Gaol
Around the corner in Byron Street and just up the hill from the Court House is the historic police station and gaol. The first stage of the gaol was built as a watch-house in the 1860s. The cell block, residence and handsome slate wall were built in 1880. Until the 1920s the police station was occupied by mounted troopers who escorted the mail coach. It was from here that Sub-Inspector O'Neill and Sergeant Parry left to escort the mail coach which, near Jugiong, was held up by Ben Hall, John Dunn and Johnny Gilbert who shot and killed Parry.
Sheridan Street beyond the Court House
Further along Sheridan Street is St Patrick's Catholic Church (1885) part of the town's impressive Catholic complex which rises up the hill. Over the road, at 116 Sheridan St, is 'Surrey' which was built c.1880 by Billie Payne, a Cobb & Co. coach driver who owned the adjacent Royal Hotel. and on the corner of Homer Street is the impressive, red brick three-storey post office and residence (1879-80).
Gundagai Historical Museum
Below the post office in Homer Street is the historical museum. The Museum describes its collection as "a treasure trove of memorabilia and includes displays of pioneer life, bushrangers and even Phar Lap’s saddlecloth. The vast collection includes a display on bushrangers and the medallions presented to Yarri and Jacky, the Wiradjuri men whose efforts saved many lives during the great flood of 1852." It contains old coins and crockery recovered from the original townsite after the devastating floods of 1852, a first-hand account of the floods by James Gormly, a sundial that the Horsley family erected as a tribute to Yarri's rescue of Fred Horsley and an inscribed marble plaque in Yarri's memory. The Museum is managed entirely by volunteers. Open daily 9.00 am - 3.00 pm, tel: (02) 6944 1995 .
Old Flour Mill
Walk towards the flood plain and turn left into Sheridan Lane. On the right is the town's oldest intact building, the three-storey former flour mill which was built in 1849 and survived the 1852 floods. It is the only building remaining from the original townsite. It became a rabbit-freezing works in 1918 and today stands beside Morley's Creek which runs into the Murrumbidgee River.
Cenotaph and the Two Bridges
Continue along Sheridan Lane back to Sheridan Street which, near where the two old bridges meet, runs into Railway Parade. On the south-western corner is 'Araluen' where Frank Rusconi finished the 'Marble Masterpiece'. On the roadside is the town's cenotaph which was designed and built by Rusconi.
The town's first bridge across the floodplain was constructed in 1867. Work started on the road bridge in 1866 and it was opened in 1867, although it was not completed until 1869. The iron section spans the river proper while the approaches over the river flats are of timber. The piers were cast at the country's first foundry at Mittagong. It is possibly the first wrought-iron truss bridge in New South Wales. The Prince Alfred Bridge, which replaced the first road bridge, was built between 1896-1898 and is now the state's only 19 th century timber girder structure still retaining its original form and length. By the 1950s it had become somewhat erratic and crossing it was equivalent to sailing in a ship on a heavy sea. Its 76 timber trestles still stand although it has not been used since 1976 and it is unsafe to walk across. Next to it is the even more impressive Railway Viaduct (1903) which at 819 metres is the longest timber truss structure ever built in Australia. For more information check out the downloadable Gundagai's Famous Bridge at http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/heritagebranch/heritage/funding/Gundagaisbridge.pdf. The two bridges are now both closed and preserved as significant historic monuments.
First Avenue's Historic Homes
If you walk up the hill from the cenotaph along Virgil Street you will reach First Avenue which has a number of interesting historic buildings, all of which are privately owned and not open for inspection. On the corner, at 45, is 'Gunyah Karadgee', a brick residence with a decorative cast-iron veranda which was built in 1884. It has a 15 m hall, doors and woodwork of solid cedar, cellars and stables. At 49 is 'Kiora' which dates from 1860 and at 55 is 'Moonlite Cottage' (c.1880-85) which was built by a policemen who received the reward money for the capture of Captain Moonlite. At 59 is 'Tara' which was built for the first mayor of Gundagai. 'Fontenoy', on the north-western corner of First Ave and Homer Street, was the home of Dr Charles Gabriel, the town's famous photographer.
There are two interesting lookouts above the town. Both offer panoramic views across the town and the Murrumbidgee floodplain. It is very easy to see and understand how a flood spreads across the flatlands on either side of the river. The summit of Mount Parnassus can be reached via Hanley Street and, to the south of the town, the Rotary Lookout lies at the end of Luke Street. The photo at the top of this entry was taken from the Mount Parnassus Lookout in early autumn.
Other Attractions in the Area
The Dog on the Tuckerbox
The 'Dog on the Tuckerbox' is a famous bronze sculpture located in front of a restaurant and gift-shop complex north of the town on the western side of the Hume Highway and, as the song suggests "five miles (or 8 km) from Gundagai".
It has always been a tourist trap but, in recent years, the range and quality of services has improved so that, in season, it sells boxes of freshly-picked apples and cherries from the nearby orchards at Batlow. There is also an excellent roadside café, Bullocky Bill's, which serves meat pies noted for their tender beef.
The Dog On The Tuckerbox first emerged in Australian folklore through an anonymous teamster's song of uncertain date. A version of this song appeared in the Gundagai Times in the 1880s as a poem titled 'Bullocky Bill' which focuses on a hardy, stoic and unlucky teamster who gets bogged at Five Mile Creek (a teamsters' meeting place five miles from Gundagai). The yoke of teamster's bullock team breaks and, to make matters worse, 'the dog shat on the tucker-box/ Five miles from Gundagai'. Salesman and balladeer Jack Moses wrote a cleaned-up version in the 1920s in which the dog sits on and guards the tuckerbox. For unknown reasons he called it 'Nine Miles from Gundagai'. The lyric was very popular and inspired the commission of the sculpture for the 1932 'Back to Gundagai' celebrations. It was made by Frank Rusconi (famed for Rusconi's Masterpiece) and unveiled by Prime Minister Joe Lyons.
* Prior to European settlement the Wiradjuri Aborigines lived and moved through the area. Their name for the river, Murrumbidgee, meant "one big water" indicating that they knew of its tendency to flood.
* The first Europeans to pass through the area were explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell in 1824 on their expedition to Port Phillip Bay.
* The first European settlers arrived around 1826 and by 1828 Peter and Henry Stuckey had built on the floodplains and the place became known simply as The Crossing.
* In 1829 while exploring Murrumbidgee River, Charles Sturt passed by the present site of Gundagai. There is a cairn on the northern riverbank where he crossed the river.
* By the early 1830s a settlement had developed to serve travellers on the road from Sydney to Melbourne.
* By late 1831 John Macarthur and Charles Throsby had overlanded stock to the rich floodplains of the district.
* Aborigines warned of the dangers of intermittent severe floods but no one took any notice. So in 1838 a town plan was approved on the low-lying alluvial flats on the northern side of the Murrumbidgee River.
* In 1838 the explorer Edward John Eyre reached Gundagai on his way to Adelaide.
* In 1840 Gundagai was officially gazetted with a number of the early streets given poetic names like Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Sheridan, Pope and Byron.
* The town grew quickly and by 1843 there were four hotels, a post office, several stores, a school, a blacksmith, 20 houses and a number of tents.
* The first flood hit the town in 1844 but no one felt the need to move to higher ground.
* On 24 June, 1852, after three weeks of rain, the town was inundated by a flood so severe it killed 83 of the 250 residents and destroyed 71 buildings. Many were saved by local Aborigines, notably Yarri, who paddled throughout the night in his bark canoe saving stranded people. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery at Gundagai in 1880.
* In 1853 Francis Cadell demonstrated that a steamer could travel up the Murrumbidgee as far as Gundagai but it was too far and too unreliable.
* By the 1854 the new town above the floodplains was an important a service centre for the local pastoral and agricultural district and for prospectors travelling to the Victorian goldfields.
* In 1858 the steamer Albury reached Gundagai.
* In 1867 the Prince Alfred Bridge, the town's first bridge over the Murrumbidgee, the first metal truss bridge in New South Wales and one of the longest in the state, was officially opened.
* With the goldrushes came the bushrangers. Between 1863-64 Ben Hall and his gang comprising John Dunn and Johnny Gilbert were active in the area. In 1864 Gilbert killed Sergeant Edmund Parry on the road between Gundagai and Jugiong. Parry is buried at the North Gundagai cemetery.
* In 1879 Andrew George Scott, known as 'Captain Moonlite', and three companions, were tried at Gundagai courthouse after holding up Wantabadgery station. Scott and Thomas Rogan were condemned to hang. Scott's body was eventually buried in North Gundagai cemetery in 1995 after being exhumed from Rookwood cemetery in Sydney.
* The railway reached Gundagai in 1886.
* Gundagai became a municipality in 1889.
* In 1891 the town experienced another major flood but it was now on the hill above the floodplain.
* In 1898 the Prince Albert Bridge was rebuilt as a timber girder bridge and reopened.
* In 1903 the railway bridge across the floodplain was completed.
* By 1928 the road passing through the town became officially known as the Hume Highway.
* In 1977 the Hume Highway bypassed Gundagai via Sheahan Bridge.
* In 1984 the rail line to Tumut and Batlow was closed due to flood damage.
* In 2003 the Prince Albert Bridge was officially closed to pedestrians.^ TOP
The Gundagai Visitor Information Centre, Carberry Park, Sheridan Street. It is open Monday to Friday, 8.00 am - 5.00 pm, Saturday-Sunday 9.00 am - 1.00 pm and 2.00 pm - 5.00 pm, tel: (02) 6944 0250 or (02) 6944 0251.^ TOP
There is a very useful local website - http://www.visitgundagai.com.au/ - which provides details about local attractions, food and wine.^ TOP